Artificial Intelligence (AI) is changing the way accountants work – but does it threaten the industry as we know it?
Recent statistics give real pause for thought, with PwC reckoning that in the UK, robots could take some 30% of jobs over the next few decades. But these figures are potentially misleading – and unhelpful for skilled roles such as accounting and bookkeeping.
“The key is to embrace the technology – and help the business owner to run their business more efficiently,” says Paul Donno, Director, Accounts Online Ltd. For Donno, fears of advanced technology are nothing new and it’s up to the individual firm to decide how they’re going to progress. “Twenty years ago, when computerised software first appeared, the concerns were the same,” he says. “You could pretend it wasn’t there and work in the same way if you chose to. But I felt the correct approach was to give people the power to run their businesses with that software.”
The ways in which AI can improve the business are numerous – cost savings, time reduction, easier number-crunching and greater accuracy are the most obvious. But how does it impact on your day-to-day activities with clients? “I think that getting AI right is key here,” says Lucy Cohen, Commercial Director at Mazuma GB. “It won’t replace that relationship with your clients, but it will help you provide a better service. We use it for automating administrative tasks and creating workflows for quality control.”
Brave new world
“There’s some really advanced stuff out there,” Donno says, “and the trick is to apply it to the particular needs of your client. For example, we recently took on a large client who has a lot of invoices from a particular supplier and processing all this is a headache for them. We’re using Receipt Bank,” – a piece of software that integrates with other existing cloud providers – “and it instantly removes a huge amount of the work.”
Do these advances mean that in the future, accountants – and particularly bookkeepers – might be out of a job? “You need to adapt, certainly,” says Donno. “High volumes of mundane work can now be processed very quickly and accurately,” – and this does mean that entry-level jobs are now thinner on the ground than they used to be.
But there are two solutions here. The first is to see it as a rallying call to keep up-to-date with CPD; and the second is to widen the scope of the role. “AI is coming, and we need to get over it,” says Cohen. “I certainly think there are some data entry roles that will be predominantly replaced by AI in the not too distant future. Thankfully for accountants though,” she says, “tax is pretty complicated. And the interpretation of tax law in the correct way for each specific client is something that the robots won’t be able to do for a while yet!”
This last point is more significant than at first it might appear. Whilst in theory, AI can take over a huge amount of jobs, not every client is going to want to have to deal with the software themselves. There will be always be a place for accountants and bookkeepers – it simply isn’t in the DNA of many organisations and small businesses to handle everything themselves.
It won’t replace that relationship with your clients, but it will help you provide a better service
And for the future? “The processing of volume data is going to be a massive change,” says Donno; “we’re seeing that already. Currently we’re using Practice Ignition, which helps with proposals. The onboarding process that interacts with the software is phenomenal – there’s a lot of really good quality software that’s helping both us and the client.” How does it work in practice? “The software takes the proposal; it gives it to the client; then it goes over with our engagement letter; the client approves or amends it; this in turn sends the invoice to our accounting software; that goes straight to direct debit software to collect the money; whilst also allocating the job to a particular member of staff.” For Donno this is “an incredible bit of software.”
Meanwhile, Sage offers its PEGG chatbot. “Which really is like Star Trek!” Donno says. “You can talk to it about your accountancy software and it picks it up and runs with it. That, for me, is the start of true AI in the industry.”
Helping both the accountant and the client is the point here. AI is not going to put people out of a job – with caveats. “The impact for accountants is going to be to make sure that they keep ahead of the game,” Cohen says. “Don’t bury your head in the sand, but look at what would be right for your practice, your brand and the way you like to work.” As with all technology, Cohen says, “you probably don’t need all of it, or the most fancy version; but a little bit might just make your life easier!”
“The profession is not dying,” Donno says. “We just have some very powerful tools now to help us shine. If you don’t take that approach then yes – some practices won’t survive.” Increasingly, the trend now is that in many cases, accountants will move away from data and into roles as business and tax advisers. “Give the tools to the customer, and help them with their journey,” Donno concludes. “Even AI, however, needs a professional eye kept on it. If clients understand that, I believe that what we’re trained for will come to the fore.”
AI – the best approach
- AI is going to alter the landscape entirely. “Yes it will change things,” says Lucy Cohen, “but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. AI offers plenty of opportunities to improve processes and make things more efficient for clients.”
- AI will vastly reduce mistakes and inaccuracies. “It can potentially eliminate an element of human error which is always a good thing,” Cohen says.
- Embrace it – don’t fight it. “To me, it will enhance our lives,” says Donno. “There are some accountants who think it will negatively affect their jobs and income. I think it’s doing the opposite – but you have to have that positive approach.”
Mark Blayney Stuart is Business Journalist of the Year, Wales Media Awards 2017 and Former Head of Research at the Chartered Institute of Marketing.