Savings in the Unlikeliest of Places: Accounts Payable
Organizations are revisiting the role of accounts payable. "They're seeing now that there are benefits that can be had by automating -- and not just automating the process and getting rid of paper -- but automating that on a network platform," said Drew Hofler, senior solutions marketing manager of financial solutions at Ariba.
Accounts payable has been one of the last bastions of paper processing in many organizations, but now businesses are looking for efficiencies and money-saving opportunities anywhere they can be found.
When the bottom line needs to grow -- even when the top line isn't growing -- many businesses choose to use automation and analysis in procurement and finance to find and take advantage of these opportunities.
Listen to a conversation on how these trends are fostering improved processes in accounts payable automation and spend management, featuring Drew Hofler, senior solutions marketing manager of financial solutions at Ariba, an SAP company, and Vishal Patel, research director and vice president of client services at Ardent Partners. The discussion is moderated by Dana Gardner.
Download the podcast (22:23 minutes) or use the player:
Here are some excerpts:
Dana Gardner: Today's landscape for AP and collaborating across business is driving some new processes, new approaches, and you have some new research. Tell us why you did the research now, and what you found out.
Vishal Patel: We completed this E-Payables 2012 research study in June of this year. It was comprised of approximately 220 AP, finance, and procurement professionals. Our intent was to get a sense of the current state of AP operations, the usage of AP solutions, and to capture some of the key strategies, processes, and performances that these organizations are able to achieve. Also, to determine how best-in-class companies are leveraging AP automation.
Gardner: And what's changed? What's new now or different from say two or three years ago?
Patel: Traditionally, we saw AP as having a very tactical focus. We asked the survey participants, "What do you think AP can do for you?" The responses ranged from payroll and reviewing invoices to responding to supplier inquiries. But in 2012, we're beginning to see a little bit of a shift more toward strategic activities and the introduction of automation in the process.
If we compare procurement and AP, AP traditionally is lagging behind procurement in terms of transformation and improvement of performance in their groups. AP is currently at the point where it's trying to improve efficiency and trying to focus staff members on more strategic activities, instead of responding to supplier inquiries.
That's the general trend we've been seeing, and also just being able to connect the various processes within the procure-to-pay cycle.
Gardner: Drew Hofler, we've seen an emphasis over the past several years, particularly in a tough economy, on seeking out new efficiencies. We've seen that in procurement and supply chain. Is this now AP's day in the sun, so speak, to grow more efficient?
Drew Hofler: I would say that it is. It's probably the last bastion of paper processing in most organizations right now, typically seen, as Vishal mentioned, in the past as a back office tactical organization. They're seeing now that there are benefits that can be had by automating -- and not just automating the process and getting rid of paper -- but automating that on a network platform.
That allows visibility into key strategic data that drive decision-making throughout the organization and across their firewall to their suppliers as well. These are things like visibility into shipments, when they're coming in, visibility into line-item invoice data on the procurement side, so that they can do better analysis of their spend.
It's driving more strategic procurement on the supplier's visibility into invoice status and payment timing, so they can manage their working capital and even access opportunities for getting paid early in exchange for discounts.
All of this stuff flows out of automation, and I think companies are really seeing how AP can now drive some of these strategic activities. So, I think it is their time in the sun.
Gardner: When we actually have an automation across the spectrum of these different activities, it seems to me that we're not going to be just collecting data and be able to proactively seek out new efficiencies or processes. It allows us to have more of an ad hoc, real-time benefit of being adept and even proactive. How is that important now, when you look at this entire spectrum of economic activity?
Hofler: That's extremely important. Everybody needs to be nimble right now. The big deal is being able to adjust to the circumstances that are just crazy right now. It's having visibility into where you're spending specifically and when you're getting paid. Also, visibility into automating the invoice cycle and the AP process so that now you can do something with that with an early paid invoice that is approved maybe 45 days before it's due.
This opens up working-capital opportunities, where companies are offering early pay discounts to their suppliers. Suppliers who don't have the same access to cash flow that they had pre-2008 are accessing that, saying thank you, and are willingly giving up a discount so that they are lowering their days sales outstanding (DSO).
Buying organizations are getting something for their cash that they're certainly not getting with that cash sitting in bank accounts earning zero percent right now. Both sides are winning, and all of that's really made possible by automation.
Gardner: Vishal, this notion of being nimble, is that something that came up in your recent research and how important is that for companies to once again push the needle on efficiency?
Impact of AP
Patel: It's very important, especially when you start thinking about the impact that AP can have on other parts of the organization like procurement and finance. When you look at the P2P process, it's one transaction that all of these different stakeholders are connected to. But all the stakeholders are not connected to each other necessarily, and that's where automation comes in. That's when you get the added value of collaboration between the P2P cycle.
If you think about the manual environment where you're receiving paper invoices, paper purchase orders. It's a difficult, really tedious work to get the right level of information at the right time, and then make decisions about how to most appropriately utilize cash.
One of the interesting things we found the research was that when we asked the survey participants what some of the biggest drivers are for the AP groups, the top one was improving processing efficiency, which is as expected, and it's been the same way for the last several years.
But the following two were the ones that were surprising. Number two and number three on the list were improving cash and working capital and improving days payable outstanding. Previously, we wouldn't even have seen those on the list, but these are much higher on the list in 2012.
Gardner: Drew, we recognize that large companies that are moving lots of goods that have a lot of capital involved are deeply incentivized to do this, but what about smaller organizations? Is this now something that is attainable by them, and are they starting to see benefits there, too?
Hofler: Absolutely. Any organization that can have visibility into their opportunities, into their process, and control over that process benefits from this. Smaller organizations on the buyer side are most definitely seeing the value of this. Lots of smaller organizations on the invoice sending and payment receiving side, what we would traditionally call the supplier side, the seller side, are seeing huge benefits from this.
For example, one of the suppliers on the Ariba network company called Mediafly, invoices with a very large entertainment company. They're a small company, they're a startup, and they're in growth mode. They have a full visibility into when they're paid and their CFO has told us that it's just like gold being able to see that.
So Mediafly has visibility into not only when their invoice is going to get paid, so that they can forecast on that, but also the ability to accelerate that payment on demand. They can literally click a button and get paid when they want.
They have told us that that has allowed them to hire, to accelerate their production of their products by hiring new developers, so that they can actually get a product out the door. They told us an example where they were able to get a new product out the door before they had planned, and they were scheduled to get paid on that original invoice.