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2021 will see the spread of AI and automation in the workplace

Enterprises are already interested in how to automate invoicing and expensing procedures, says SAP Concur.

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Businesses are always looking to optimize and streamline services to cut costs. The coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic calamity caused by it have put even more pressure on enterprises to innovate and do more with less. 

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Andy Watson, senior vice president for Asia, Pacific, Japan, and Greater China at SAP Concur, says many organizations will turn to automation and AI in 2021 as a way to address key business pain points and simplify cumbersome processes. 

“Automation will become essential, not extra. As businesses maintain hybrid remote-working models and anticipate other potential disruptions in 2021 and beyond, the role of automation and AI use cases in the workplace will grow,” Watson said in an email interview. “These may include enabling efficient day-to-day communications between knowledge workers doing their jobs from home and automating invoicing and expenses to keep valued partners paid and to preserve budgets.” 

“We will also see more businesses leaning on AI algorithms to make quick decisions backed by real-time financial transparency in order to meet the business needs brought on by the pandemic,” Watson added. “This includes managing spending in near real-time to improve budget management and liquidity, increasing compliance and eliminating errors, and maximizing profitability.” 

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In August, IDC said worldwide revenue for the AI market will increase by 12.3% year over year to total $156.5 billion in 2020. 

“The role of AI applications in enterprises is rapidly evolving. It is transforming how your customers buy, your suppliers deliver, and your competitors compete. AI applications continue to be at the forefront of digital transformation initiatives, driving both innovation and improvement to business operations,” said Ritu Jyoti, program vice president of artificial intelligence research at IDC.

In a blog post, Watson wrote that manual processes can cost firms tens or even hundreds of thousands of US dollars each year. He added that SAP Concur has had to work with companies to reimagine their travel programs and finance management strategies to support remote work. 

Broader use of artificial intelligence and machine learning to add intelligence to applications and eliminate manual processes, he said, also gives firms a much-needed competitive boost by improving their productivity. 

A recent SAP Concur-commissioned study found that as much as 38% of employees in the Asia Pacific region submit expenses manually by filling out a form and enclosing physical receipts. 

“Firms can save tens or even hundreds of thousands of US dollars each year—and improve staff satisfaction—by automating their finance and administration processes,” he told TechRepublic.

Most businesses, as well as society in general, were not prepared for such a swift, massive shift to remote work when the pandemic took hold in February and March. Organizations have had to invest heavily in digital transformation initiatives in order to continue business virtually. 

The shift has prompted companies to recognize their deficiencies and, in some cases, address emerging needs in their IT infrastructure, Watson noted. 

“Finance is one of the departments that has been impacted most by widespread remote work. These employees often rely on manual processes to print and mail invoices and cash checks. Without a physical office to enable these processes, many scrambled to track down payments in the mail and get invoices out in time,” he said. 

“Not only did this impact company financials but it also strained valuable partner relationships. It became clear to many businesses that manual processes had to be replaced. In the next year, we expect more companies to use AI-powered invoice management solutions to digitize the process, automatically capture invoices and purchase orders, and audit each document to eliminate financial inaccuracies.” 

With COVID-19 infection, hospitalization, and death numbers now reaching record levels in almost all 50 states, most organizations have had to extend or reinstate stay-at-home orders. 

Watson explained that there is a lot of uncertainty heading into 2021 and SAP Concur does expect continued investment in AI-powered solutions that simplify manual and inefficient processes, especially those that require in-person coordination.

Companies are already well underway in replacing manual processes with automation and AI. The most common use case is AI-powered spend management solutions that can help eliminate paper processes and tedious spreadsheets.

“In accounts payable departments, optical character recognition and machine learning automatically ‘read’ and enter invoices into the payment system, then match invoice and purchase order information,” Watson explained. “AI can also predict which companies are likely to default on payments—based on factors such as previous late payments and customer complaints—and which are most likely to pay on time.” 

He added that finance departments could also benefit from AI through automated expense management processes. Optical character recognition and machine learning are used to recognize handwritten tips and totals from pictures of employees’ receipts, then automatically populate line items in an expense report, Watson said. 

These reports are then routed to finance managers who can take advantage of AI-assisted programs that automatically review each expense report and flag inaccuracies based on comparisons against hundreds of data elements in seconds. 

Looking ahead, Watson added that intelligent assistants will go beyond automatic data capture and analysis to predicting and making recommendations based on instantaneous analysis of a variety of data sources. 

Watson imagined a world where assistants powered by AI and ML could predict when a company will exceed budgetary limitations based on its previous spending patterns and those at similar organizations. 

In theory, these assistants could make recommendations to maximize budgets, maintain the employee experience using employee satisfaction studies and costs and policies at other companies. 

The new reliance on technology due to the pandemic has changed how many enterprises view manual processes and the tech that could be used to replace them. Now that the value of automation and machine learning is clear, companies can invest in the kind of long development cycles that they were not able to do when the pandemic started. 

“Those that relied on manual processes had to move quickly to deploy automation in order for work to get done. At the same time, companies couldn’t afford technology implementations that required long development cycles. They didn’t have a lot of time to replicate functions that were normally office-centric into employees’ homes,” Watson said. 

“As a result, AI and ML have been increasingly important to quickly replace the tasks that were formerly done by people. More businesses are starting to lean onto AI/ML algorithms to make quick decisions backed by real-time financial transparency to meet the business needs brought on by the pandemic. This includes managing spending in near real-time to improve budget management and liquidity, increasing compliance and eliminating errors, and maximizing profitability.”

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