An interview with Sophie Annett

Posting date:18 Dec 2019

Sophie Annett  is a leader in the Finance Transformation space and has most recently held the position of Director of Finance and Accounting at Serco Plc. Starting her career training as an Accountant for KPMG she later became a Manager at Deutsche Bank before joining BT where she spent 18 years, leaving in 2018 as a Director of Shared Service Centres. Serco was an attractive offer to help satisfy her passion about automation and even more about the idea of having the right people behind it.

Finding robotics

I was at a Deloitte Conference five years ago when I learned about robotics. It came at a time when I was trying to change the shared service model we had in play as ultimately relying on outsourcing and offshoring to cut costs will only bring gain for a short period. I came back from the conference with my number two, intrigued and probably very annoyingly excited about the prospect of implementing RPA. My boss at the time was not a huge fan of the solution and of the opinion that it had been done before and hadn’t worked and while I knew this to be true in some areas, I challenged this perspective and decided to find out how to make it work and scalable. 

Defining success 
I spoke to circa 40 companies who had implemented / embedded RPA and created a checklist of their successes and failures to see what we would need to achieve in order to get it right first time. I was very lucky to have a Transformation Lead who was as passionate as I was about RPA and together we recruited a team to make this a success. 

I used past experience of other organisations to create a strategy, controls, strict governance – including sign off from internal audit, security and IT as well as ensuring the skill-sets needed to deliver and the different skills required to run RPA post-implementation after, which often gets forgotten about. Challenging the standard consultants model, I insisted on having the consultants come in and up-skill our team, thereby using the consultants as teachers to help train, up-skill and therefore ultimately retain our people.  

We also realised early on that it needed to be led by the business and not as an “IT project” as the business knows the pitfalls of each process – it has to be evolutionary. It was of vital importance that the IT team were there to provide the RPA platform and to support the business at every step of the way.  A further lesson we learnt was the creation of a register of your bots and what process/ systems they tap into both upstream and downstream, this enables you to manage future change. We picked up quite quickly on the fact that people do not often do this.

Avoiding failure
The Bank of Ireland was quite an inspirational success story as they had really got it right with an emphasis on governance.  Many organisations commented that they had struggled with buy in and ultimately implementation when running the programme centrally – the creation of spoke and wheel implementation plan along with strict governance proved a better model. The discussions challenged policy to the next level – for example, an interesting piece of insight was defining when you retire a robot? How many business actually think this far forward when going through RPA implementation. The end-end life-cycle needs to be thought about not just the implementation, how are you going to manage change? 

Creating a taskforce 
One achievement I’m very proud of is the introduction of the Finance Apprentice scheme in the SSC at BT, we hired a number of school leavers and looked to bring in second-time trainees who formed an interesting and vibrant team. We thought about the full life-cycle of the apprentice and I was determined to set up a programme as opposed to an intake. To aid the retention of these employees we created internal mobility programmes, RPA skills remain tricky to find in the marketplace and these skills are key to sustaining peak performance. 

By establishing and maintaining good people in the SSC and implementing effective RPA to free up employee time, it allows the team to be generous with their time to develop others and therefore in a constant state of continuous improvement; I’ve always encouraged questions and challenge - I’m a firm believer that if you ask for help, people always will.

Presenting your findings
Robotics needs a strategy. They can be used as a sticking plaster; however, you lose the knowledge of your processes and any ongoing change will cost significantly more.  I don’t believe they should be used to paper over the cracks nor can they be implemented as an emotive reaction because it is perceived to be right thing to do. Robotics are currently the main disrupter in the Finance Transformation space, you need to use solution correctly.

When I first found out about RPA, I was really intrigued by the technology and kept questioning why people weren’t investing in Robotic Process Automation and for those who were, it seemed as though RPA’s poor reputation was either the result of poor strategy or it was simply not utilising the RPA solution to its full efficiency.

People think of bots as a silver bullet, you put a robot in and take an FTE out but actually it’s a state of operation, and you should think of it as having a virtual team that requires management by people. 

One recurring question asked of me is the impact on the team i.e. “Shared Service is yet again cutting heads – will this be the end of accountants?" The last big change in the finance world was the change from paper ledgers to  the spreadsheet  - the end result has been more accountants with better information on a more timely basis. While it hadn’t been introduced on the right foot, I knew it had potential to change industry as we knew it.

Changing paths
In 2007, when I got into transformation, it was all about shared service centres, cutting costs and offshoring – captives were not even thought of then as the bottom-line benefits were so large. However, with hindsight this move highlighted that it’s not always about costs. When you outsource, it tends to impact the data quality and therefore your NPS, SLAs and decision-making. Whether its Eastern Europe, India or South America, location can also play an impact due to the proximity of the business. BT made the decision to move to Captive set-up to help curb the above and improve quality. 

There are three basic rules of what to outsource and what not to which can now be applied to robotics:

1. If the work requires business knowledge, do not outsource or automate it
2. If the work includes decisions that could create a risk for the company, do not do it
3. If the work requires specialist knowledge keep it in house.  

In effect these rules create a line between work that can be offshored, outsourced or automated and that which cant.  Where that line is crossed it is likely to lead to, heavy FTE churn, skill and quality reduction, increased data security risks, increased costs of change and a bad reputation for shared service centres. This line is not set in stone, again a managed and controlled approach is best – first simplify the work, the eliminate unnecessary work, then standardise and finally automate.   BPO relationships can become challenging as often too much is moved, the same can be said with captive, for robotics when you don’t have the right strategy you are increasing your risk of going too far. We should use experience to prevent this from happening again.I’m not particularly keen of an outsourcer running your RPA on an ongoing basis because it can mean that they   own the Intellectual property rights which is effectively your team, processes and ability to change which is a tricky situation to reverse from.  

Adapting your leadership style
I’m very people orientated and I believe you need to be when operating in shared service, transformation and RPA.  This spans far beyond the workplace too I give the same advice to my teenage daughters, I give the same advice, do not go into a career that can be automated invest your time in something new e.g. robotics is a vibrant and growing sector. Most people like their comfort zone and mistake repetitive work as their comfort zone, it becomes dull and that’s when mistakes creep in. Push yourself out of your comfort zone and you increase the reward and you now have a new comfort zone. RPA allows for greater job satisfaction, creativity and excitement. 

I was taught by someone who worked for me the importance of understanding why each person comes to work – their reasons are different and if you can help match their reasons to work you will have a happy and effective team. 

I also believe in strengths-based leadership – we all have things we are better at and some we are not so good at.  Strengths based leadership ignores perceived “weaknesses” and develops strengths.  This also aligns with the theory of an incomplete leader – which in my mind fosters great teamwork. I’ve never surrounded myself with “mini-Me’s” as I know I’m not perfect!!  I believe in recognising where your strengths and weaknesses are and creating a team to include all skills.  I also prefer to have a team of people I admire – a team where everyone’s views and advice is key to making change successful.  

Accepting and driving change is key to moving forward, when teams appreciate that controlled change is a necessity, standing still is what catches organisations out. The earlier in a career someone appreciates that change is a necessity, the more doors open and options become available to them.  

Advice to others
Change - don’t underestimate it, to succeed you can only do so much change at once. Look at ensuring strong controls, governance and learn from the experience of others. RPA requires investment in the team and expertise – don’t underestimate or rush into it. Invaluable is to bring the business with you – make sure that the first robot is 100% accurate 100% of the time. It’s also best to start in a simple, low risk process - reconciliation are ripe for robotics. Implemented well robotics is the future of shared service. 

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