How Disney is Winning at Accounts Payable Automation

How Disney is Winning at Accounts Payable Automation

On a long train ride from Manhattan to Los Angeles in 1928, a young man with a drawing pad was down on his luck. What seemed a promising opportunity to debut a career-making animated character had dissolved in a disagreement with the film studio, resulting in the artist's loss of rights to his cartoon.

The young artist feared that this might be a career-ending setback. He had a short time for creating a new animated character, or the year would end in defeat.

And in that threshold of unexpected disappointment—a new star was born. 1928 was the year the world met Mickey Mouse.

Mickey Mouse is an international icon of the "Happiest Place on Earth," but at one time was just a dream in the mind of a young illustrator named Walt Disney. Mickey Mouse represents what it means when some of the best creative minds innovate in the face of setbacks.

Disney's spirit of innovation is not only a hallmark of its animations, but also its award-winning company culture.

Disney's Shared Services division carried their founder's torch when faced with a formidable obstacle—a mountain of paperwork. Paper-bound methods in accounts payable weren't doing the trick for Disney, and so the company found a way to subvert the norm and find a new approach to paying vendors in its Shared Services department. Disney wanted a smarter way of doing things—one that represented its ethos as a leader of innovation and creative solutions.

Innovation as a culture

Disney Worldwide Shared Services won The Institute of Financial Operations Huntington Innovation Award in 2012 for changing how things are done in accounts payable through automation.

According to Accounts Payable Manager Matt Hierholzer: "[Innovation] has changed us from being more transactional to being an analytical, value-added service provider."

When AP becomes more than just paying the bills, culture is shaped and employees understand the value of their efforts on a much larger scale. Disney's award-winning AP culture is recapped in a quote from this video by the Institute of Financial Operations:

"While Disney was already considered highly efficient in AP operations, it knew that eliminating the remaining 8 percent of paper invoices would further support its continuous improvement goals."

More than just paying the bills

With global theme parks like Disney realizing success with accounts payable automation, it's clear that paper is a source holding companies back from cutting-edge or otherwise innovative solutions. Disney has achieved award-winning excellence in AP by setting continuous goals and implementing three kinds of automation:

  • E-invoicing
  • Electronic Data Interchange (EDI)
  • Intelligent Data Capture

Disney uses a solution for intelligent data capture formerly called Brainware ( rebranded “Perceptive Intelligent Capture, powered by Brainware.") Perceptive Intelligent Capture integrates with Disney's existing e-invoicing strategy to tackle tasks as big as converting the remaining 500,000 invoices that still required keying and manual matching in Disney's AP department. With the collaboration of this enterprise application, Disney was able to reach many milestones and enjoy the benefit of a (virtually) paperless back office.

Reducing manual effort in invoice processing was a driver for Disney's completion of AP front end automation. By allowing vendors to submit invoices via email using PDF attachments, it eliminated most of the paper invoices, statements, and memos that were landing in Disney's accounts payable department.

Setting continuous goals—such as removing the remaining 8 percent of paper invoices—allowed Disney to reach its ultimate goal: a 100 percent paperless green standard for the overall AP process.

Space for great ideas to bloom

By freeing up time for higher-order tasks that are more meaningful to the organization, Disney provided a rewarding mission to its employees. Learning how to better serve both vendors and customers led to a marked increase in Disney's customer satisfaction scores.

Through automation, Disney has given vendors visibility into their invoice or approved payment status, which has directly helped reduce call volume in customer service by 42 percent. Overall customer service has received a 96 percent favorable score by customers in the first 18 months after implementing automation.

Andre Hale, Director of Disney Worldwide Shared Services Accounts Payable, shares the reason for these positive improvements:

“Within the Walt Disney Company, innovation is who we are, it's a part of our product, it's a part of our brand, and it's something that we're very, very proud of. That transcends to what we do here within shared services and accounts payable."

Innovation is Disney's central value and the reason it pursues every goal. But a small company without the budget of a global entertainment conglomerate might be wondering: How can I pursue this innovation for my AP team?

How small companies can emulate the big value of going paperless

Accounts payable automation is coming to companies of all shapes and sizes. The first step for any business, large or small, is embracing the opportunity to stay competitive. Most businesses are looking for ways to move faster and at less cost than their competitors. People are waking up to the value of going paperless in accounts payable, but the chance to lead your competitors in this area won't last long. You could reduce your AP costs by as much as 75 percent by moving to an electronic payments solution.

You don't need to be a Fortune 500 company with a huge shared services department to justify updating your current workflow. Many cloud-based solutions will custom fit to your needs by helping you pay as few or as many vendors as you need electronically, so there's little reason to wait.

Thinking differently = industry recognition

It has been said: "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." The irony is that many businesses operate this way, especially when relying on legacy technology for too long. Printing and sending paper checks and "the way it's always been" is hostile to the improvements your back office can achieve through automation.

With every process improvement, there's always a small chance it won't work out. But the risk not taken is the biggest gamble of all. Walt Disney knew this somehow, that fateful day he sat on the train, sketching the early drawings of Mickey Mouse.

One of Walt Disney's best-loved quotes is this one: "I only hope that we don't lose sight of one thing — that it was all started by a mouse."

Spend some time reflecting on your company's most central values. Disney's animators, producers, and AP personnel alike have carried the torch of innovation as an example of industry-leading excellence.

Learn from an AP department that's on the forward edge of technology and see how automating your back office could have leading impact on how your company is viewed by competitors. The industry is moving away from manual, labor-intensive tasks and toward seamless automation. How can you create innovative solutions in your AP department?

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