Payables 2018: Six Things To Watch

Scott Pezza

Now that we’ve closed out 2017 and are looking forward to a brand-new year, it’s helpful to take stock of where we’ve been and what we’d like to accomplish, and in doing so, be mindful of what changes may lie ahead. While it’s easier to foresee incremental changes and improvements in the short term, it’s difficult to pinpoint when the world of payables will reach a tipping point.

With that in mind, and with a nod to the New Year’s Eve just passed, here is my list of the top 6 payables changes and trends to expect in 2018:

1. Payables finds a strategic purpose

We’ve been talking for years, if not decades, about payables becoming a strategic function. I would argue that we’ve met that challenge, as the rise of discounting and supply chain finance have helped to highlight the vast working-capital opportunity from a quickly approved invoice. Those initiatives, when combined with intelligent payment terms management, have dramatically improved a buying organization’s financial health. But what comes next?

I believe that 2018 will be the year that more companies look at the potential for payables to positively impact the other side of trading relationships: supplier health. Supply chain finance will play a major role, offering capital to suppliers at rates far superior to what they can likely obtain from loans, lines of credit, or factoring programs. As buyers’ financial health improves, the natural question is “where do we invest our cash?” As they look at long-term sustainability of their business and supply chains, one answer is to invest in their supply base, bolstering relationships and lowering fulfillment risk. It’s remarkable to think of what’s possible when you can process invoices in a timely manner.

2. Standardization picks up steam

Different systems store and communicate information differently. This simple fact explains the complexity of systems integration and the resulting solution deployment delays. We’ve seen advances in this area in the past, with the advent of common data formats like eXtensible Business Reporting Language (XBRL). We’re also seeing progress in the European Union (EU) with the continued development of PEPPOL. With the backing of the EU General Assembly, this initiative could really make a standard document language a reality. if it makes substantial progress in the EU, I would expect this initiative to spread across other geographies as well.

3. Due diligence gets its due

We live in a complex and complicated world in which companies must pay close attention to identifying and certifying the recipients of payments. Know Your Customer (KYC), Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC), Anti-Money Laundering (AML), and related checks are vital, though not always executed with the diligence that they require. Unlike other items on this list, this isn’t a technology-driven change – though technology plays a major role in supporting an enterprise’s ability to meet its obligations. I expect 2018 to see increased governmental vigilance to ensure compliance with these checks, as regulators keep their focus on the sources and destinations of funds in both domestic and international commerce.

4. Automation continues, and AI begins

There may be no payables topic written about more often, or for a longer time, than automation of the invoice receipt and reconciliation process. Improving the speed with which invoices are received and their data entered into financial systems will continue for the foreseeable future. I expect to see escalating volumes of invoices transmitted over business networks, and continued investment in technologies for handling paper and PDF-based invoices.

None of this is new, of course, so let’s make a real prediction: 2018 will be the year when artificial intelligence (AI) moves to the forefront of invoice automation. We’ve already seen this technology applied to the related process of accounts-receivable cash application. Invoice reconciliation and matching is a logical next step. When compared to optical character recognition applications, the key difference is the ability to train a system so that it learns over time. Expect to see real progress here, largely automating the process of accurately extracting invoice information—and handling exceptions that occur—in a way that we haven’t seen before.

5. Workforce planning ramps up

Picking up on the idea of new technologies like AI impacting not just the speed of payables processing, but also the nature of what needs to be done, workforce planning will ramp up. I see 2018 as the year when companies begin planning in earnest for the job roles and tasks that humans will fulfill in the future. Much as we saw with general automation, some tasks will be completed entirely by systems. That will create opportunities for employees to take on new or expanded responsibilities, for which they may need additional training. When looking specifically at AI and machine learning, new tasks will involve preparing data and reviewing results to train these new systems to learn for themselves how to identify important information and handle exceptions.

6. Blockchain comes of age

We’ve covered a wide array of topics so far, but I’d be remiss (and correctly called out) if I didn’t mention blockchain in a discussion of what’s to come. Some technologies help us deal with our current situation more efficiently and effectively. A great example of that is applying AI to invoice processing, as mentioned above. Truly innovative technologies, however, can completely change the process itself. That’s why I see so much promise in blockchain, and in the “smart contracts” that they enable.

Here’s why: With a smart contract, the contract isn’t text on a piece of paper or in a Word document; it’s a set of code containing information about the trading partners working together and the rules that govern their relationship. A purchase order is more code, signifying a request for goods or services that adheres to the contract’s rules. A receipt is simply more code registering completed delivery, which can trigger an agreed-upon payment as defined in those rules. In essence, smart contracts can bring Evaluated Receipt Settlement (ERS) to every transaction – potentially. There’s still work to be done here, and there’s still a human element throughout the process as employees acknowledge receipt, conduct and record the results of quality assessments, and so on. At its core, however, this application of blockchain technology really could reimagine the source-to-settle process.

For some enterprises, these topics may be old hat, while for others, they might seem farther off in the future. Where do you see payables going in 2018?

For more information on transforming payables in 2018, read our complimentary e-book: Insider’s Guide to Improving Payments and Cash Flow.

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Scott Pezza

About Scott Pezza

As part of SAP Ariba's Digital Transformation Organization's Center of Excellence, Scott researches, compiles, and shares best-practice information to help SAP Ariba's customers get the most out of their investments. He has a dual focus on the emerging technologies (AI/ML, IoT, Blockchain, etc.) across the source-to-settle cycle, as well as a specific interest in the financial supply chain (invoice management, payments, discounting, and supply chain finance). His research helps inform strategic planning, performance measurement, and program execution. He has spent the past 17 years in the B2B technology space, in roles ranging from software development and support to research and consulting. Scott earned his BA in English and Philosophy from Clark University, his MBA from Boston University Graduate School of Management, and his JD from Boston University School of Law, where he served on the Executive Board of the Annual Review of Banking and Financial Law.