How the World can Meet the Post COVID-19 Automation Challenge

Christiaan Van Der Valk
March 10, 2021

It’s good to see light at the end of the tunnel. Nonetheless, it’s too little, too late for many smaller – but also plenty of larger – companies. Thousands couldn’t weather the storm because they were particularly dependent on human contact. Others were affected disproportionally simply because COVID-19 hit them just as they traversed a difficult period in their life cycle. As we see the first successes of anti-COVID-19 vaccines, businesses and markets are gaining confidence that by the last quarter of 2021, countries will be back at a new cruising speed. With a few notable exceptions, many of the world’s strongest economies will take years to recover from the aftermath.

Internet to the rescue – but flaws remain

As with all crises, the past year has accentuated weaknesses and accelerated failures. Whilst it must be acknowledged that the COVID-19 crisis would have been far worse without the internet and the current state of technology adoption worldwide, remaining pockets of legacy processes where companies were lagging in their digital transformation have become highlighted as employees struggled to balance health concerns with the imperative to keep things running in deserted offices and data centers.

One area where inefficiencies have been exposed is on-premises software. Many companies have started adopting cloud-based software to support different categories of workflows and connections with trading partners; however, many larger companies have been reluctant to move core enterprise systems – such as ERPs, logistics or reservation systems – to the cloud. The reason behind this reluctance is often that legacy systems have been highly customized. Whilst many enterprise software vendors offer public-cloud versions that present many benefits over on-premises deployment in theory, the practical challenges of adapting organizations and processes to ‘canned’ workflows designed around standard best practices have often outweighed them.

Another set of challenges are more intricate. Manual processes still dominate in order and invoice management across companies of all sizes globally. Where workflow software allows accounting personnel to access the system remotely, approvals and postings could be managed from home offices, but the prevalence of paper in many vendor and customer relationships still required people to manage scanning, printing, and mailing or – yes – faxing key documents from offices with limited access.

These problems will be harder to overcome, as expensive industrial-strength machines for the processing of paper documents cannot easily be put in home offices. The answer to this challenge doesn’t lie in creative ways to convert people’s kitchens into scan or print centers, but in finally taking the big leap towards end-to-end data integration.

The good, the bad and the ugly of tax as an automation driver

Interestingly, if COVID-19 isn’t enough of a reason to take that automation leap, businesses can expect a helping hand from tax administrations. Many countries had already started large-scale programs to push continuous transaction controls (CTCs). Such as mandatory real-time clearance of digital invoices. The current global health crisis is pushing tax administrations to accelerate these programs. We have seen announcements of plans towards such compulsory e-invoicing or digital reporting of accounting data in countries like France, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. In addition to several countries including Poland and Slovakia who stated their intent to follow in the footsteps of countries in Latin America and also European frontrunners like Italy and Turkey. Even in Germany, which has long resisted the call of CTCs, a significant political party has proposed decisive action in this direction.

These initiatives are still often motivated by the need to close tax gaps. However the need for resilience in revenue collection is clearly another driver. Also, examples from countries like Brazil have shown that CTCs massively improve governments’ ability to track and monitor the economic effects of a crisis down to the smallest sectoral detail. This gives them granular data that can be used for surgical fiscal policy intervention to guide the most severely affected activities through a crisis.

With all circumstances conspiring to give businesses a reason to get across that last mile towards full automation – the interface between their and their trading partners’ sales and purchasing operations – you would think that companies are now putting plans in place to get ready for a fully digital, much more resilient set of processes and organizational structures.

Unfortunately, the way that CTC mandates get rolled out and the way that companies respond to them have historically rather slowed down investment in business process automation and the adoption of modern cloud-based enterprise software.

CTC mandates are unbelievably diverse, ranging from a full online second set of accounting books to be maintained through – among other things – additional classification of supplies in the government-hosted system in Greece, to a completely different setup including service providers and transaction payment reporting being designed in France. Representatives from China are talking about blockchain-based invoicing controls, whilst countries like Poland and Saudi Arabia prepare for centralized, government-run invoice exchange networks. Mandate deadlines tend to be too short, and tax administrations make countless structural adjustments – each typically also with short deadlines and only available in local language – during implementation periods and for years thereafter.

Tax administrations could however claim with some legitimacy that deadlines are always too short, almost regardless of how much transition time taxpayers are granted, because many businesses structurally prepare too late. The global trend towards CTCs, SAF-T and similar mandates has been apparent to companies for years, yet many are ill-prepared; particularly many multinational businesses continue to consider that VAT compliance is a matter to be resolved by local subsidiaries, which step by step creates a massive web of localized procedures which rather than corresponding to corporate best practices were designed by tax administration offices.

Creating a virtuous circle towards tax automation during Covid-19

Which brings us back to why companies aren’t adopting flashy new releases of enterprise software packages in public cloud mode. Or further automating their trading partner exchanges, more quickly. All parties in this equation want the same thing. That is seamless and secure sharing of relevant data among businesses, and between businesses and tax administrations. However kneejerk reactions to regulatory mandates by businesses, and lack of tax administrations’ familiarity with modern enterprise systems, are creating the opposite effect. Companies panic-fix local mandates without a sufficient understanding of the impact of their decisions. Neither on their future ability to innovate and standardize. The enterprise resources come first to put systems in place post-haste. They then manage the problems stemming from adopting a patchwork of local tax-driven financial and physical supply chain data integration approaches. This comes from IT budgets that then don’t get spent on proper automation.

Several things can break this vicious circle. Businesses should change their way of addressing these VAT digitization changes as revolutionary rather than evolutionary. By being well informed and well prepared, it is possible to adopt a strategic approach to take advantage of CTC mandates rather than suffer from them. Tax administrations must do their part by adopting existing good practices in designing, implementing, and operating digital platforms for mandatory business data interchange purposes. The ICC CTC Principles are an excellent way to give the world economy that much-needed immunity boost, allowing businesses and governments to improve resilience while freeing up resources locked up in inefficient manual business and tax compliance processes.

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To find out more about what we believe the future holds, download VAT Trends: Toward Continuous Transaction Controls and follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter to keep up-to-date with regulatory news and other updates.

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Christiaan Van Der Valk

Christiaan Van Der Valk is vice president, strategy. Elected a World Economic Forum Global Leader for Tomorrow in 2000, Christiaan is an internationally recognized voice on e-business strategy, law, policy, best practice and commercial issues. Formerly co-founder and president of Trustweaver (acquired by Sovos), Christiaan also holds long-standing leadership roles at the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) and the European E-invoicing Service Providers Association (EESPA). Over the past 20 years, he has presented at and authored key papers for international meetings at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the Asia Europe Meeting, World Trade Organization and several other UN agencies. Christiaan earned his Master of Laws degree from Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam.
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