Liberating Accountants To Be Human

Rob Leesberg

Robotic process automation is close to a technological marvel. It captures data from different applications to process every accounting transaction, and its benefit to accounting efficiency is undeniable. But to think robots are a replacement for human beings is folly.

In the world of accounting and finance, robotic process automation, or RPA, effectively performs the rote, repetitive, and tedious manual work typically executed by accountants. It does this by extending automated functionality to processes, systems, and data beyond the reach of interfaces to facilitate the integration of disparate financial systems.

This value has not gone unnoticed. One-third of finance leaders in a recent survey by Genpact Research stated that RPA tools and applications are having a positive operational impact in their organizations, with more than half positing that RPA will have the greatest impact of all finance and accounting tools over the next two years. (RPA technologies are used extensively in BlackLine products—editor)

By capturing and processing the data that creates a financial transaction, RPA takes over many of the number-crunching activities performed by accountants. Because machines do things the same way all the time, the numbers add up perfectly, minus the risk of human error. Since accounting and finance is the foundation of any corporate strategy, this is great news. Such crucial underpinnings should not be weakened by manual labor.

No robots here

What RPA doesn’t do is replace accountants, as the recent New York Times article “The New Bookkeeper Is a Robot asserted. Accountants are still needed to do something for which they have the nuanced skills—but not often the time— to do: study the numbers to learn where the business is losing or gaining speed. This is crucial information for a CFO entrusted with strategic resource-allocation responsibilities, where the accountants’ daily analyses can help determine where best to spend or draw back capital.

RPA frees well-educated accountants from their manual tasks and sharpens their focus on analytics and forecasting, assisting them in delivering added value to the CFO and other finance leaders. No longer preoccupied with manual labor, accountants can extract deeper meaning from the financial data. They can then apply these analyses to other business data to enhance the decision-making capabilities of financial experts in all segments of the organization.

Accountable for backup

This is just one of many ways accountants can provide a critical service. Instead of ticking things off a list, accountants can hold others accountable for the backup behind the numbers. They can undertake forensic accounting procedures to analyze financial information for use in legal proceedings or to ensure compliance with fast-evolving global regulations.

They can also put their minds to assisting financial planning and analysis in making timelier forecasts, and advise the CFO on what to do with surplus capital. They can look at the books and instinctively know if something is not right, making them invaluable to ferreting out fraud—assuming they have the time to do this.

Accountants have deep financial expertise that can be applied to other strategic needs. Since a company’s every transaction carries an element of risk, the accountants can be trained to create more robust risk models. Armed with real-time knowledge produced by the robotic accounting software, accountants can even anticipate newer problems and alert appropriate people to take action.

To take this even further, imagine if accountants could compare current business data to developing macroeconomic and geopolitical risks and opportunities—getting ahead of a Brexit or avoiding the impact of the oil crisis. There’s no reason to believe that accountants must remain internally focused. Not in today’s fast-paced global business environment.

The bottom line is that RPA will change the accounting and finance landscape for the better. It can reposition accountants from the “back office” to provide valuable insights on business performance to the Office of Finance. RPA doesn’t threaten accountants; it empowers them to be exceptional.

This article originally appeared on, and is republished by permission. For more on this topic, read “Build Your Future In 2017: Tech and Trends.”


Rob Leesberg

About Rob Leesberg

Rob Leesberg is managing director at finance automation software provider, BlackLine, responsible for SAP technology and integration. Rob has over 20 years of experience improving financial governance in SAP software. Prior to BlackLine, Leesberg was founder and chief of solution design at Runbook, a provider of financial solutions for companies running SAP software, which was acquired by BlackLine in 2016.

Mr. Leesberg holds a Masters of Business Administration from Delta University

What The Finance And Risk Team Really Needs To Know About The GDPR

Jerome Pugnet

When considering the financial implications of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), most headlines focus on the severe penalties for noncompliance. They are certainly worthy of the financiers’ attention: Violations could incur fines of up to €20 million or 4% of a company’s annual global revenue (whichever is the greater). There could also be legal claims from affected individuals or groups, along with the hidden costs of a damaged corporate reputation.

Dig a little deeper, however, and the outlook for CFOs and their teams is more positive. The finance and risk organization plays a key role in the orchestration of enterprise governance, risk management, compliance, and control activities. And in today’s data-driven world, this far-reaching new regulation also represents a wider opportunity to transform the way data is handled data and to govern the related risk and compliance implications across the organization. As a result, the finance team can help accelerate the organization’s digital evolution journey – and address GDPR compliance requirements along the way.

Here are some of the key things the finance and risk team needs to bear in mind about the GDPR.

What is the GDPR?

Let’s start by reminding ourselves what the GDPR is, and why it’s so important. The regulation is designed to protect the data and fundamental privacy of all EU citizens, and replaces existing local data protection laws in EU member countries. The GDPR was approved and adopted by the EU Parliament in April 2016 and will be enforced from 25 May 2018. The regulation is over 200 pages long, so we can’t cover all the details here. What we do need to recognize is that its reach is global, and will potentially affect every commercial and public sector organization that processes EU citizen data – irrespective of where in the world that processing is done.

And what does it mean for the organization?

The implications are equally far-reaching and could be felt across the entire organization. At one end of the scale, this could be simply how HR handles internal employee data; at the other end, it could have dramatic effects on how sales, marketing, and service teams process and store large volumes of customer data across multiple markets. Either way, the organization needs to be ready to show compliance in three key areas by the enforcement date and beyond:

  • The ability to deal effectively with individuals’ rights such as data protection, rectification, and erasure
  • That the required organization, policies, and controls are in place to govern on a daily basis
  • The ability to conform to the new principle of accountability by demonstrating how compliance is achieved on an ongoing basis through documentary evidence

What does this mean for the finance and risk team?

So while data tends to grab the headlines, governance is an equally essential element of the overall GDPR compliance program. Nearly half of the articles in the regulation are related to business procedures associated with policies, controls, record-keeping, and the accountabilities of different roles and entities. To avoid costly penalties, governance of policies, processes, and people must be clearly defined and documented.

The finance and risk organization therefore has a crucial role to play – and its compliance and risk officers in particular – in collaborating closely with other stakeholders such as IT, security, internal audit, and crucially, legal departments. These teams are often putting in place a data protection office, whether or not the function is attributed full time to a person (data protection officer).

Achieving and sustaining governance excellence requires a robust, consistent, and holistic approach across the enterprise. It can be executed as part of a “three lines of defense” program, for example, with a technology platform incorporating a range of governance, risk, and compliance (GRC) solutions. This allows different parts of the organization to work together cohesively within an integrated framework. These solutions enable the organization to automate its risk, compliance, and audit management processes and to monitor the enforcement of policies and the effectiveness of controls. This can greatly assist in addressing GDPR requirements as part of the day-to-day business operations moving forward.

What can technology further bring?

Every organization today needs to be fit for digital business. The requirements of the GDPR can therefore serve as a useful accelerator by helping to channel resources into the right areas. Instead of thinking of GDPR compliance as an unavoidable cost, companies can consider it as a valuable investment in their digital future.

As an example, we at SAP, as a large multinational organization with extensive EU business interests, have been required to address our own GDPR compliance obligations as well as those of our customers. Our software and practices have therefore been thoroughly road-tested, and we’ve built up excellent knowledge and experience not just to meet our GDPR requirements, but to help our customers through this journey.

Technologies and associated services cannot guarantee GDPR compliance, of course, as it is the user-organization that is ultimately responsible for adopting the measures it deems appropriate to achieve compliance. However, there are really interesting propositions to look into, to help accelerate the journey, automate compliance processes, and become a more agile digital business in better shape for long-term success.

Learn more

Read all the GRC Tuesday series blogs on GDPR to learn more.


Finance And HR Collaboration: Maximizing Your Impact As Steward

Richard McLean

Part 3 of the 3-part “Finance and HR Collaboration series

Keeping pace with a growing digital economy is requires finance and HR to take on expanded and more influential roles in the organization, shifting from operational tasks to a more strategic focus – the theme of this blog series. Together with my colleague Renata Janini Dohmen, senior vice president of HR for SAP Asia Pacific Japan, I’ve explored how HR and finance can collaborate to be better partners to the business and more effective agents of change. In this blog, we examine how collaboration can enable HR and finance to be more effective stewards for the company.

Realizing the best return on the company’s assets

As steward, both finance and HR must make decisions to get the best return on the company’s investments. Finance is the steward of the company’s financial capital, and HR, of the company’s human capital. To be effective in this role, finance and HR must work together to help the company optimize both its capital and its people.

At SAP, we look at people as one of our major assets – and we have to optimize our assets. It’s therefore very important that finance works collaboratively with HR to support the long-term needs of the business.

Adds Renata, “HR and finance must pursue strategies and approach workforce decisions based on their impact on the sustainability of the business in the future. These decisions touch all categories of the employee lifecycle – sourcing and attracting the best people, enabling them, developing them, and retaining them for the long term.”

SAP has processes aligned for the approval of new hires, pay rises, and promotions. For these processes to function as intended, and for finance and HR to collaborate effectively, it’s important that the data around those lifecycle decisions is transparent, trusted, and presents a unified view of the business.


As with a lot of companies, we work in different countries with different labor laws, or ways of behaving in terms of the corporate world. Thus, people come to us for guidance on how to do business right. Finance and HR are called on to support compliance with business rules and the laws of governing bodies.

Adhering to these rules starts with understanding the compliance landscape, setting policies, and delegating authority and responsibility within the business. It requires an understanding of where your risks lie and then making sure that you’re training, enabling, and communicating effectively to minimize those risks. It requires vigilance and a governance structure not just between HR and finance, but one that also includes legal as well as governance, risk, and compliance teams. All of these functions need to collaborate effectively.

Getting on the same page

In the past four or five years at SAP, both finance and HR have taken big strides forward. It wasn’t that long ago that in a meeting between finance and HR, no one would have the same data. Now, by working from the same data source and having access to the same reports, we’re able to look at things consistently, and interpret and translate information the same way. We can quickly get to a conversation to make decisions rather than argue about whether the numbers are correct.

One of the reasons for this improvement has been the company’s use of our own solutions for human capital management, which have helped us be a lot more effective in how we manage our talent. Renata explains, “For example, within the scope of the employee lifecycle, one key component is compensation planning. We’ve been able to shorten the compensation-planning cycle for all of our business units around the world from nine weeks to three. Thousands of managers are using the same software for consistent compensation planning. They can look at their budgets and decide on merit increases, promotions, and bonuses. It’s absolutely incredible.”

Realizing the full power of technology: SAP runs SAP

Decisions involving finance and HR related to the full employee lifecycle have far-reaching implications for the success of the business. Through use of technology, finance and HR have gained flexibility and a new level of sophistication in planning. We have access to rich information that helps both of our teams to make the best use of the company’s resources.

I believe the ability to control our talent management efforts more effectively from a finance perspective is a real competitive advantage. SAP is a very big company with a lot of people. Managing the planning process can become very unwieldy. Having everyone on single tool gives us full transparency up and down the business, and that’s fantastic.

To learn more about SAP solutions for human capital management, please visit

Follow SAP Finance online: @SAPFinance (Twitter)  | LinkedIn | FacebookYouTube


Richard McLean

About Richard McLean

Richard McLean, regional CFO for SAP Asia Pacific Japan, oversees all key finance and administrative functions for field and regional headquarters, supporting more than 16,000 employees. He has more than 20 years of experience in senior finance roles with leading global companies across a range of industries, including financial services, investment banking, automotive, and IT. He joined SAP in 2008.

Human Skills for the Digital Future

Dan Wellers and Kai Goerlich

Technology Evolves.
So Must We.

Technology replacing human effort is as old as the first stone axe, and so is the disruption it creates.
Thanks to deep learning and other advances in AI, machine learning is catching up to the human mind faster than expected.
How do we maintain our value in a world in which AI can perform many high-value tasks?

Uniquely Human Abilities

AI is excellent at automating routine knowledge work and generating new insights from existing data — but humans know what they don’t know.

We’re driven to explore, try new and risky things, and make a difference.
We deduce the existence of information we don’t yet know about.
We imagine radical new business models, products, and opportunities.
We have creativity, imagination, humor, ethics, persistence, and critical thinking.

There’s Nothing Soft About “Soft Skills”

To stay ahead of AI in an increasingly automated world, we need to start cultivating our most human abilities on a societal level. There’s nothing soft about these skills, and we can’t afford to leave them to chance.

We must revamp how and what we teach to nurture the critical skills of passion, curiosity, imagination, creativity, critical thinking, and persistence. In the era of AI, no one will be able to thrive without these abilities, and most people will need help acquiring and improving them.

Anything artificial intelligence does has to fit into a human-centered value system that takes our unique abilities into account. While we help AI get more powerful, we need to get better at being human.

Download the executive brief Human Skills for the Digital Future.

Read the full article The Human Factor in an AI Future.


Dan Wellers

About Dan Wellers

Dan Wellers is founder and leader of Digital Futures at SAP, a strategic insights and thought leadership discipline that explores how digital technologies drive exponential change in business and society.

Kai Goerlich

About Kai Goerlich

Kai Goerlich is the Chief Futurist at SAP Innovation Center network His specialties include Competitive Intelligence, Market Intelligence, Corporate Foresight, Trends, Futuring and ideation.

Share your thoughts with Kai on Twitter @KaiGoe.heif Futu


Finance And HR: Friends Or Foes? Shifting To A Collaborative Mindset

Richard McLean

Part 1 in the 3-part “Finance and HR Collaboration” series

In my last blog, I challenged you to think of collaboration as the next killer app, citing a recent study by Oxford Economics sponsored by SAP. The study clearly explains how corporate performance improves when finance actively engages in collaboration with other business functions.

As a case in point, consider finance and HR. Both are being called on to work more collaboratively with each other – and the broader business – to help achieve a shared vision for the company. In most organizations, both have undergone a transformation to extend beyond operational tasks and adopt a more strategic focus, opening the door to more collaboration. As such, both have assumed three very important roles in the company – business partner, change agent, and steward. In this post, I’ll illustrate how collaboration can enable HR and finance to be more effective business partners.

Making the transition to focus on broader business objectives

My colleague Renata Janini Dohmen, senior vice president of HR for SAP Asia Pacific Japan, credits a changing mindset for both finance and HR as key to enabling the transition away from our traditional roles to be more collaborative. She says, “For a long time, people in HR and finance were seen as opponents. HR was focused on employees and how to motivate, encourage, and cheer on the workforce. Finance looked at the numbers and was a lot more cautious and possibly more skeptical in terms of making an investment. Today, both areas have made the transition to take on a more holistic perspective. We are pursuing strategies and approaching decisions based on what delivers the best return on investment for the company’s assets, whether those assets are monetary or non-monetary. This mindset shift plays a key role in how finance and HR execute the strategic imperatives of the company,” she notes.

Viewing joint decisions from a completely different lens

I agree with Renata. This mindset change has certainly impacted the way I make decisions. If I’m just focused on controlling costs and assessing expenditures, I’ll evaluate programs and ideas quite differently than if I’m thinking about the big picture.

For example, there’s an HR manager in our organization who runs Compensation and Benefits. She approaches me regularly with great ideas. But those ideas cost money. In the past, I was probably more inclined to look at those conversations from a tactical perspective. It was easy for me to simply say, “No, we can’t afford it.”

Now I look at her ideas from a more strategic perspective. I think, “What do we want our culture to be in the years ahead? Are the benefits packages she is proposing perhaps the right ones to get us there? Are they family friendly? Are they relevant for people in today’s world? Will they make us an employer of choice?” I quite enjoy the rich conversations we have about the impact of compensation and benefits design on the culture we want to create. Now, I see our relationship as much more collaborative and jointly invested in attracting and retaining the best people who will ultimately deliver on the company strategy. It’s a completely different lens.

Defining how finance and HR align to the company strategy

Renata and I believe that greater collaboration between finance and HR is a critical success factor. How can your organization achieve this shift? “Once the organization has clearly defined what role finance and HR must play and how they fundamentally align to the company strategy, then it’s more natural to structure them in a way to support such transformation,” Renata explains.

Technology plays an important role in our ability to successfully collaborate. Looking back, finance and HR were heavily focused on our own operational areas because everything we did tended to consume more time – just keeping the lights on and taking care of our basic responsibilities. Now, through a more efficient operating model with shared services, standard operating procedures, and automation, we can both be more business-focused and integrated. As a result, we’re able to collaborate in more meaningful ways to have a positive impact on business outcomes.

In our next blog, we’ll look at how finance and HR can work together as agents of change.

For a deeper dive, download the Oxford Economics study sponsored by SAP.

Follow SAP Finance online: @SAPFinance (Twitter)LinkedIn | FacebookYouTube


Richard McLean

About Richard McLean

Richard McLean, regional CFO for SAP Asia Pacific Japan, oversees all key finance and administrative functions for field and regional headquarters, supporting more than 16,000 employees. He has more than 20 years of experience in senior finance roles with leading global companies across a range of industries, including financial services, investment banking, automotive, and IT. He joined SAP in 2008.