Is Your A/P Clerk a Knowledge Worker?

Knowledge workers. The hype is everywhere, from Microsoft commercials to Gartner reports. This is the age of the knowledge worker. Just what does that mean? How has the job of the typical Accounts Payable clerk been transformed?

Let’s take a little trip back in time to a retail operation I audited early in my career. Their accounts payable department took up one half of a floor in a small office building. The women (yes, they were all women and one of them actually tried to match me up with that nice young single credit manager) had large manual calculators called comptometers on their desks. Every day they would take the invoices received from the retail outlets for products received and check the calculations and the tax. They would then create batches of fifty invoices, attach an adding machine tape and send the stack off to the data entry department to be entered into the computer by another group.

Fast forward twenty years to that same department. There are far fewer accounts payable clerks and the data entry department is long gone. The clerks enter the invoices directly into the computer which does all the calculations so they can just check that the total on the invoice is correct. The system also compares the pricing back to the company’s purchase order, another step that used to be handled manually. Have we reached the knowledge worker stage yet? Not quite.

Fast forward to now. There is about the same number of people in accounts payable, but they are handling a lot more transactions because the company has grown. There is no data entry because supplier invoices come into the system automatically via electronic data interchange (EDI). When accounts payable staff sit down at their workstations they see an icon to tell them how many documents are waiting for approval. As they open each document, information about the supplier pops up in a fact window. They can see statistics about the volume of transactions as well as being able to examine past transactions. If they see a large number of returns or problems with documentation, they are in a position to recommend that the supplier relationship be reviewed.

When I asked a Microsoft employee about their view of the typical accounting system user, his response was immediate, “Everyone sees the KPI’s” (key performance indicators – i.e. the statistical analysis which measures progress). In this world everyone is a decision maker. Everyone is responsible for their goals. It isn’t enough to just show up and put in your eight hours. Everyone is a manager of something.

Is that how you view your accounting staff? The more I think about it, the more I think that is the way to go. Things happen too quickly for all the decision making to climb up the chain of command. Besides, who has the time anyway? You just have to make sure that the internal processes and systems stay in synch. It’s pointless to make all kinds of information available to someone who is not in a position to make any decisions. It just clutters the screen. Conversely, it’s pointless to make people responsible for outcomes without giving them the information they need.

Does your company employ accounting clerks or knowledge workers? Please leave me a comment.

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