MT Expert - Finance: Small firms can go automatic too

Automated systems are no longer the preserve of big companies; they can now help SMEs get more efficient too.

by Andrew Jesse
Last Updated: 17 Dec 2010
Until recently, automated financial processes have been the sole preserve of larger businesses, with many SMEs uncertain (or unwilling) to invest in the human and capital resources required to implement and manage such systems. However, getting these processes streamlined, and getting rid of inefficiencies associated with manual, paper-based finances, can play a major role in increasing an organisation’s competitiveness.

Fortunately, the technology behind automating financial processes has become more affordable, accessible and readily available. A recent study showed that over a third (36 per cent) of SMEs think electronic invoicing is a key priority for 2010. So, for businesses considering making the leap to automation, here are some top tips to bear in mind:

Review existing systems. Although it’s likely that automation will be right for your business, it’s important to examine what currently works in the manual system you already have in place – as well as what doesn’t. Objectives for an automated system must be based on what you expect it to do better that the manual system it replaces; a holistic review of what’s already in place is key to setting the right expectations.
Work out your requirements. Once you know what you’ve got, you can work out what you need the system to deliver. Identify which strengths you want to retain, and where improvements need to be made. Consult with other members of the business to find out how they perceive the process, and get their suggestions of how finance can work better for the business.

Talk to experienced technology vendors. With a fairly wide variety of solutions available, it’s important to make the right decision for your organisation. Remember, neither the cheapest nor the most expensive system is necessarily the right fit. A reliable technology partner will be able to assess your organisation’s needs and recommend the right choice.

Identify what success will look like. It may be difficult at first to define exactly how automation can help your business (apart from ‘make it more efficient’). But without measurement, it’s difficult to build the business case and really see the benefits achieved. Setting reasonable and achievable KPIs in line with your company's objectives (such as time to process an invoice), allows you to know when the system is working and, if not, where the weaknesses lie.

Get senior buy-in. Without commitment and support from the senior management team, it becomes harder to drive change, both in terms of justifying the cost involved and getting the wider team to change their way of working. Make a solid business case for how and why a new solution works better than the existing one, and you’re far more likely to see the impetus for change being driven from the top down.

Communicate the objectives internally. As with any change, getting the buy-in from your team and ensuring early wins will be a key part of making a successful transition. Communicate clearly how the new system will help the business as a whole become more efficient and make their jobs easier.  

Provide training. Good technology tends to be intuitive to use, but that isn’t to say new users should be expected to pick it up as they go along; indeed, that’s often the quickest way to introduce mistakes into an otherwise efficient new system! Technology vendors and partners can often build training packages into the implementation of a new system, which is often the easiest way to get everyone up to speed as soon as possible. That said, it’s important to build in a buffer for the changeover period, to account for the learning curve between old and new systems.

Review the system periodically. As businesses grow and change over time, their needs change accordingly. Checking in on a regular basis allows you to ensure that what you have in place works correctly and is still relevant for your organisation’s needs as it evolves

Whatever automation system you choose, it doesn’t have to be a dramatic or overwhelming change. For most businesses, the process of moving from manual to automated systems is a series of small steps, rather than a big bang. Making sure you find the right system, partner and process may take some time and effort, but as the results will show, it will be well worth investing.

Andrew Jesse is Vice President at Basware UK

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