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Accounts payable automation: Thinking outside ERP

By Renee Thomas, director of U.S. sales and field marketing, Esker, special to Network World
July 31, 2012 11:09 AM ET

Network World - This vendor-written tech primer has been edited by Network World to eliminate product promotion, but readers should note it will likely favor the submitter's approach.

The economic whirlwind of the past few years has forced even the savviest of companies to rethink how and where their money is spent. Increasingly, the microscope is being placed on internal back-office processes, seen as prime candidates for strategic cost-cutting initiatives. Perhaps unsurprisingly to many who work within the department, accounts payable (AP) has emerged as an area ripe for improvement.

Most companies running enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems are all-too-familiar with the challenges of conventional paper-based AP processes that keep AP staff from focusing on their primary task -- accurate and timely closing, avoiding late payments, etc. Although ERP platforms are effective tools for archiving critical business data, most simply lack the capability to support the processes of each invoice transaction (e.g., receipt, review, approval, etc.). As a result, these repetitive tasks are often done through manual human intervention. Visibility and productivity remain low while error rates go up. What's more, financial planning, vendor relationships and even regulatory compliance efforts can suffer as well.

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Rather than adding headcount or additional infrastructure, more and more forward-thinking companies are stemming the negative effects of paper-centric processes by leveraging automation solutions.

Automated workflow is not a new concept. In the AP arena, however, it has long been regarded (and proven) to be an under-utilized technological solution. A 2012 study by The Institute of Financial Operations found that the majority (39%) of the 100 AP professionals surveyed say that paper-based invoices still make up 90% or more of their total volume. However, with the need to maximize operational functionality at an all-time high, and more customized solutions available, the treasure-trove of potential in electronic workflow is rapidly gaining attention. Results from the same 2012 study indicate that, when asked, "Do you use a workflow solution?", the majority (nearly half) of the respondents said, "Yes."

Clearly, AP automation is on the rise; the question is how to best implement it. Before evaluating AP automation solution providers, controllers, finance managers and others in the AP department must explore a number of key considerations; namely, the choice between installing a tool inside the ERP system or using a certified solution with data recognition, validation and workflow that resides outside the ERP system.

One company, one ERP system? Not so fast ...

On the surface, a solution that runs AP workflow inside the ERP system seems like the most reasoned and practical approach. In reality, this type of one-to-one relationship does not accurately reflect the complex, multi-connected global persona of today's business industry, and can lead to dysfunction down the road.

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