Maintaining Continuity Amidst Business Disruption: Why Your Case for AP Automation Just Got Stronger

Three short months ago, at the beginning of 2020, most of us were excited and ready for the new year and decade, without a clue that within several weeks the entire world would be in crisis, necessitating change in the way we work. 

As someone who has worked primarily from a home office for years, at times I’ve been envious of my customers, colleagues and friends who got to share a cup of coffee with their co-workers or walk down the hall to talk to someone rather than having to communicate remotely. But it also means I’m used to utilising tools and taking advantage of technology to do my job, which is helping organisations transform their P2P cycles. For many of the companies I work with, digitising and automating their accounts payable processes has had wavering support.

All of a sudden, based on the global pandemic, companies are realising they cannot function the old way — receiving some invoices in hard copy — requiring AP team members to open the mail and manually enter the details into their ERP system. Far too many are still walking stacks of invoices into department heads’ offices to have them review and sign off on each invoice as an approval to pay, followed by payments — some of which are still via check.

Since so many of us are now working under “shelter-in-place” or “safer-at-home” orders or being sent home by companies to ensure “social distancing”, organisations of all sizes still operating with manual accounts payable processes are in more pain than ever, and, in some cases, have had to come to a screeching halt.

The finance leaders I’ve been talking to since the COVID-19 crisis began are looking to automate these processes ASAP. One controller I spoke to this week shared their “old” process, which was totally manual, as well as their “current emergency” process, which is still without AI and other automation and consists of moving scanned invoices from one folder to one of several others on a shared drive. She shared with me her fear that some of their invoices will inadvertently be deleted or simply be put in the wrong folder, resulting in a disruption of their supply chain because invoices were missed and not paid. 

Others have told me about their struggles to find someone from their team willing to go to the office each day to deal with the hard copy invoices coming in from suppliers that have been repeatedly asked to submit all invoices electronically.

Another controller shared that he sees the current crisis as the tipping point for his lengthy endeavor to get executive management support for AP automation.  With his team at home, hard copies or printouts of invoices — some of which are confidential — may be in stacks in a team member’s temporary office aka their dining table. Once the invoices are entered into their ERP – hopefully without losing some to their toddler looking for paper to draw on — they’re relying on package couriers to transport the invoices to the appropriate approver, who then sends them to someone else to prepare manual checks for payment.

As executive leadership in companies work hard to ensure they’re dealing with the pandemic in the best way possible for their customers, employees and communities, visibility to their cash and working capital are more critical now than ever. Delays in access to that information have helped illuminate the flaws in their current AP processes as well as those in the rest of the cash conversion cycle. No doubt these will be key initiatives for many companies going forward. 

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is something all of us hope to never experience again. As everyone focuses on keeping themselves and their families safe and healthy, it’s sometimes difficult to see the positives. I do think we’ll come out of this and evolve into a new normal as different people and a different society. Gratitude and appreciation of little things seem to be soaring. And change in areas like AP can be a silver lining too. 

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