Major Challenges and Trends affecting the Financial Control and Automation

Many large corporations were created through acquisition, and gradually we bought our systems together. The workforce is relatively tenured here at CIGNA, and everyone is accustomed to using excel; it is the way that many of these processes have grown up, and it's the tool of choice that most people are trained on and can use. So you have an organization that has these excel spreadsheets that need to be automated. Some of the excel spreadsheets downloads are automated, and some of its attached with manual uploads and downloads, but there's no consistent framework across the organization. And because of that, the likelihood of somebody making a mistake with a formula and so on becomes high. Besides, as the organization grows, people need to be familiar with these complex spreadsheets which they're not. There's a lot of training involved that also makes way for a lot of errors, and it's not the most efficient and effective way to run a company. So the biggest issue is efficiency, and our control environment is vulnerable as a result of this.

As a result, companies are looking to automation tools to see how they can automate these processes, enhance their controls, and make the workforce more efficient and effective. And importantly, the one other thing that it does besides enhancing the control and making the workforce more efficient and effective is it can also provide individuals the opportunity to work on more analytical type work, which adds value to the business. It's been ten months that we've gone to RPI, and we've started to deploy this robotic technology, and it's worked well for us. However what we're learning is that it has a limited potential in finance. In order for it to work efficiently and effectively it's good on large scale repetitive processes. So when you deployed it for your large scale repetitive processes you step back and say what about all of these places across this vast enterprise. Because we're global have got thousands of places where people are using excel spreadsheets to do reserve and detailed calculations and they're pulling data together using excel. So we've used up the runway now and we're stepping back and seeing what else can we avail ourselves. We're starting to look at middleware tools that can help us with these spreadsheets in various elements of our processes where it's not massively repetitive across the enterprise. Still, the processes need to be enhanced and automated.

Effective way to shift from working on excel to adapting to RPA

Firstly you have to create awareness about all the new tools out there such as Alteryx, Microsoft DirectX, python, and so on. So you need to get an inventory of these tools and understand can people be trained to use these tools, For instance, can the new kids coming out of school be trained OR have they been trained. If not, what percentage of my workforce is new and can use these tools, and can I invest in these tools so that a broader amount of my population can be trained in these tools.

The next thing we hired an outside firm to come in and help us look at processes that we felt we knew is critical. These are the processes where we have the most amount of excel spreadsheets, and we have the most significant internal control risk. Then design the to be process as to where and what tools we can use along the way to automate these different elements of these processes. This will free up people to be redeployed to do analytical work to provide better data to the front end of the business. But in doing so, we are encountering an issue, which is change management. People have spent decades with these excel spreadsheets, and they're comfortable using that. Now, if we say, let's move to another tool, then the change management element of this is difficult. It is affecting people about how they feel about their work and being comfortable at their workplace.

Strategies for Evaluating Solution Providers

When you see consulting firms are investing or underwriting specific tools, their reputation is on the line as they need to know that tool upside down and inside out. And they also need to understand how to deploy that tool effectively in the organization. So that's how I keep my selection. I did my research to see which firms were supporting and then met with them and their customers. I tried to learn if they have success with this organization. If the answer was yes, then we brought them in and made a request for a proposal, and now we're utilizing their services.

Latest project Initiatives

For a robotics automation project, we interviewed all of the providers who are in the marketplace. We met with all the robotics solution providers to understand how their business model works. How much do they charge, and how does the tool get deployed. And we tried to select what we felt was the best tool that was akin and would work best with financial applications. We also interviewed a lot of financial companies to learn what they were using. And combining all of this research, we choose a perfect solution for us. So we set up an Intelligent Automation Center in finance, and the millennial generation volunteered without even being asked to be a part of this project. Because they see what's the benefit of these tools are. Then we sought to determine what would be some of the projects that we would use the robots for, and specifically, in finance, we're using them in account reconciliations and in manual journal entries. And our underwriting group is using them to help to evaluate and score specific clients.

“People have spent decades with these excel spreadsheets, and they're comfortable using that. Now, if we say, let's move to another tool, then the change management element of this is difficult”

Then we realized that we had many other processes that needed automation, and also robots were not going to work for that. That's when we did our investigation of these different tools and selected an organization to come in and help us with automating these processes. Also, we have several processes in our health services business that we're looking to automate. We're looking at our expense area all the different. We have 15 to 20 expense controllers that all seem to be doing the same activity. And then we brought in a consulting firm working with my people and are looking at the process documentation that exists to see how manual it is where the excel spreadsheets are. They're going to come back to me in the next couple of weeks to advise me as to which area can be automated using this tool. So right now, we are at the evaluation phase and haven't completed the work concerning deploying the Middleware automation tools.

What’s Next?

The new middleware tools are powerful, and if we deploy these tools properly over time, this whole data gathering and manipulation of data will become less important. And people will be able to focus on analyzing information and be able to provide more real-time data analysis to the commercial side of the business. This is a huge transformation because when you look at a bell curve of how you would look at your employee population depending on your organization by age, you probably have like 10 to 15 percent that knows these tools and is starting to learn these tools in school. Whereas everyone else is in an excel based type organization and so all those people need to be retooled and trained.

The second thing is that the schools where these kids graduate from I don't know how many of them have altered their programs or their curriculum to address the fact that this is going to be the wave of the future. And a lot of the universities and colleges are struggling with that, and there's going to be a lot of change. For example, actuaries today are graduating with the knowledge of python, but it's not pervasive. This transformation will continue and will ensue for the next ten years. But it's not like there's a silver bullet out there, and as Jean-Jacques Rousseau-a Greek philosopher once said that "Everything is in constant flux on this earth." So it's all about change, and both technology and how technology is being deployed and developed is happening at an exponential rate that we've never seen before. People are having a hard time keeping up with it, and as a result, a lot of our institutions that exist today are behind. Thus we have to spend the next ten years working through that so that we're keeping pace with the rate of technology.

Piece of Advice

If they're looking to venture into evaluating significant enterprise-wide processes that are populated with lots of excel spreadsheets, my advice does not underestimate the change management that's involved in this. Even if you have a huge harvesting field and an opportunity to automate yet you will meet a lot of resistance with the individuals that perform and oversee these excel spreadsheets for several reasons. The first being they are worried that they bring in a new tool, and it's going to wreak havoc on their process, and in turn, there's going to be an error.

The second thing is they're worried about ending up losing their jobs. Because if we become more efficient and effective and we're able to do work that took 20 hours to do and now we could do it in three hours. Lastly, there are many tools out there, and figuring out which is the right one for the right place could be challenging as well. Thus it is important that you have external advisers who specialize in this to work with you.

The other advice would be you need to have a close partnership with your IT department because you do not want to wind up in the same place you are with excel spreadsheets. You want this to be a sustainable process that you can leverage over the next decade. Because it's costly and important that your IT partners work alongside you because you want to ensure that you pick the right applications. And they're involved that you have the right documentation and the right individuals that can do the programming and understand all of these processes.