Via Financial Review : Financial services giants AMP and Westpac are exploring the possibility of automating back office and finance functions, some of which are offshored to low cost centres in Asia, using software systems.
It heralds the beginning of a trend that is expected to affect white-collar jobs in much the same way that machines displaced blue-collar workers on assembly lines.
It comes after ANZ Bank revealed to the Australian Financial Review that it had been refining over the last 12 months a program in the emerging field of robotics process automation which will change the composition of its workforce.
AMP said it is “not looking to automate to replace roles”. Rather its aim is to “automate small, time-consuming processes, such as data entry” and free up employees to “focus on higher-value tasks that add real value to the customer”.
The tasks Westpac wants to automate are currently performed onshore – clunky manual processes in its business banking division for example.
“Robotic process automation is actually solving a 20th century workload problem,” a Westpac spokesperson said.
”The 21st century requires real time solutions.”
But in reality someone, somewhere in the world is currently performing these low-level tasks manually. And soon, they won’t be.
Software is taking a bigger share of the corporate-finance workload. As it does the finance profession is bracing for a wave of technology-driven change greater than that bought about by outsourcing and offshoring over the last decade.
“The benefits of this technology is just coming in so there will be another wave of change over the next 12 months,” Chartered Accountants ANZ head of education Jason Dale said.
“The cycle keeps accelerating,” Mr Dale said.
Government departments can get involved
Sourcing specialist for Mindfields Mohit Sharma said one of the reasons software and artificial intelligence will hit finance jobs harder than offshoring is because government departments will be able to utilise it.
The public sector is a significant employer of finance professionals, and to date it has been largely denied the efficiency gains of offshoring because of privacy and national security issues, as well as political sensitivities around protecting local jobs.
ANZ Bank’s general manager of group hubs Simen Munter said robotics is top of the agenda for the business process outsourcing industry, which includes brands like Wipro, Hewlett-Packard, Tata Consulting Services, IBM and Accenture.
“If you are a BPO vendor and you are not offering something in this space, then it is like trying to sell a car without airbags,” Mr Munter said.
“It is technically possible but nobody wants to buy it.”
Mr Munter argues that automation will not reduce the number of jobs for finance professionals. It will simply create different, “higher value” jobs.
But this means short-term pain as finance professionals re-skill.
Hackett Group figures from the United States estimate that since 2004, the median number of full-time employees in the finance department at large firms has declined 40 per cent to about 71 people for every $1 billion of revenue, down from 119.
Finance professionals need critical thinking and analytical skills to be useful in the new environment, said Mr Dale.
“Most of our members have seen this coming ahead of the curve,” he said.
“A lot have transitioned to general manager roles.”
This change is likely to be felt in low cost centres as much as in the domestic market.
The pace of recruitment has dropped off very significantly at ANZ’s hubs in India, the Phillipines and China, according to Mr Munter.
“Hundreds of people are interacting with robotics on a daily basis. We expect to see this growing extensively through our hubs in the year to come and beyond because the technology has matured in a way that wasn’t available some years ago,” he said.