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Is 2016 the year that accounts payable becomes strategic?

Published on 11 January 16
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The next BriefingsDirect business innovation thought leadership discussion focuses on the changing role and impact of accounts payable (AP) as a strategic business force.

We’ll explore how intelligent AP is rapidly transforming by better managing exceptions, adopting fuller automation, and implementing end-to-end processes that leverage connected business networks.

As the so-called digital enterprise adapts to a world of increased collaboration, digital transactions, and e-payables management -- AP is needing to adapt in 2016.

Listen to the podcast. Find it on iTunes. Get the mobile app. Read a full transcript or download a copy.

To learn more about the future of AP as a focal point of automated business services we are joined by Andrew Bartolini, Chief Research Officer at Ardent Partners in Boston, and Drew Hofler, Senior Director of Marketing at SAP Ariba. The discussion is moderated by me, Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions.

Here are some excerpts:

Gardner: Drew, let’s look at the arrival of 2016. We have more things going on digitally, we have a need to improve efficiency, and AP has been shifting -- but how will 2016 make a difference? What should we expect in terms of AP elevating its role in the enterprise?

Hofler: AP is one of those areas that everybody looks at, first and foremost, as a cost center. So when AP looks at what they can do better, they've typically thought about efficiency and cost savings first. That’s the plus side of the cost center as saving money by spending less.

Is 2016 the year that accounts payable becomes strategic? - Image 1

Hofler

But what we've been seeing happening over the last year or so, and what will accelerate in 2016, is that AP begins to move more from just a cost saving and efficiency focus to value creation. And this is where they sit in the hub of one of the three critical elements of working capital -- inventory, receivables and payables -- and AP sits squarely on that last one.

And they have influence over that which affects the company's working capital. AP has become so very important for companies by creating the efficiencies in the invoice process, it opens up opportunities, and they're going to be able to affect a company’s working capital for the positive going forward. That’s going to grow as they move beyond just the automation that is the foundation to then seeing the opportunities that come out of that.

Gardner: Andrew, do you see AP also as a digital hub, growing in its role and influence and being able to increase its value beyond cost efficiency into these other higher innovation levels or strategic levels of benefit?

Tracking trends

Bartolini: Yes, absolutely. I've been researching and working in this space for 17 years, doing significant market research over the last 11 years. So I've been tracking the trends and the ebbs and flows of relative interest and investment in AP.

What we've seen in 2015 in some of our most recent research is that there has been a broader focus or a shift away from viewing the AP opportunity as an efficiency one or solely an efficiency one. Let’s automate. Let’s reduce our costs in processing invoices. Let’s reduce our costs in payments.

Is 2016 the year that accounts payable becomes strategic? - Image 2

Bartolini

But what we saw this year for the first time in our research was that the top area of focus, the top business pressure that’s driving investments in AP transformation was the need to get better visibility into all the valuable information that comes across the AP departments or through the AP operation, both on the invoice and the payment side.

That begins to change the conversation. We talked about the evolution of AP moving from a strictly back-office siloed department to an increasing point of collaboration with procurement at the purchase-to-pay (P2P) process, with treasury, from a cash-management perspective. Now, we see it starting to move and becoming a true intelligence hub, and that’s where we've seen some momentum. There’s a lot of wind in the sails for AP, really pushing that forward in 2016 and beyond.

Gardner: Andrew, what’s driving this? Is this the technology that's now allowing that data?

Bartolini: There are a couple of factors underlying this movement. The first is taking the broader perspective within business as a whole. Businesses can no longer allow distinct business functions to operate within silos. They need everybody on the same team, rowing in the same direction. That has forced greater collaboration.

Is 2016 the year that accounts payable becomes strategic? - Image 3That’s something that we've seen more broadly between procurement and finance over the past couple of years, specifically with the role of the CPO and the CFO. A majority of organizations see a very strong level of collaboration within those two job roles and within their departments as a whole.

That has opened up larger opportunities for AP, which is a more tactical function as it relates to procurement, but by bringing the two groups together, you now have shared resources and shared focus on improving the entire source-to-settle process.

That relationship has driven greater interest, because the opportunities are fantastic for procurement to leverage the value of a more efficient AP process and to be able to see the information that’s there.

As Drew mentioned, by becoming more efficient on the front end of the AP process, organizations are doing a better job in reducing the amount of paper that’s coming in through the front door. They're processing their invoices faster. That's opening up opportunities on the back-end, on the payment side.

So, you have a confluence of those factors and you see newer solutions in the marketplace as well that are really changing the view that AP departments have of what defines a transformation. They're thinking more holistically across the entirety of the AP process, from invoice receipt, all the way through payment and settlement.

Allowing for variables

Gardner: Drew, it seems that over history, once a contract is closed the terms remain fairly rigid, and then there is a simple fulfillment aspect to it. But it sounds like -- as we get more visibility, as we get digitized, and we can automate -- we can handle exceptions better and allow for more variables.

I've heard instances where the terms can be adjusted, that market forces can provide for ways in which a deal gets amended as an ongoing basis, whether it's in terms of payment, whether perhaps there are other ancillary issues. Is that what we are seeing, that the digital transformation is giving us more opportunity to be flexible, and is that then elevating the role of the AP organization?

Hofler: You make a couple of good points there, and it really springs from what Andrew just said about not having to silo or not staying in that siloed place where AP and procurement are separate or the processes are separate, because what companies have realized, particularly as the digital age has made it possible, is that the procure-to-pay process, the source-to-settle process, is a fundamentally connected one.

Over the years they've operated very disconnectedly, with hand-offs, where procurement does its thing, writes a contract and then hands it off once the purchase order (PO) goes out the door, and then AP takes up the process from there. But in that, there are a lot of disconnects.

What companies have realized, particularly as the digital age has made it possible, is that the procure-to-pay process, the source-to-settle process, is a fundamentally connected one.

When you're able to bring networked systems together to bring visibility across that entire process, now you have the AP group acting in a more strategic manner to deliver value by acting as the value-capture group.

For example, prior to this age that we live in now, a contract would be written, it would have specific terms for specific items and specific prices for specific SKUs, and maybe some volume discounts. AP had no idea about that, because these contracts would get signed and they get put in a file cabinet or stuck in a PDF file somewhere, and the AP had no idea. So they went off of the invoice that came in.

This is how an entire industry about post-audit recovery came about, to go after the fact and try to claw back over-payment, because there's no visibility in AP to what procurement did.

By bringing these together in a system, on a network, you're able to automatically capture those savings, because AP now has visibility into what’s happening inside of that contract, and can insure on an automated basis that they are paying the right amount. So, it becomes not just a buy-right thing from the procurement side, but a pay-right thing as well, a buy- and pay-right tied together.

But that's your point about terms. Yes, you have certain terms tied into that contract, but again, that's set at the beginning of a relationship with a supplier. There are lots of opportunities that come up when everybody has visibility into what's going on, into an early-approved invoice for example.

Opportunities for collaboration

There are lots of opportunities that arise for collaboration where maybe the situation has changed a little bit. Maybe a supplier, instead of being paid in 45 days, now would very much like to be paid in five days, because they have payroll ahead or they have an equipment purchase to make, and they want to accelerate their cash flow.

In a disconnected world, you can't account for that. But in a networked world, where there is visibility, I like to say that it's the confluence of visibility, opportunity, and capability where all parties have visibility into the opportunity created by efficiencies with that earlier approved invoice. Then, there's the capability inside the system to simply click a button and accelerate that cash flow or modify those terms on that contract, in those payment terms.

So this idea of P2P being a linked value chain and the digital technology of today can bring those together so that there are no barriers to that information flow and that creates all sorts of opportunities for all parties involved.

Gardner: Andrew, we're having a common denominator here of visibility, the visibility is what allows for a lot of these efficiencies and innovation values to occur, where does that visibility come from, where does the data get generated, how is it shared, and how do we further reduce the silos through the free flow of data analysis and information?

Bartolini: Visibility at the core starts with automation tools that automate processes. If we're looking at the P2P process, you're looking at an eProcurement system. You can go back to where it starts, from sourcing and contracting. If you have contract visibility or at least visibility into your header-level information, you begin to have an understanding of what, in fact, the relationship is and what relationships you have as an organization, who are your preferred suppliers, who are your strategic suppliers.

Visibility at the core starts with automation tools that automate processes.

As you start to drill down, if you have the capabilities to capture things like payment terms and service-level agreements (SLAs). That information begins to provide a more robust view of the relationship that can then be more strategically managed from a procurement perspective, and then really sets up the operational procurement side.

If you have an eProcurement system, you're able to generate purchase orders against those contracts and you're ensuring that before the purchase order is even sent to the supplier, the pricing and the terms are correct.

That cascades over onto the AP automation side. We use the term "ePayables" very broadly to describe AP automation solutions. When you have an eProcurement and an ePayables solution connecting, you begin to have greater visibility within the enterprise for the entirety of the relationship and the entirety of the transaction.

On the flip side, where we haven't gotten to the value proposition for suppliers who really view their customer relationship as a single one, what often happens is they have multiple relationships within that customer that really aren't needed. They negotiate a contract, they have their internal customer, and then they are dealing with maybe a procurement department and then trying to then figure out who they are dealing with on the AP side.

When you’ve got visibility that can be shared with trading partners, you get extraordinarily greater value out of the entire thing, and you streamline relationships and you're able to focus on the more important aspects of those relationships. But to the original question, visibility starts and ends with technology.

Centralizing procurement

Gardner: We're also seeing the trend of larger organizations centralizing procurement, sometimes placing it, if it's a global organization, in another country instead of having it in multiple countries or multiple markets. It becomes consolidated and automated. How does that fit in, Drew?

Hofler: We see definitely a move toward a shared service or a global process ownership type of thing, where they want to take the variability out of the different geographies or different business units doing what is essentially a standardized process, or they want to make that standardized.

We definitely see the movement in that, and it's both a business desire and goal to remove the variability, but it's something that's enabled by the technology that we have today in business networks, in centralized systems, that can tie all of this together. Now you have business units operating across the world, but tapping in all of that information, tapping in, getting all the invoices to come into one place through a network. Those business units can see that. Those business units have access at a controlled pace to the information that they need inside of those systems as well.

On the procurement side, if you're sourcing globally, you can have different centers of excellence.

For the ability to connect the data to everybody, to turn that data not just from an information but to intelligence, getting it in front of the right people at the right time and the right process, the business networks really, really help to drive that. Having that centralized network hub where everybody can connect at the point of the process that they need really helps drive or enable the movement towards shared service and centralized AP procurement.

Bartolini: Anyone would be hard-pressed to make a case that you should have a decentralized AP operation. That doesn't mean that you can't have staff that are geographically dispersed, but there's no reason why that should exist.

On the procurement side, if you're sourcing globally, you can have different centers of excellence. Again, you want to have a more centralized view into visibility and to be utilizing the same systems and processes. On the AP side, centralization also helps from the standpoint that you begin to get a better sense of what resources are being applied in the AP process today. It also becomes easier to centralize or to gain budgets for investment in tools that can drive efficiency, visibility, and all the things we've just been talking about.

Gardner: Another thread that I’m hearing in our conversation is that technology needs to be exploited, visibility gained, and automation made possible. Then, centralization can become a huge benefit from all of that. But none of this is possible if we don't go all digital. If we don't get off of manual processes and get off of paper. What do you think is going to be the ratio, if you will, of a paper approach that's left? Are we finally going to pull the last paper invoice out, or the last payment that's manual? Where are we, Drew, when it comes to making that full transition to digital? It seems to me an overwhelmingly beneficial direction.

Still using paper

Hofler: I've been in the payment space for about 20 years and the payable space for the last 10, and in payment, there have been predictions in that space that we would get rid of the paper check completely. Gosh, for the last 20 years everybody is saying it's going to happen, but it hasn't. It's still about 50 percent paper checks.

So I'm not going to make a prediction that paper is going to go away, but most definitely, companies need to deal with and move toward electronic data. Even if it's paper based, a lot of companies are moving toward getting the data in electronically, but a lot of them say, "Well, I get my paper scanned, I've sent it to a scanning service or whatever, and I get it in PDF or electronic data form."

That's fine and that's one step along the process, but companies are realizing that there's a limitation in that. When you do that, you're simply getting the data that was on that paper source document faster. If that paper source document data is garbage, and that's what creates exceptions, then you're just getting the exceptions quicker, and that doesn't really help the process, that doesn't really solve the true issue of making sure you're not only getting the data faster, but that you get it in clean and that you get it in better.

This is where companies need to move toward full electronic invoicing, where it starts its life as an electronic invoice.

This is where companies need to move toward full electronic invoicing, where it starts its life as an electronic invoice, so that a supplier can submit it and have it run through business rules electronically before it even gets the AP. They can identify the exceptions and turn it around to the supplier and have them correct it, all in a very quick and automated fashion, so that by the time AP gets it it's 98 percent exception free or straight-through processing.

Companies are going to realize that just transforming a paper source document into an electronic form has had value in the past, but its value is quickly running out, and they need to move toward true electronic.

How far we are going to get along that path? Well, that’s a big prediction to make, but I think we'll move along way down that path. Companies definitely need to recognize, and are starting to recognize, that they need to deal with native electronic data in order to truly gain value, efficiency, and intelligence and be able to leverage that into other opportunities.

Gardner: We mentioned exception handling, exception management, making that easier, better, faster. It strikes me that exception management is really a means to a greater end, and the greater end is general flexibility -- even looking at things as markets, as auctions, where there's variability and a fit-for-purpose kind of mentality can come in.

So am I off in some pie-in-the-sky direction, Andrew? Or when we think about the ability to do exception management, are we really opening up the opportunity to do even more interesting, innovative things with business transactions?

Reduction of exceptions

Bartolini: No, I don’t think it’s pie in the sky. One of our recent surveys of about 200 or so AP finance, and P2P professionals, a question was asked, what’s the number one game changer that will get your AP operation to the next level of performance? And the answer that came in loud and clear was the reduction of exceptions and the ability to perform root-cause analysis in a much more significant way.

So it’s a fundamental problem, and the opportunity is for a majority of things. About two-thirds of organizations feel that if they could handle this issue better, if they could reduce that number, they would be operating at a significantly higher level.

We haven’t really talked too much about the suppliers in this equation, but a lot of business focus and a lot of the themes in our research this year and into 2016 has been focused on agility and the need for organizations to become more adept and responsive to market shifts and changes.

Part of that is getting better alignment with the strategic suppliers that are going to drive more value and that are having a greater impact on the company's own products and services and ultimately their results.

When that noise in the relationship is reduced it allows organizations to focus on goals and objectives and to invest more in the strategic elements of the relationship.

So, you look at something like exceptions that are problematic for both sides of the trading-partner equation, when you start to reduce those, when you start to eliminate a lot of the friction that is built in, certainly around the manual P2P process, but can exist even in an automated environment. When that noise in the relationship is reduced it allows organizations to focus on goals and objectives and to invest more in the strategic elements of the relationship.

Gardner: Drew, anything to add to that, particularly when you consider that the pool of suppliers is, in a sense, growing when we look at contingent workers, when we look at different types of suppliers as smaller firms, perhaps located at a much greater geographic distance than in the past. We have more open markets as a result of connected business networks. How do you see that panning out in 2016?

Hofler: Yeah, there's definitely a growth in that. There's a pretty good stat that shows that a much larger portion of a company's workforce is not bound to that company, and it's a temporary, it's a contingent workforce, it's services that are from contractors that aren't necessarily tied to them.

The need to handle that, particularly the churn that happens with that, the broader number of contractors that you might have with that, the variability in the services that are asked for, that are needed, all of this adds layers of complexity, potentially, to AP, and to procurement as well. We're focused more on AP here, but it adds layers of complexity in managing that and approving that, and as a result, can add a significant number of exceptions.

So, while you're operating your business in a way that is a little more fitting in today’s world, you're also adding a lot of complexity and exceptions to the process, unless you’ve got a way to automatically build in the ability to define the invoice and to identify the exceptions so that these various suppliers who are much smaller and geographically dispersed can submit online or can submit electronically and can do so in a way that's standardized, even across this large group.

Catching exceptions

The exceptions can be caught right away, for example, field services. If there's a service sheet form that was put out by procurement to hire somebody to go fix an oil well, and they get out to the oil well and there’s more to be done than what was on that, they have to get approval for that. To have the ability to get that approval online, automatically, through a mobile device, and have it tied directly into the invoice, and have the invoice close that eliminates all those potential breakpoints of finally getting that invoice in and getting the exceptions dealt with and approved.

Exceptions to me aren't just a matter of, "Gosh, they're hard to do." They're something we want to get rid of. But exceptions are simply the barrier to the opportunity that comes when you can get that invoice moved through and approved right away, not necessarily a matter of paying the invoice faster from the payer’s perspective, but the ability to have it approved and ready to go right away, so that you have options, and so that the supplier has options potentially for cash flow and things like that.

Exceptions become something that we have to eliminate in order to get to that opportunity, but without the platform to do that, to your point, the dispersed workforce, and the increasing contractors, they can make it even harder than it is or than it has been.

Gardner: When we look at the payoffs from doing things better using AP intelligence and technology, we are not just looking at efficiency for its own sake. I think you're opening up more opportunity, as you put it, to the larger business.

If procurement and accounts payable can adjust and react rapidly to complexity, to exceptions, to new ways of doing business -- this is a powerful tool to the business at large.

If procurement and accounts payable can adjust and react rapidly to complexity, to exceptions, to new ways of doing business -- this is a powerful tool to the business at large. They can go at markets differently. They can acquire goods and services across a wider portfolio of choices, a wider marketplace, and therefore be able to perhaps get things easier, faster, cheaper.

Let’s look at this idea of non-tangible payoffs that elevates the value of AP to being a sophisticated intelligent operation. Let's start with Andrew. What are some of the intangibles -- if we do all the above that we have mentioned well – how does this empower the organization in ways that we haven't seen before?

Bartolini: That’s a great question and it gets back to the one point I was just making about agility. If you were to argue that we're operating in an age of innovation, where globalization and the level of competition, and the speed of business in general has really accelerated the time frames that organizations must react -- I think this is happening at a much faster pace.

You can see that in areas like the consumer electronics market, and in all industries, product lifecycles are shortening, and so the windows of opportunity to maximize sales and revenues in the marketplace are much shorter as well.

Things are happening at a much faster clip and in tighter time frames. This has created a much greater reliance upon your suppliers and upon your supply chain. And so having visibility across the P2P process, across the source-to-settle process, and having much tighter relationships with your strategic suppliers ultimately positions the organization to become much more agile and much more competitive. And that's the value dividend that's created from a more streamlined P2P process.

It’s being able to more fully optimize the relationships that you have with your suppliers, and it's being able to make decisions and shifts in a much faster way than in the past, and that's not just from the sourcing side, that carries all the way through to the payment side as well.

Business agility

Gardner: Drew, when we think about the strategic role of AP -- of providing business agility -- you can’t get more strategic than that.

Hofler: No, that's right. AP particularly can become the source of much of that strategic intelligence that companies need. They can't just see themselves as processing paper or as a back-office cost center, but as being the ones that capture that can, through their use of systems and investment in systems and networks, capture the data in invoices, for example, and can feed that data into the sourcing cycle at the beginning, so it becomes a virtuous circle.

They can create the opportunity for the company to meet some of their very strategic goals around working capital. So now AP and their ability to tie into what procurement has done before them and automate the process and get things done very nimbly and ready to go and create this opportunity, are creating opportunity for treasury as well, so now you have got a third party in there.

The treasurer is very concerned about what his liabilities are out there, what the payments liabilities are. Does he know? Often, in today’s world, treasurers can’t see their payable liabilities until they run through their payment cycle and they're ready to be paid the next day. So they have to move cash around to make sure that they have enough cash to manage those liabilities going out.

With visibility into what’s going to be paid out 30 days from now, having that 30 days in advance offers the treasurer all sorts of options on how to manage their cash among various different bank accounts.

It gives the treasurer the opportunity to pay that supplier early, using excess cash that’s sitting in a bank account.

Plus, it gives them the option to do things around their days payable outstanding (DPO), to bring third parties into a business network, to bring in third-party supply chain finance that allow a supplier who might need early payment liquidity and early cash flow to access that from a third party while the buying organization is able to hold on to their cash, and so extend their DPO and improve their working-capital management.

Or it gives the treasurer the opportunity to pay that supplier early, using excess cash that’s sitting in a bank account. Even though the Fed just raised rates in the last day or two, they only raised it a quarter of a percent. So it’s still not earning very much. But now, a treasurer can take that and pay a supplier early in exchange for a discount that earns them something along the lines of 8-12 percent annually.

It opens up options, but right at the nexus of all of that opportunity, information, and intelligence sits AP. That’s a very strategic place for AP to be if they can get their hands around that data, create those opportunities, and make it visible to the rest of the business.

Gardner: One last area to get into for 2016 … One of the top concerns in addition to business agility for companies and organizations is risk, security, and dealing with compliance issues, with regulatory issues. Is there something that AP brings to the table when it has elevated itself to the strategic level, with that visibility with that data, with the ability to act quickly and be able to take on exceptions and work through them?

Andrew, we've heard about how, on the procurement side, that examining the supply chain, knowing that supply chain, being able to head off interruptions or other issues, having business continuity mindset is important. Does that translate over to AP, and why and how does AP have a larger role in issues around continuity?

Risk mitigation

Bartolini: From a risk-mitigation standpoint, when you have greater assurances, that the invoices are matched to the PO, to the orders that have been generated, to what has been delivered, when you have a clear view into how that payment is made, across and into the supplier’s account, you're reducing the opportunities for fraud, which can exist in any type of environment, manual or fully automated. One of the largest risk-mitigation opportunities for AP is really at the transactions level.

When you start to cascade the visibility that AP generates out into the larger organization, you can start to do some predictive analysis from the procurement side to better understand potential issues that suppliers may be facing.

Also from a treasury standpoint, when you have visibility into the huge amount of money that is being paid out by AP, you have a better sense of your company’s liquidity, your cash positions, and what you need to do to ensure that you maintain that liquidity.

Looking on the supplier’s side, when you're processing invoices more quickly and you have the opportunities to make payments early, there are those opportunities for the larger companies to step in and help out some of their struggling suppliers, whether that’s paying their invoices early or some other mechanism. It starts with visibility, and from that visibility you start to have a better ability to make smarter decisions and to anticipate potential issues.

They may have had an otherwise healthy business, but not sufficient cash flow to maintain operations, and that hurt buying organizations who depend on them.

Gardner: Last word to you Drew on this issue of risk reduction, continuity, using intelligence to head off disruption or fraud, how do you see that panning out in 2016?

Hofler: I think AP does play a large role in that. Andrew touched on some of that.

One of the key areas, if you think about supply chain and from the procurement side, the financial supply chain is pretty much just as important as the physical supply chain when it comes to risk. As we learned, people have gotten it deep in their bones since 2008 and 2009 when liquidity became a very big issue. There was liquidity risk in supply chains of suppliers who couldn’t access cash flow or didn’t have sufficient cash flow. They may have had an otherwise healthy business, but not sufficient cash flow to maintain operations, and that hurt buying organizations who depend on them.

By being able to approve invoices very quickly and offer up to your suppliers, through a single portal, a single network access, access to cash, either from a buying company using their own or bringing in third-party financing, you essentially are able to eliminate or greatly mitigate liquidity risk in your supply chain.

But there are other areas of risk, too. Anytime you're talking about AP, Andrew said it the right way, where he talked about the massive amounts of money that AP is paying out. That’s their job.

In order to do that, they have to actually capture, manage, and maintain bank account information from their suppliers in order to pay electronically. We're always trying to get away from paper checks, because paper checks, we know, are rife with fraud, very horribly opaque and very slow, but electronic payments require them to capture bank account information. And that’s not a core competency of most AP departments.

Network power

But AP departments can tap into the power of network ecosystems that bring in third parties whose core competency that very much is, to eliminate their need to ever even see a supplier’s bank account information.

Some forward-looking AP departments are looking at how they can divest themselves of that which is not their core competency, and in some ways around risk mitigation and payment, one of them is getting rid of having to touch bank account information.

Beyond that, when we talk about compliance and that type of thing, AP sits right in the middle of that, whether that be from VAT compliance in Europe, to archival compliance, to stocks compliance here in the US, having all of the data electronic and having an auditable trail and being able to know exactly where every piece of data and every dollar or euro spent has been and where it went along the way and having a trail of that automatically capture and archived, that goes a long way towards compliance.

AP is the one that sits right there to be able to capture that and provide that.

Listen to the podcast. Find it on iTunes. Get the mobile app. Read a full transcript or download a copy. Sponsor: SAP Ariba.



The next BriefingsDirect business innovation thought leadership discussion focuses on the changing role and impact of accounts payable (AP) as a strategic business force.

We’ll explore how intelligent AP is rapidly transforming by better managing exceptions, adopting fuller automation, and implementing end-to-end processes that leverage connected business networks.

As the so-called digital enterprise adapts to a world of increased collaboration, digital transactions, and e-payables management -- AP is needing to adapt in 2016.

Listen to the podcast. Find it on iTunes. Get the mobile app. Read a full transcript or download a copy.

To learn more about the future of AP as a focal point of automated business services we are joined by Andrew Bartolini, Chief Research Officer at Ardent Partners in Boston, and Drew Hofler, Senior Director of Marketing at SAP Ariba. The discussion is moderated by me, Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions.

Here are some excerpts:

Gardner: Drew, let’s look at the arrival of 2016. We have more things going on digitally, we have a need to improve efficiency, and AP has been shifting -- but how will 2016 make a difference? What should we expect in terms of AP elevating its role in the enterprise?

Hofler: AP is one of those areas that everybody looks at, first and foremost, as a cost center. So when AP looks at what they can do better, they've typically thought about efficiency and cost savings first. That’s the plus side of the cost center as saving money by spending less.

Is 2016 the year that accounts payable becomes strategic? - Image 1


Hofler

But what we've been seeing happening over the last year or so, and what will accelerate in 2016, is that AP begins to move more from just a cost saving and efficiency focus to value creation. And this is where they sit in the hub of one of the three critical elements of working capital -- inventory, receivables and payables -- and AP sits squarely on that last one.

And they have influence over that which affects the company's working capital. AP has become so very important for companies by creating the efficiencies in the invoice process, it opens up opportunities, and they're going to be able to affect a company’s working capital for the positive going forward. That’s going to grow as they move beyond just the automation that is the foundation to then seeing the opportunities that come out of that.

Gardner: Andrew, do you see AP also as a digital hub, growing in its role and influence and being able to increase its value beyond cost efficiency into these other higher innovation levels or strategic levels of benefit?

Tracking trends

Bartolini: Yes, absolutely. I've been researching and working in this space for 17 years, doing significant market research over the last 11 years. So I've been tracking the trends and the ebbs and flows of relative interest and investment in AP.

What we've seen in 2015 in some of our most recent research is that there has been a broader focus or a shift away from viewing the AP opportunity as an efficiency one or solely an efficiency one. Let’s automate. Let’s reduce our costs in processing invoices. Let’s reduce our costs in payments.

Is 2016 the year that accounts payable becomes strategic? - Image 2


Bartolini

But what we saw this year for the first time in our research was that the top area of focus, the top business pressure that’s driving investments in AP transformation was the need to get better visibility into all the valuable information that comes across the AP departments or through the AP operation, both on the invoice and the payment side.

That begins to change the conversation. We talked about the evolution of AP moving from a strictly back-office siloed department to an increasing point of collaboration with procurement at the purchase-to-pay (P2P) process, with treasury, from a cash-management perspective. Now, we see it starting to move and becoming a true intelligence hub, and that’s where we've seen some momentum. There’s a lot of wind in the sails for AP, really pushing that forward in 2016 and beyond.

Gardner: Andrew, what’s driving this? Is this the technology that's now allowing that data?

Bartolini: There are a couple of factors underlying this movement. The first is taking the broader perspective within business as a whole. Businesses can no longer allow distinct business functions to operate within silos. They need everybody on the same team, rowing in the same direction. That has forced greater collaboration.

Is 2016 the year that accounts payable becomes strategic? - Image 3
That’s something that we've seen more broadly between procurement and finance over the past couple of years, specifically with the role of the CPO and the CFO. A majority of organizations see a very strong level of collaboration within those two job roles and within their departments as a whole.

That has opened up larger opportunities for AP, which is a more tactical function as it relates to procurement, but by bringing the two groups together, you now have shared resources and shared focus on improving the entire source-to-settle process.

That relationship has driven greater interest, because the opportunities are fantastic for procurement to leverage the value of a more efficient AP process and to be able to see the information that’s there.

As Drew mentioned, by becoming more efficient on the front end of the AP process, organizations are doing a better job in reducing the amount of paper that’s coming in through the front door. They're processing their invoices faster. That's opening up opportunities on the back-end, on the payment side.

So, you have a confluence of those factors and you see newer solutions in the marketplace as well that are really changing the view that AP departments have of what defines a transformation. They're thinking more holistically across the entirety of the AP process, from invoice receipt, all the way through payment and settlement.

Allowing for variables

Gardner: Drew, it seems that over history, once a contract is closed the terms remain fairly rigid, and then there is a simple fulfillment aspect to it. But it sounds like -- as we get more visibility, as we get digitized, and we can automate -- we can handle exceptions better and allow for more variables.

I've heard instances where the terms can be adjusted, that market forces can provide for ways in which a deal gets amended as an ongoing basis, whether it's in terms of payment, whether perhaps there are other ancillary issues. Is that what we are seeing, that the digital transformation is giving us more opportunity to be flexible, and is that then elevating the role of the AP organization?

Hofler: You make a couple of good points there, and it really springs from what Andrew just said about not having to silo or not staying in that siloed place where AP and procurement are separate or the processes are separate, because what companies have realized, particularly as the digital age has made it possible, is that the procure-to-pay process, the source-to-settle process, is a fundamentally connected one.

Over the years they've operated very disconnectedly, with hand-offs, where procurement does its thing, writes a contract and then hands it off once the purchase order (PO) goes out the door, and then AP takes up the process from there. But in that, there are a lot of disconnects.

What companies have realized, particularly as the digital age has made it possible, is that the procure-to-pay process, the source-to-settle process, is a fundamentally connected one.

When you're able to bring networked systems together to bring visibility across that entire process, now you have the AP group acting in a more strategic manner to deliver value by acting as the value-capture group.

For example, prior to this age that we live in now, a contract would be written, it would have specific terms for specific items and specific prices for specific SKUs, and maybe some volume discounts. AP had no idea about that, because these contracts would get signed and they get put in a file cabinet or stuck in a PDF file somewhere, and the AP had no idea. So they went off of the invoice that came in.

This is how an entire industry about post-audit recovery came about, to go after the fact and try to claw back over-payment, because there's no visibility in AP to what procurement did.

By bringing these together in a system, on a network, you're able to automatically capture those savings, because AP now has visibility into what’s happening inside of that contract, and can insure on an automated basis that they are paying the right amount. So, it becomes not just a buy-right thing from the procurement side, but a pay-right thing as well, a buy- and pay-right tied together.

But that's your point about terms. Yes, you have certain terms tied into that contract, but again, that's set at the beginning of a relationship with a supplier. There are lots of opportunities that come up when everybody has visibility into what's going on, into an early-approved invoice for example.

Opportunities for collaboration

There are lots of opportunities that arise for collaboration where maybe the situation has changed a little bit. Maybe a supplier, instead of being paid in 45 days, now would very much like to be paid in five days, because they have payroll ahead or they have an equipment purchase to make, and they want to accelerate their cash flow.

In a disconnected world, you can't account for that. But in a networked world, where there is visibility, I like to say that it's the confluence of visibility, opportunity, and capability where all parties have visibility into the opportunity created by efficiencies with that earlier approved invoice. Then, there's the capability inside the system to simply click a button and accelerate that cash flow or modify those terms on that contract, in those payment terms.

So this idea of P2P being a linked value chain and the digital technology of today can bring those together so that there are no barriers to that information flow and that creates all sorts of opportunities for all parties involved.

Gardner: Andrew, we're having a common denominator here of visibility, the visibility is what allows for a lot of these efficiencies and innovation values to occur, where does that visibility come from, where does the data get generated, how is it shared, and how do we further reduce the silos through the free flow of data analysis and information?

Bartolini: Visibility at the core starts with automation tools that automate processes. If we're looking at the P2P process, you're looking at an eProcurement system. You can go back to where it starts, from sourcing and contracting. If you have contract visibility or at least visibility into your header-level information, you begin to have an understanding of what, in fact, the relationship is and what relationships you have as an organization, who are your preferred suppliers, who are your strategic suppliers.

Visibility at the core starts with automation tools that automate processes.

As you start to drill down, if you have the capabilities to capture things like payment terms and service-level agreements (SLAs). That information begins to provide a more robust view of the relationship that can then be more strategically managed from a procurement perspective, and then really sets up the operational procurement side.

If you have an eProcurement system, you're able to generate purchase orders against those contracts and you're ensuring that before the purchase order is even sent to the supplier, the pricing and the terms are correct.

That cascades over onto the AP automation side. We use the term "ePayables" very broadly to describe AP automation solutions. When you have an eProcurement and an ePayables solution connecting, you begin to have greater visibility within the enterprise for the entirety of the relationship and the entirety of the transaction.

On the flip side, where we haven't gotten to the value proposition for suppliers who really view their customer relationship as a single one, what often happens is they have multiple relationships within that customer that really aren't needed. They negotiate a contract, they have their internal customer, and then they are dealing with maybe a procurement department and then trying to then figure out who they are dealing with on the AP side.

When you’ve got visibility that can be shared with trading partners, you get extraordinarily greater value out of the entire thing, and you streamline relationships and you're able to focus on the more important aspects of those relationships. But to the original question, visibility starts and ends with technology.

Centralizing procurement

Gardner: We're also seeing the trend of larger organizations centralizing procurement, sometimes placing it, if it's a global organization, in another country instead of having it in multiple countries or multiple markets. It becomes consolidated and automated. How does that fit in, Drew?

Hofler: We see definitely a move toward a shared service or a global process ownership type of thing, where they want to take the variability out of the different geographies or different business units doing what is essentially a standardized process, or they want to make that standardized.

We definitely see the movement in that, and it's both a business desire and goal to remove the variability, but it's something that's enabled by the technology that we have today in business networks, in centralized systems, that can tie all of this together. Now you have business units operating across the world, but tapping in all of that information, tapping in, getting all the invoices to come into one place through a network. Those business units can see that. Those business units have access at a controlled pace to the information that they need inside of those systems as well.

On the procurement side, if you're sourcing globally, you can have different centers of excellence.

For the ability to connect the data to everybody, to turn that data not just from an information but to intelligence, getting it in front of the right people at the right time and the right process, the business networks really, really help to drive that. Having that centralized network hub where everybody can connect at the point of the process that they need really helps drive or enable the movement towards shared service and centralized AP procurement.

Bartolini: Anyone would be hard-pressed to make a case that you should have a decentralized AP operation. That doesn't mean that you can't have staff that are geographically dispersed, but there's no reason why that should exist.

On the procurement side, if you're sourcing globally, you can have different centers of excellence. Again, you want to have a more centralized view into visibility and to be utilizing the same systems and processes. On the AP side, centralization also helps from the standpoint that you begin to get a better sense of what resources are being applied in the AP process today. It also becomes easier to centralize or to gain budgets for investment in tools that can drive efficiency, visibility, and all the things we've just been talking about.

Gardner: Another thread that I’m hearing in our conversation is that technology needs to be exploited, visibility gained, and automation made possible. Then, centralization can become a huge benefit from all of that. But none of this is possible if we don't go all digital. If we don't get off of manual processes and get off of paper. What do you think is going to be the ratio, if you will, of a paper approach that's left? Are we finally going to pull the last paper invoice out, or the last payment that's manual? Where are we, Drew, when it comes to making that full transition to digital? It seems to me an overwhelmingly beneficial direction.

Still using paper

Hofler: I've been in the payment space for about 20 years and the payable space for the last 10, and in payment, there have been predictions in that space that we would get rid of the paper check completely. Gosh, for the last 20 years everybody is saying it's going to happen, but it hasn't. It's still about 50 percent paper checks.

So I'm not going to make a prediction that paper is going to go away, but most definitely, companies need to deal with and move toward electronic data. Even if it's paper based, a lot of companies are moving toward getting the data in electronically, but a lot of them say, "Well, I get my paper scanned, I've sent it to a scanning service or whatever, and I get it in PDF or electronic data form."

That's fine and that's one step along the process, but companies are realizing that there's a limitation in that. When you do that, you're simply getting the data that was on that paper source document faster. If that paper source document data is garbage, and that's what creates exceptions, then you're just getting the exceptions quicker, and that doesn't really help the process, that doesn't really solve the true issue of making sure you're not only getting the data faster, but that you get it in clean and that you get it in better.

This is where companies need to move toward full electronic invoicing, where it starts its life as an electronic invoice.

This is where companies need to move toward full electronic invoicing, where it starts its life as an electronic invoice, so that a supplier can submit it and have it run through business rules electronically before it even gets the AP. They can identify the exceptions and turn it around to the supplier and have them correct it, all in a very quick and automated fashion, so that by the time AP gets it it's 98 percent exception free or straight-through processing.

Companies are going to realize that just transforming a paper source document into an electronic form has had value in the past, but its value is quickly running out, and they need to move toward true electronic.

How far we are going to get along that path? Well, that’s a big prediction to make, but I think we'll move along way down that path. Companies definitely need to recognize, and are starting to recognize, that they need to deal with native electronic data in order to truly gain value, efficiency, and intelligence and be able to leverage that into other opportunities.

Gardner: We mentioned exception handling, exception management, making that easier, better, faster. It strikes me that exception management is really a means to a greater end, and the greater end is general flexibility -- even looking at things as markets, as auctions, where there's variability and a fit-for-purpose kind of mentality can come in.

So am I off in some pie-in-the-sky direction, Andrew? Or when we think about the ability to do exception management, are we really opening up the opportunity to do even more interesting, innovative things with business transactions?

Reduction of exceptions

Bartolini: No, I don’t think it’s pie in the sky. One of our recent surveys of about 200 or so AP finance, and P2P professionals, a question was asked, what’s the number one game changer that will get your AP operation to the next level of performance? And the answer that came in loud and clear was the reduction of exceptions and the ability to perform root-cause analysis in a much more significant way.

So it’s a fundamental problem, and the opportunity is for a majority of things. About two-thirds of organizations feel that if they could handle this issue better, if they could reduce that number, they would be operating at a significantly higher level.

We haven’t really talked too much about the suppliers in this equation, but a lot of business focus and a lot of the themes in our research this year and into 2016 has been focused on agility and the need for organizations to become more adept and responsive to market shifts and changes.

Part of that is getting better alignment with the strategic suppliers that are going to drive more value and that are having a greater impact on the company's own products and services and ultimately their results.

When that noise in the relationship is reduced it allows organizations to focus on goals and objectives and to invest more in the strategic elements of the relationship.

So, you look at something like exceptions that are problematic for both sides of the trading-partner equation, when you start to reduce those, when you start to eliminate a lot of the friction that is built in, certainly around the manual P2P process, but can exist even in an automated environment. When that noise in the relationship is reduced it allows organizations to focus on goals and objectives and to invest more in the strategic elements of the relationship.

Gardner: Drew, anything to add to that, particularly when you consider that the pool of suppliers is, in a sense, growing when we look at contingent workers, when we look at different types of suppliers as smaller firms, perhaps located at a much greater geographic distance than in the past. We have more open markets as a result of connected business networks. How do you see that panning out in 2016?

Hofler: Yeah, there's definitely a growth in that. There's a pretty good stat that shows that a much larger portion of a company's workforce is not bound to that company, and it's a temporary, it's a contingent workforce, it's services that are from contractors that aren't necessarily tied to them.

The need to handle that, particularly the churn that happens with that, the broader number of contractors that you might have with that, the variability in the services that are asked for, that are needed, all of this adds layers of complexity, potentially, to AP, and to procurement as well. We're focused more on AP here, but it adds layers of complexity in managing that and approving that, and as a result, can add a significant number of exceptions.

So, while you're operating your business in a way that is a little more fitting in today’s world, you're also adding a lot of complexity and exceptions to the process, unless you’ve got a way to automatically build in the ability to define the invoice and to identify the exceptions so that these various suppliers who are much smaller and geographically dispersed can submit online or can submit electronically and can do so in a way that's standardized, even across this large group.

Catching exceptions

The exceptions can be caught right away, for example, field services. If there's a service sheet form that was put out by procurement to hire somebody to go fix an oil well, and they get out to the oil well and there’s more to be done than what was on that, they have to get approval for that. To have the ability to get that approval online, automatically, through a mobile device, and have it tied directly into the invoice, and have the invoice close that eliminates all those potential breakpoints of finally getting that invoice in and getting the exceptions dealt with and approved.

Exceptions to me aren't just a matter of, "Gosh, they're hard to do." They're something we want to get rid of. But exceptions are simply the barrier to the opportunity that comes when you can get that invoice moved through and approved right away, not necessarily a matter of paying the invoice faster from the payer’s perspective, but the ability to have it approved and ready to go right away, so that you have options, and so that the supplier has options potentially for cash flow and things like that.

Exceptions become something that we have to eliminate in order to get to that opportunity, but without the platform to do that, to your point, the dispersed workforce, and the increasing contractors, they can make it even harder than it is or than it has been.

Gardner: When we look at the payoffs from doing things better using AP intelligence and technology, we are not just looking at efficiency for its own sake. I think you're opening up more opportunity, as you put it, to the larger business.

If procurement and accounts payable can adjust and react rapidly to complexity, to exceptions, to new ways of doing business -- this is a powerful tool to the business at large.

If procurement and accounts payable can adjust and react rapidly to complexity, to exceptions, to new ways of doing business -- this is a powerful tool to the business at large. They can go at markets differently. They can acquire goods and services across a wider portfolio of choices, a wider marketplace, and therefore be able to perhaps get things easier, faster, cheaper.

Let’s look at this idea of non-tangible payoffs that elevates the value of AP to being a sophisticated intelligent operation. Let's start with Andrew. What are some of the intangibles -- if we do all the above that we have mentioned well – how does this empower the organization in ways that we haven't seen before?

Bartolini: That’s a great question and it gets back to the one point I was just making about agility. If you were to argue that we're operating in an age of innovation, where globalization and the level of competition, and the speed of business in general has really accelerated the time frames that organizations must react -- I think this is happening at a much faster pace.

You can see that in areas like the consumer electronics market, and in all industries, product lifecycles are shortening, and so the windows of opportunity to maximize sales and revenues in the marketplace are much shorter as well.

Things are happening at a much faster clip and in tighter time frames. This has created a much greater reliance upon your suppliers and upon your supply chain. And so having visibility across the P2P process, across the source-to-settle process, and having much tighter relationships with your strategic suppliers ultimately positions the organization to become much more agile and much more competitive. And that's the value dividend that's created from a more streamlined P2P process.

It’s being able to more fully optimize the relationships that you have with your suppliers, and it's being able to make decisions and shifts in a much faster way than in the past, and that's not just from the sourcing side, that carries all the way through to the payment side as well.

Business agility

Gardner: Drew, when we think about the strategic role of AP -- of providing business agility -- you can’t get more strategic than that.

Hofler: No, that's right. AP particularly can become the source of much of that strategic intelligence that companies need. They can't just see themselves as processing paper or as a back-office cost center, but as being the ones that capture that can, through their use of systems and investment in systems and networks, capture the data in invoices, for example, and can feed that data into the sourcing cycle at the beginning, so it becomes a virtuous circle.

They can create the opportunity for the company to meet some of their very strategic goals around working capital. So now AP and their ability to tie into what procurement has done before them and automate the process and get things done very nimbly and ready to go and create this opportunity, are creating opportunity for treasury as well, so now you have got a third party in there.

The treasurer is very concerned about what his liabilities are out there, what the payments liabilities are. Does he know? Often, in today’s world, treasurers can’t see their payable liabilities until they run through their payment cycle and they're ready to be paid the next day. So they have to move cash around to make sure that they have enough cash to manage those liabilities going out.

With visibility into what’s going to be paid out 30 days from now, having that 30 days in advance offers the treasurer all sorts of options on how to manage their cash among various different bank accounts.

It gives the treasurer the opportunity to pay that supplier early, using excess cash that’s sitting in a bank account.

Plus, it gives them the option to do things around their days payable outstanding (DPO), to bring third parties into a business network, to bring in third-party supply chain finance that allow a supplier who might need early payment liquidity and early cash flow to access that from a third party while the buying organization is able to hold on to their cash, and so extend their DPO and improve their working-capital management.

Or it gives the treasurer the opportunity to pay that supplier early, using excess cash that’s sitting in a bank account. Even though the Fed just raised rates in the last day or two, they only raised it a quarter of a percent. So it’s still not earning very much. But now, a treasurer can take that and pay a supplier early in exchange for a discount that earns them something along the lines of 8-12 percent annually.

It opens up options, but right at the nexus of all of that opportunity, information, and intelligence sits AP. That’s a very strategic place for AP to be if they can get their hands around that data, create those opportunities, and make it visible to the rest of the business.

Gardner: One last area to get into for 2016 … One of the top concerns in addition to business agility for companies and organizations is risk, security, and dealing with compliance issues, with regulatory issues. Is there something that AP brings to the table when it has elevated itself to the strategic level, with that visibility with that data, with the ability to act quickly and be able to take on exceptions and work through them?

Andrew, we've heard about how, on the procurement side, that examining the supply chain, knowing that supply chain, being able to head off interruptions or other issues, having business continuity mindset is important. Does that translate over to AP, and why and how does AP have a larger role in issues around continuity?

Risk mitigation

Bartolini: From a risk-mitigation standpoint, when you have greater assurances, that the invoices are matched to the PO, to the orders that have been generated, to what has been delivered, when you have a clear view into how that payment is made, across and into the supplier’s account, you're reducing the opportunities for fraud, which can exist in any type of environment, manual or fully automated. One of the largest risk-mitigation opportunities for AP is really at the transactions level.

When you start to cascade the visibility that AP generates out into the larger organization, you can start to do some predictive analysis from the procurement side to better understand potential issues that suppliers may be facing.

Also from a treasury standpoint, when you have visibility into the huge amount of money that is being paid out by AP, you have a better sense of your company’s liquidity, your cash positions, and what you need to do to ensure that you maintain that liquidity.

Looking on the supplier’s side, when you're processing invoices more quickly and you have the opportunities to make payments early, there are those opportunities for the larger companies to step in and help out some of their struggling suppliers, whether that’s paying their invoices early or some other mechanism. It starts with visibility, and from that visibility you start to have a better ability to make smarter decisions and to anticipate potential issues.

They may have had an otherwise healthy business, but not sufficient cash flow to maintain operations, and that hurt buying organizations who depend on them.

Gardner: Last word to you Drew on this issue of risk reduction, continuity, using intelligence to head off disruption or fraud, how do you see that panning out in 2016?

Hofler: I think AP does play a large role in that. Andrew touched on some of that.

One of the key areas, if you think about supply chain and from the procurement side, the financial supply chain is pretty much just as important as the physical supply chain when it comes to risk. As we learned, people have gotten it deep in their bones since 2008 and 2009 when liquidity became a very big issue. There was liquidity risk in supply chains of suppliers who couldn’t access cash flow or didn’t have sufficient cash flow. They may have had an otherwise healthy business, but not sufficient cash flow to maintain operations, and that hurt buying organizations who depend on them.

By being able to approve invoices very quickly and offer up to your suppliers, through a single portal, a single network access, access to cash, either from a buying company using their own or bringing in third-party financing, you essentially are able to eliminate or greatly mitigate liquidity risk in your supply chain.

But there are other areas of risk, too. Anytime you're talking about AP, Andrew said it the right way, where he talked about the massive amounts of money that AP is paying out. That’s their job.

In order to do that, they have to actually capture, manage, and maintain bank account information from their suppliers in order to pay electronically. We're always trying to get away from paper checks, because paper checks, we know, are rife with fraud, very horribly opaque and very slow, but electronic payments require them to capture bank account information. And that’s not a core competency of most AP departments.

Network power

But AP departments can tap into the power of network ecosystems that bring in third parties whose core competency that very much is, to eliminate their need to ever even see a supplier’s bank account information.

Some forward-looking AP departments are looking at how they can divest themselves of that which is not their core competency, and in some ways around risk mitigation and payment, one of them is getting rid of having to touch bank account information.

Beyond that, when we talk about compliance and that type of thing, AP sits right in the middle of that, whether that be from VAT compliance in Europe, to archival compliance, to stocks compliance here in the US, having all of the data electronic and having an auditable trail and being able to know exactly where every piece of data and every dollar or euro spent has been and where it went along the way and having a trail of that automatically capture and archived, that goes a long way towards compliance.

AP is the one that sits right there to be able to capture that and provide that.

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