The importance of change management in AP automation transitions

  • 12 Oct 2018
  • Thought leadership
The importance of change management in AP automation transitions Image

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.  -Charles Darwin 

So, you have decided to automate your accounts payables? Found your solution provider? Maybe even appointed the Project Manager and set up your implementation plan? What about Change Management? Have you thought of that? 

According to research from global management consulting firm McKinsey, 70 percent of change programs fail to achieve their goals, mainly due to employee resistance and lack of management support. This can be especially true in functions, like accounts payable (AP), that traditionally have operated as back-office departments with little attention from executive leadership. 

Implementing a new AP automation solution is not just another IT-project. It is an opportunity to transform the accounts payable department to a spend management knowledge hub, the one function that controls much of the critical business data that impacts the CFO agenda. 

A structured approach to Change Management is one way of mitigating the risk of your transformation being one that end up among the 70% that fail. 

Even if your objective is not to completely transform the department - Change Management is critical when automating your accounts payable process because failure means missed payments, damaged supplier relationships, and risk if invoices do not get approved promptly – all failures that would impact your business over a significant amount of time. 

What is Change Management? 

Change Management and Project Management are typically both required to enable change. Most organizations realize that Project Management is essential to a successful project. But while Project Management mainly focuses on managing the project scope, budget, and timeline, Change Management focuses on the people and help them transition and adopt the technology and the new processes. 

One definition of Change Management, provided by Prosci Change Management Learning Center (developers of the ADKAR methodology), is, “the process, tools and techniques to manage the people-side of change to achieve a required business outcome.” 

Take a structured approach towards Change Management 

There are a couple of different methodologies available for the change managers who want to take a structured approach towards Change Management. John P. Kotter is one of the foremost speakers on the topics of change. He has developed an eight-step model to manage change. 

  1. Build a need for change: a) Establish a sense of urgency and b) form a guiding coalition 
  1. Change direction: c) Create and d) communicate a vision for change 
  1. Change behavior: e) Empower others to act on the vision and f) create short-term wins 
  1. Sustain change: g) Build more best practices and h) institutionalize new approaches 

If you don’t have a proper case for change, you might end up with status quo and the question “why are we doing this anyway,” and without a vision, you risk ending up with confusion, such as “how is the organization supposed to know where to go?” And without enough skills or incentives to change behavior, you risk ending up with anxiety, “I do not know how to do this,” and a slow change “why try anyway.” 

Building the Case For Change 

If you decided to automate your accounts payable process, you probably have a good picture of the case for change and what your main pain points are. 

Are you struggling with the lengthy closing of the accounting period? Does an increased invoice volume mean adding more people to your organization? Are you not able to pay on time and missing early payment discounts? Do you have poor visibility into the invoice process resulting in inaccurate and poor cash forecasting and uncomfortable audit controls? 

Your decision to automate is probably driven by a desire to both improve efficiency, and increase control, insights, and compliance! Make sure those pains are documented and quantified in a business case and known to the entire organization both inside and outside AP. 

As a next step, form a structured network of change agents on different levels in the organization both inside and outside accounts payable, including sponsors in the C-suite, such as the CFO, CIO, and CPO. 

Shared goals between procurement and finance are essential to realize the business case. If procurement is driven by increasing spend under management, they may be tempted to quickly approve invoices with a broader tolerance threshold than finance. Depending on the cause of invoice discrepancy, how much the approval is costing the organization and, most importantly, if the supplier is repeatedly sending erroneous invoices, there is likely a systemic issue of cascading problems that need to be corrected. Negotiating a 10% savings is worthless if 5% overcharges are repeatedly being accepted. A similar case may occur regarding supplier discounts for early payments versus optimizing cash flow. 

In a survey from Robert Half Management Resources and Robert Half Technology, 51% of CFOs said they work more frequently with their company’s CIO today than in the past years. And they should! Because, for example, choosing an AP automation solution on-premise or in the cloud is no longer just a decision for IT and a question of fit with IT-strategy. The right cloud solutions provide business value that on-premise solutions can’t, using big data analyses from the millions of invoices that are processed through the same cloud and feedback process benchmarks specific to your industry and company profile. 

Mutual understanding between departments of what builds the case for change and the business case is imperative when transforming accounts payable. 

Establish and Communicate Your Vision 

Now that you know why you need to change; the next step is to turn these pain points around to a compelling vision and use your change agents to communicate the vision. Is your AP organization going to become the future spend management knowledge hub, and the CFOs best friend? Will your AP clerks be the new top consultants of the organization supporting procurement in strategic sourcing initiatives and providing the CFO and business users with actionable insights regarding their spending behavior? 

Whatever your vision is, make sure to communicate it and give all employees plenty of lead time to prepare for the future. General advice would be to communicate early rather than too late and target your message to your audience and personas. Different personas will have experienced specific pain points in your process, so include the most pertinent points for those affected, and make sure your communication addresses how these will be solved with the new solution. 

With a structured Change Management approach, an accounts payable solution implementation plan should be accompanied by a communication plan. Detailing stakeholder groups, a change impact analysis and specific messaging for each group through a variety of channels; group meetings, one-on-ones, emails, community sites, etc. The communication plan is the common tool for the change agent network to make sure that each stakeholder group is receiving the information they need at the right time in the project. It is also the tool to synchronize messaging from top management and cascade it downwards in the organization. 

Change Behaviors 

Training your users on the new solution is part of the implementation project. The key is that changing behaviors is much broader than a training session. It needs to go beyond the initial training class. The real learning starts to take place once they are back on the job and using the solution in real life situations.  The AP team needs to take ownership of the solution and understand how it works and how they can continuously improve. Make sure your education plan is not short-sighted. To succeed you need to appoint super users that can act as change agents and that understand and support your vision. 

Establish success cases that the change agents can communicate. For example: We went from more than 35 days of invoice processing time to only ten days in just six weeks. We now have full line item transparency into both orders based and non-order-based invoice data. And we can monitor cash flow in real time. As a result, internal audit now holds us as a good example within the company. Promote and reinforce behaviors that set good examples, and support your realization of the business case for automating. 

Sustain change 

Continue to build on best practices and make sure to train new employees coming into the organization on the system as well as your vision and case for change. If you selected the right AP automation solution, the solution itself could be the very tool you need to sustain and reinforce continuous improvements. Modern cloud solutions provide you with the benchmarks to improve your process, increasing touchless ratios, decreasing processing time and realizing more value from your supplier base. The solution can prompt you with tips and tricks for working smarter analyzing and comparing your use pattern against big data from the millions of invoices that are processed through the same cloud. 

Align role descriptions and individual performance metrics to the transformed functions goals. If your future accounts payable department is going to be the spend management value hub, your personnel need KPIs beyond accuracy and transaction volumes. 

With a structure in place that aligns processes, metrics, and communication that goes beyond the implementation project your AP transformation is more likely to succeed. As the research from global management consulting firm McKinsey shows: When people are invested in change, it is 30 percent more likely to stick. 


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