When—and when not to—use automation in finance

Some key accountant tasks should not be automated, says Nintex CFO Eric Emans.
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· 4 min read

Eric Emans has been interested in automating accounting work throughout his career. As an auditor at Deloitte in the early 2000s, he taught himself Access and SQL so he could automate some of the more repetitive parts of his job. Now, he’s CFO at Nintex, a producer of software that automates processes and workflows for finance in other departments. He spoke with CFO Brew about the accounting shortage and which parts of accounting should—and shouldn’t—be delegated to technology.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What are your thoughts on the accounting shortage?

The industry has long been preparing for the baby boomers’ retirement. The other thing that’s happened is an underappreciation of the workforce that is coming in and how technologically savvy they are, and how they define value in their day-to-day lives. And I think that accounting has largely been behind on the things that technology can do, which is eliminate these mindlessly mundane, repetitive tasks.

What’s the key to job satisfaction for accountants?

Accountants are truly empowered when they see transactions through from when they enter the company all the way to the financial statement. You have no time to do that if you’re just constantly, every 15 days out of every month, doing month-end close, doing reconciliations, those types of things.

I think every accountant should see themselves as a financial operator. Accountants, if they take to that notion, become very powerful in the organization, because then they can take that knowledge and drive process improvement.

What to you is an appropriate and an inappropriate use of automation?

The place for automation is the stuff that happens every single month. I don’t want somebody thinking about sending a rent check out every month. There’s also a lot of stuff in AR that can be automated, like set up a program that [alerts a customer]: “Hey, five days from such-and-such, you owe us money.” And then I would say quote to cash and variance analysis.

What I don’t want a machine doing is looking at a one-off contract and having to look at the warranty clauses, having to look at the limitation of liability, the ability to terminate the contract, the bundling of software. That’s where I want my people spending their time.

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Everybody’s saying, “Oh, technology is going to get rid of accountants.” It’s not. Economic substance in a contract is very hard to measure and it takes the gray matter between somebody’s ears to figure a lot of these things out. Often, [someone] actually has to go talk to the people that contracted. It’s super important to level accountants up to get that experience.

What should CFOs look for in software to automate financial processes?

Where a lot of automation falls down is when you have to go outside of your team to get support. It’s hard for an IT department to establish where [accounting and finance teams] spend their time. And so for me, ease of use is something to consider. If it’s not no-code, it’s low-code enough that you can get somebody trained up on it and you can do a lot of things yourself.

And the last piece is the connectors. Does it connect to NetSuite? Does it connect to Salesforce? Does it connect to Snowflake? What can you do out of the box?

Do you have any advice for CFOs on implementing automation?

First, just be transparent [about] why you’re doing it. And also listen. Whenever I try to drive change in an organization, I sit down with a person and I say, “How would you do this differently?” Or “Hey, what would make this better?” I’ll go down to the staff accountant and say, “Hey, here’s what I’m trying to accomplish. Here’s what the impact will be to you. Help me think through that.”

And make sure that you have a system administrator because a lot of the failure of automation technology happens because nobody’s set on point to maintain it when it doesn’t go to plan. And you don’t want to be beholden, especially in a three-day close period, to having to call your software vendor and say, “Hey, something’s not working.” So somebody has to take ownership of the system.

News built for finance pros

CFO Brew helps finance pros navigate their roles with insights into risk management, compliance, and strategy through our newsletter, virtual events, and digital guides.