It’s time. If there were two words we had to assign to next week’s Association of Financial Professionals (AFP) conference, those would get the nod. Because as AFP meets this year, the urgency around payments automation and expediting digital transformation has never been greater and it’s time to solve for the bigger payments and cash management challenges. The financial processes that worked both ten years ago and in more recent pre-pandemic days are growing older and less effective by the day. So, in many ways, it’s time.

The AFP organization features the finance executives that make the decisions on accounting and cash flow issues, which makes this conference critical to the conversation of adopting financial automation solutions and implementing best practices. And while it’s time to embrace these changes, we would also note that this year is significant for several other timely issues. Among the most important is the progress made towards connected finance, unified processes, and bringing together the disparate financial functions that make up most organizations. Breaking down the silos that exist across payables, receivables, and money management is our mission for Bottomline at this conference, and for the industry in general beyond this singular event.

And a lot of that connectedness can be achieved through another urgent issue: data hygiene. You don’t need to read this blog to know that AP automation has outpaced other financial operations in the recent past. However, now, in order to create a connected finance ecosystem, that automation needs to get contagious. FIs, corporates, and even mid-sized companies need to come away from AFP understanding that we need to automate across the board for all operational functions in ways that benefit all stakeholders, which includes the customer experience. The connected financial organization can aggregate, share and make actionable all the data available to go from basic legacy processes to automated in short order. Automation and its associated data can create customer insights that align with payment preferences and help a connected financial operation drive cost savings and even move from a cost center to a profit center.

Here’s an example. Suppose your company has a manual process for receivables, receiving a high volume of paper checks, automating some payment types, and collecting data on customer sales and expenses on internal servers. That creates a hostile environment for data because the collection of it is so disparate.  It comes from multiple banks, potentially several ERPs, and likely ends up in an Excel sheet. Automating that process and creating the capacity to capture all of the data about when your customers pay, how they pay, and how they’re reminded to pay can all feed into a collections workflow and allow you to prioritize collection efforts and manage resources. Understanding your finance data allows you to make sense of unstructured information and use data to create and track workflows. To compete in today’s digital environment, you have to get rid of the noise and get to the actionable insights.  

Along with data, sustainability is a hot-button issue for finance leaders attending AFP. Not the environmental kind of sustainability, although that is certainly important, but the sustainability that centers around cash flow and forecasting. The pandemic has taught organizations of all sizes how to find ways to sustain their organization and help them remain on a growth trajectory. We’ve talked a lot as a company about focusing during the pandemic on one key question: “Where’s my cash?” Finance leaders must take a holistic view of their cash flow, and by using data judiciously, can connect with the entire business and understand the peaks, the valleys, and the different patterns that will allow them to become more strategic with their cash

Finance leaders can mark this year’s AFP as the year in which they commit to automation, manage the back office more efficiently and reposition themselves to change the way they view the past (not to ruminate on it) with the goal of helping them predict what will happen in the future. Data, sustainability, and automation. That’s AFP in an overly simplistic context. But for those three keywords, it’s time.

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Posted by Jill McFarland

Jill McFarland is the general manager of accounts receivable solutions for Bottomline and has spent over 20 years working in the payments and financial technology space, including in both accounts payable and accounts receivable for Bottomline and Paymode-X.