British businesses commit to long-term investment in automation

13 November 2019

  • 87% of businesses have automated a key process in the last year
  • One in five (21%) CFOs view automation as their most important investment priority during the next five years
  • 9% of total company spend is dedicated to implementing automated processes like robotics and artificial intelligence
  • 21% say automation will create jobs

Britain’s Chief Financial Officers (CFOs) and Financial Directors (FDs) expect automation to be pivotal to their businesses and employees’ development in the coming year. 87% have automated a key business process during the last year and one in five (21%) CFOs view automation as their most important investment priority during the next five years. Two thirds of FTSE100 companies prioritised automation during last year.

In the first of a series of CFO surveys, BDO spoke to 200 CFOs and Financial Directors across Great Britain to understand how important automation is to their business. The report, New Economy: Investing in Automation, shows that 9% of their allocated budget is dedicated to automation. 

A third of businesses (31%) have already introduced artificial intelligence (AI) into their day-to-day operations, while a quarter of businesses (24%) make use of robotics. 

While automation has been a pivotal area of development for the manufacturing industry for some time, the professional services industry is also embracing its potential. 67% of CFOs in the professional services sector are considering or have already implemented AI.

While one in five (22%) finance heads support the view  that automation poses a threat to job security, a similar number (21%) believes more jobs will be created. They predict automation will provide new growth opportunities for businesses, requiring a larger number of workers to facilitate its development. 39% of finance heads have invested in further training to equip staff to make the most of automated processes and ensure productivity levels are high. 

Tony Spillett, Head of Technology & Media at BDO, comments: “Automation is already having a transformative impact on businesses up and down the country. How leaders approach it in the coming years will be crucial both for their own businesses as well as society more broadly. While some caution is required, particularly given the potential for physical and financial upheaval, all businesses, no matter their size, sector or structure, must come to terms with the role it will play in our future and explore the opportunities it can bring. 

“What’s clear is that many companies are only just getting started and are taking an open-minded approach. It’s important to recognize that investing in automation can provide not just greater capabilities for the business as a whole, but greater opportunities for employees – with expanding skillset and knowledge.”

Whilst investment in automation is happening across all regions and sectors in the UK, BDO uncovered certain trends:

  • In terms of optimism, leaders in Scotland and the Midlands are most positive about automation, with around 6 in 10 (61% and 56% respectively) seeing it as an opportunity, versus companies in the North West, where only a third do (35%). 
  • Scotland is the region that has the most number of CFOs ranking automation as the most important investment priority for the next year (17%). This is followed by London (13%) and Yorkshire (12%). 
  • The manufacturing sector has led the way in automation uptake with 93% of manufacturers having automated a key process in the last year, compared to a national average of 87%
  • However with regards to investment other sectors are catching up. Retailers and professional services firms are both investing 12% of company spend on automation compared with manufacturers, who are investing 9% of their total spend. 
  • However other sectors are catching-up, with 42% of retail CFO’s stating that automation is their most important investment opportunity over the next five years, compared with 34% of manufacturers. 


About the Survey 

For the inaugural Investing In… report, BDO commissioned YouGov to interview more than 200 Chief Financial Officers (CFOs) and Financial Directors (FDs) from small to large businesses across key regions in England and Scotland (North West, Yorkshire and the Humber, Midlands, London and South East and Scotland) in September 2019 to understand how they perceive, prioritise and invest in automation.

Automation can mean many things to many people. For the benefit of clarity, in this study it was defined as the method or system of operating or controlling a process by highly automatic means through the use of technology. This will likely involve introducing a new system which uses machines to either replace or support physical labour or non-highly automatic technology or to create new processes which were previously impossible before the advent of automation. For example, automated warehouse processes, creating an automated check in service at reception, automated customer service line, automated transcription services.
In addition, BDO used linguistic analysis software to determine whether FTSE 100 companies have mentioned automation in their annual reports, and if so, how it was described.

Note to editors

Accountancy and business advisory firm BDO LLP provides integrated advice and solutions to help businesses navigate a changing world. 

Our clients are Britain’s economic engine – ambitious, entrepreneurially-spirited and high-growth businesses that fuel the economy.  

We share our clients’ ambitions and their entrepreneurial mind-set. We have the right combination of global reach, integrity and expertise to help them succeed.  

BDO LLP operates in 17 locations across the UK, employing nearly 5,000 people offering tax, audit and assurance, and a range of advisory services. BDO LLP is the UK member firm of the BDO international network.

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Tom James, Joanna Clark 
Headland Consultancy 
[email protected]
020 3805 4822

Emma Ordidge
Senior PR Adviser BDO
+44(0)7812 380571 
[email protected]