Far from being something to fear, machine learning and artificial intelligence free up your best employees to do valuable work
There are times when the terms used to describe technologies just don’t tell the entire story. Machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) are two recent examples. A topic of countless news stories and plenty of futuristic speculation, machine learning and AI are often used as the main characters in scary dystopian tales of robots that gain self-awareness and then use their powerful computer brains to take over the world.
That’s fine as fodder for science fiction tales, but it also can serve as a major (not to mention unnecessary and untrue) obstacle to harnessing the legitimate power of AI and machine learning to solve real-life business challenges today. Put another way, machine learning and AI have an image problem – one that the technologies can’t solve for themselves because, well, they’re not the omnipotent robots of our imaginations.
But here’s a much more realistic narrative about machine learning and AI that financial professionals will understand: Utilizing these technologies is an opportunity to delegate many of the mundane clerical tasks that chew up so much time and energy yet add so little value to your company’s efficiency and performance. Instead, those thankless tasks can be delegated to what amounts to an error-proof and tireless army of colleagues.
That’s possible because of the unique capabilities of machine learning and AI. Machine learning is simply when computers are taught to do things that our own brains pick up through experience and study. AI is a bit more nuanced and allows computers to mimic some of our deeper levels of human understanding and analysis. But packaged together, the combination of AI and machine learning—directed and controlled by people, of course—provides the kind of exceptional assistance that frees financial professionals up to do work that can genuinely grow and improve a business.
Here’s why: With the assistance of machine learning and AI, document processing technology can do everything from image and content recognition to analytics and reporting. What does that mean in the real business world? Take the case of the invoice settlement process, a task that has long been cumbersome and lengthy because it has relied on manual processes.
Instead of involving hours of time and complicated manual tasks, an automated process aided by AI can take a large batch of supplier invoices and separate them automatically. Instead of spending time doing the work themselves, accounts payable professionals can simply review and make sure the split was correct and get the invoices placed in a queue to be verified. What’s even better is that a machine learning enabled computer is the sort of student that quickly surpasses its teacher (that would be you). In other words, it is able to properly process a large volume of invoices and get them quickly into the proper queue to be paid because it picks up patterns, and recognizes the process to follow by observing how a savvy person tackles these tasks.
The exact mechanics of how machine learning and AI driven by sophisticated algorithms empower computers to perform tasks quickly and accurately is almost beside the point. What matters is the impact it has on the work of those in accounts payable or any other financial professionals who typically devote a large amount of time each day to work that, while important, is straightforward and ripe for automation.
For example, tapping the power of automation to perform clerical tasks otherwise handled by overextended accounts payable staffers means bypassing what would otherwise be long reconciliation and payment cycles. It also means cutting down on or completely eliminating errors such as duplicate payments that occur as the result of visibility problems. Automation that results in improved real-time visibility also translates into more satisfied suppliers—everybody is happier when they are paid on time—and the elimination of missed vendor payments and late penalties.
Not surprisingly, utilizing technology to boost automation is a boon to employee morale and productivity. When financial professionals aren’t spending their time on clerical tasks they can collaborate with their managers, controllers and auditors to track and analyze any exceptions. This is particularly important when it comes to keeping a company’s largest suppliers happy. With complete transparency and data analytics that alert you to anomalies or bottlenecks, it’s possible to proactively respond to issues before they become problems.
Which is all another way to say that machine learning and AI help businesses maintain healthy, efficient and productive relationships with their vendors, which ultimately leads to more satisfied customers. In an interesting way, it shows how machines can help us be better business partners and people. There’s nothing scary about that at all.