Your New Operating Model: Bots On The Team

Bryan Lapidus

Part 5 of the multi-part “Integrative Intelligence” series exploring the skills necessary for the new operating model of finance

Integrative intelligence is the skill required to accomplish work when our tasks are constantly broken down, assigned, reassembled, and shipped out to their final destinations. This series explores the changing way that we interact at work with different people, organizations, and data sources. In this part of the series, we look at new members of our team, the bots.

Are bots really on the team, or are they just a tool like a spreadsheet or an accounting system? As part of integrative intelligence, we need to think about how work is created and distributed across a highly diverse team. Increasingly, that team is not entirely human.

Bots are a category of automation tools that run autonomously to complete work. At a simple level, it could be a script that executes a task, as Dawn Sieh, PhD, manager of finance talent development at Verizon, explains in this report-automation example:

“I was in the office late in December, and one of my coworkers contacted me to explain that it takes most of an uninterrupted day to complete one of her reports. She wanted to discuss if there might be a more efficient way to publish it. We reviewed the current approach and together, we identified opportunities to simplify the report and reduce the time to publish the report. I suggested she contact a representative of our ‘bot’ team to see if they could assist with our idea. The bot team was able to automate several steps and now the report runs with the click of the mouse. The bot moves the data into the appropriate tool for the users to access the report online.”

Verizon has other bots operating at a higher level of sophistication, such as natural language generation. As Dr. Sieh explains, at the end of the month, “We use a software product called Quill to read our financial results and generate text for us that explains what happened, what variances existed, and why they exist. This is preparation for the [human] analysts who read, review, and refine as necessary, in preparation for meeting with business partners.”

Practitioners are adopting the practice of personifying bots as team members to whom work is delegated. Dr. Sieh said the attitude she sees is, “I have a new co-worker; it happens to be a bot, and I can give it the highly transactional and time-consuming tasks so I can focus my time on more value-added work!” Often, they are given names and sometimes even a dedicated workstation. Sarah Schaus, vice president of relationship management at BNY Mellon, described a computer at Allianz when she served as assistant treasurer there. The bot, which runs algorithms and reports, requires the correct passwords and access codes. Treasury further “personified” the bot by giving it a body made of cardboard boxes and tubes. Creating an identity helped the team relate to the bot as a partner to whom work was given and results received to the best of the bot’s ability.

As bots increase in sophistication, they are also transitioning from defined work to defined processes, where the outcome is unknown. How should we accept their input? Chris Argent, founder of Generation CFO, has some suggestions: “First, you need to test the results. The name ‘data science’ may indicate precision, but there is a lot of testing in order to get the algorithm right. Is it performing to your expectation? How do you know if a component of the script is working right?”

Second, Argent counsels knowing how a computer thinks. “A computer will miss nuance and may throw away a piece of data that does not fit predefined specifications – say, an outlier,” he said. “A content expert may look at that data point and say it is relevant in the context of the business and needs to stay.” Similarly, a bot may push forward with its script where a content expert would stop working if the data is fuzzy, results unexpected, or conclusion is illogical. Like a colleague with whom you have one-on-one meetings and coaching sessions, bots need to be retrained on the data to make sure their results remain relevant.

Interested in learning more about integrative intelligence? Download AFP’s FP&A guide, underwritten by Microsoft.

Bryan Lapidus

About Bryan Lapidus

Bryan Lapidus is the director of the FP&A Practice at the Association for Financial Professionals. He has more than 20 years of experience in the corporate FP&A and treasury space at organizations like American Express, Fannie Mae, and private equity-owned companies. At AFP, he is the staff subject-matter expert on FP&A, which includes designing content to meet the needs of the profession and helping keep members current on developing topics. Bryan also manages the FP&A Advisory Council that acts as a voice to align AFP with the needs of the profession.