British Land’s robotic automation process


In this episode, we are joined by Sally Cowan, Senior Tax Manager at British Land to discuss the designing, implementing and running of a robotic automation process for the submission for British Lands tax computations.



Smith & Williamson worked very closely with British Land this time last year designing, implementing and running a robotic automation process for the submission of approximately 240 of British lands tax computations. Sally Cowan at British Land led this project so I thought it'd be really helpful to hear Sally's views on the process on what went well, where we added value and of course, what we can do better this year.

Q: How did you find the process from the initial design phase through to the submission?

A: It all worked very well, but the main thing being that we achieved the result we needed to get all the returns submitted before Christmas 2019. We found ourselves around this time last year with many returns to submit and not that much resource. We looked at several possible solutions, the obvious one was potentially to get a temp in. However, decided if we looked at robotics, that would give us a more long-term solution that we could use in future years - not only reduce the stress for getting the filing done last year, but also this year.

The process as run by Smith & Williamson’s team was great from the kick-off meeting, making sure we were all very clear what we needed to do up front and then taking most of the pain away from us and just keeping us up to date. Once the submissions process was set up; it was incredibly quick and very efficiently done.

Q: I know it was quite a tight turnaround because you had a deadline of Christmas to get this comp submitted. As you, said the designing the process took a couple of weeks. I know obviously these types of projects can take an awful lot of your time and in the end you're not sure that you’re saving and being any more efficient because you've spent so much time upfront. So how did you feel about that and how did you find the process?

A: The process was very good, it was because we had such a well-focused kick-off meeting which the Smith & Williamson team had a good agenda for. Making sure we had literally everybody that was involved came to us so we could walk them through what we were doing now. They could see exactly what they needed to get the robot to do, then were very clear about what they wanted from British Land. The people that were doing the submission at the time, knew exactly what they needed to send over. We already had some process notes which Smith & Williamson helped us produce, that we gave to the team. But also, the people that have been doing the submission process did a series of screenshots onto a word document and passed that over. Because it was so well set out, we only needed to do everything once. There were no real comebackers wanting more and more which I think is where the disruption normally comes in. As we didn't have any of that coming back to us, we weren’t using a lot of our time. It was probably the more junior people that they were quite happy to deal directly with, which I think worked rather well. Especially focusing on who was doing what and what we needed to give them.

Q: I’m really pleased to hear that. I know that we spent a lot of time investing to making sure that we didn't have to disrupt you too much and make sure that we customized the process to work around the British land system that you already have up and running. I think the stats are very impressive - within the first four days of it up and running, 72% of the work had been processed which would have taken probably two weeks. We had estimated one Saturday before Christmas, 72 returns were submitted; which just shows how efficient the robot can be, saving you and your team a lot of time. One of the bonuses that came out of it from our side was helping you cleanse your data to make sure things matched and in the right places. Were there any other key things that you felt that were added bonuses that came out of the process that you weren't expecting?

A: The very good thing that came out of it which in a way I hoped would happen, was we have a control sheet we use which is excel which the robot was having to go into way to see which returns needed to submit. When it had finished the process of submitting through our tax computation software, the robot came back out and updated that spreadsheet which was great. If it put in that the return had been submitted and also the time and date of submission which was useful to have, so we could see which ones have been submitted when. But that meant that when I came in after the weekend, when a lot had been submitted, I could just go straight into that excel spreadsheet and see how many returns have been submitted. The stats and the percentages which I could pass those on instantly to our head of tax and group financial controllers so they were both kept up to date. Having that updated process done by the robot was useful. I must say, I do remember that Saturday when all the returns were submitted, I was out Christmas shopping. Getting a string of emails saying returns were being submitted was a lovely feeling as I wasn't in the office, nor was anybody else and yet all this work was being done while we were all enjoying our weekend. The fact that most of this was done at weekends and overnight, it didn't disrupt anything we were doing, we could still access control sheets make sure we marked things up for submission. When we came in the next morning, we would have everything up to date with all the stats of what we had done – that was an added bonus.

Q: I like that you thought of your Christmas shopping, if only we're able to go Christmas shopping this year. We all felt that it was a good process and we felt that it was a success. There were a few exceptions that came out of the reports which were more just technical glitches or a couple of issues here and there. How do you feel that we dealt with those, because obviously we wanted to make sure that if something hadn't been submitted we were on the case pretty much immediately understanding what had gone wrong? Whether there was something with the robot that it wasn't picking up or whether it was something that you we had to discuss with you to make sure it was correct. Did you feel that we did those on a timely basis, that they were weren't too onerous from your perspective, how did you feel that went?

A: That was very good as well and again it was like the kick-off process, in that people would come back to us. Once we'd worked through the first few, generally the only errors were either; there was still some slight glitches, normally in the way the accounts have been saved, the name wasn't identical to that on the control sheet and in the tax system. Which meant somebody in our end needed to go in and tweak the naming of the file or there, or there as an issue with the iXBRL accounts. The Smith & Williamson team were very good at passing back exactly what had come up as the error, which meant we could quite quickly spot what needed tweaking in our iXBRL production process. We would generally then just test check our end before the new iXBRL were updated. Again, it was very good in that although I was copied in on most of those emails , I was aware there were a few issues, but I could see they were being resolved by the replies directed to the people that produced the iXBRL account. So it wasn't as if they came to me and I then needed to pass them on.

It was one of the best things in the Smith & Williamson team that worked very well with our team at all levels. People were not always coming back by me as sort of being the person in charge, they were empowered to go to our people that were doing the work on the ground. Particularly the accountants doing the iXBRL accounts when there were issues with those.

Q: That's really good to hear Sally, I’m glad that it worked well. It's really nice to hear that the teams worked well together because that's obviously what we want to do, we want to be seen as working in partnership with you and always becoming kind of part of your team.
The final bit that I wanted to ask is and maybe the dreaded question, what do you think we can do better this year to make it better from your side, more efficient from ours? Do you think are there any lessons learned that we should be picking up on for this year's process?

A: The one of the main issues we have this year is actually the COVID impact has meant it's delayed all our accounts productions by about three months. This means we're going to be starting much later, we probably won't be submitting any returns until January. If we had not had last year, I would be sitting here incredibly stressed about the fact we were starting three months later than normal in doing any return submissions. Because I know it worked so well last year, that is the part of the process I have the least stress about. Knowing I can get all the returns submitted in a few days, I don't have to build in lots of contingency for that.
In this situation we're in now, I'm not looking to do extra things, it's just the fact that has reduced the stress that we otherwise have by all the delays. The other thing that's worked better this year is the fact that we needed to have KYC done on all the companies that returned for data submitted for, we did that much earlier this year. We knew that had taken a while last time, so we agreed the list way back in the summer this year. Whereas last year we were running up to the project, nearly being ready but the KYC not being quite finished. This year having done all the KYC much earlier has worked much better, it means it's not trying to obstruct the process at all, it's all been done months ahead of anything else needing to be done.

Q: I remember that Sally, it was painful wasn't it, but we did get there in the end with this with the help of our onboarding team. I'm also really pleased that it's reduced your stress levels because given we've got COVID, there's enough stress that everyone's under at the moment. We will still be able to get them filed in time for the March year end so that's really reassuring to hear. There wasn't anything else that I had to ask, is there anything else that you wanted to say in respect of how it went, all the benefits of the process?

A: The one thing I'd say to anyone else trying to do the same sort of thing is; start simple. We had probably about 300 returns that needed submitting. We realized fairly early on that there were about 40 that were sort of had little quirks, they were either partnerships or needed attachments because they have capital allowance reports. But the bulk of them were all the same and simple. We decided that particularly given we were up against a deadline, we would go for getting all the simple ones done and we would manually file the other 40.
We decided this as it would take so much longer and we run the risk of getting nothing filed by the time limit, especially if we try to do all the extra ones with the little quirks to them.
That's paid dividends and in fact we've decided it's probably not cost effective trying to get those few added into the process, it will take so much more extra work by your
team to get it done. Start with the low-hanging fruit it, does pay dividends. We did run the risk of not meeting the deadline if we try to go with absolutely everything. So start but with the simple ones and you can then decide whether you want to build more into the process or decide to leave it as it is.


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This episode was recorded on 05/11/2020

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Podcast information:

The Pulse from Smith & Williamson

British Land’s robotic automation process

Episode 2

Broadcast on Smith & Williamson at 09:00, 13th of NOVEMBER 2020

Available online from 10:00 on the same day .

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