Will robots make accountants redundant?

A recent McKinsey study suggested that globally, between 400 and 800 million jobs are likely to be automated by 2030.

And if the job itself doesn’t disappear, wages will become “depressed to keep them competitive with robots and automated systems.” The developed world will suffer disproportionately more – “in places where labour is cheaper and tech is more expensive, jobs may be less vulnerable than in more developed markets,” the report reads. In the UK, the Institute for Public Policy Research believes that some 10 million jobs – a third of the total – are at risk from automation in the next twenty years.

Should you fear an AI takeover?

Not all jobs can be automated – but numbers are something computers are rather good at. So should accountants be fearful about the oncoming storm?

“The use of AI and machine learning is gathering pace, and over the next five years I think we’ll see more widespread use,” says Steve Collings, Director at Leavitt Walmsley Associates, a chartered accountancy practice in Manchester.

“Already, some of the larger practices are using AI for their audits – not just in terms of desk technology, but in using drones to carry out checks on inventories and stocks, as part of the audit process. So yes, it is going to increase.”

As well as being able to use AI for tasks that couldn’t previously automated, the use of AI is also changing the way accountants work. Less low-level number crunching frees up time for other activities; but should accountants be concerned about employability? What about bookkeeping, for example – does the rise of automation mean we are likely to be looking at redundancies, long-term?

“I don’t think so,” says Collings. “If the whole process could be automated then yes; but that’s not how it would work.” To take an existing technology as an example, “you can take a photo of a receipt and then the app can account for the receipt in the books. So that will change the way bookkeepers operate over the next few years, especially with Making Tax Digital on the immediate horizon.”

The traditional way of keeping books – manual cash books and purchase day books – definitely has its days numbered, Collings argues. “And people working in that bookkeeping environment will have to adapt to the change; it will come in whether they like it or not, and will be a huge shift. “

But significantly, this does not translate to robots replacing humans. “It shouldn’t be seen in a bad light. The more efficiently you can work, the better. The industry has been standing still for a long time and the key is to see these changes as opportunities – the question is how you embrace those opportunities and how you adapt the business to meet the changing landscape.”

It shouldn’t be seen in a bad light. The more efficiently you can work, the better

Disentangling the sci-fi

“Arguably, we are moving to a reduced-job economy,” says Emma Waddingham, Director at Emma Waddingham Consulting.

“Driverless cars, drones, and increased automation in all areas of society are all emerging. But in terms of job roles, it only reaches a certain level of employment – lower manual work, in effect.”

If the job has a personal element, or needs creative cognitive skills, it is unlikely to get replaced by a robot, however sophisticated those robots become.

“Secondly, whilst the technology is out there, the uptake by employers is still low. They want to see the benefits of the technology before they invest; so they’re dragging their feet for two reasons. The first is to see how it affects others and what the benefits are; and the second is to wait for costs to come down.”

What about the concern that as the technology advances, businesses will increasingly do their own accounts? Won’t that mean accountants will no longer be needed?

“Not everyone can be their own accountant,” says Collings, “just as they can’t be their own surveyor, solicitor or heart surgeon. The fact that technology has changed the way accountants work doesn’t mean they will be redundant. Accountants will still have to help clients deal with compliance, tax, legislation and standards.”

Arguably, there will never come a time when every business wants the added responsibility of doing their own books – particularly as regulatory changes and HMRC changes increase as time go on, rather than reduce. “Nor do I think you’ll see robots sitting in receptions,” Collings says. “You aren’t going to see robots giving tax advice to a client. I could be proved wrong of course – but I think there is a lot of scaremongering and fanciful imagination at work.”

Active responses

If accountants are concerned about what the future brings, focus on other differentiators: customer service being probably the best example. If there is a future reduction in the need for accountants, however small, the key will be to ensure that clients come to you instead of your competitors; and strong customer service is far and away the best way to achieve this.

Finally, what about the need for accountants to move away from traditional roles and evolve into business advisors? Again, Collings detects overkill.

“There’s much talk about the death of compliance work, for example. I don’t agree; I think there will always be a need for compliance work. You still have to produce accounts in a set format; certain disclosures are needed; and these things can only be done by humans.” A robot is “not up to creating a set of financial statements for a PLC yet,” Collings smiles.

“Yes, the role of the accountant is changing. Yes, you can (if you are so inclined) do your VAT return as you walk round the supermarket. But there will always be tax, legislation and standards to comply with.”

Ultimately, the technology will help companies do things more quickly; but we don’t need to fear the rise of the Cybermen too much. At least – not yet.

Mark Blayney Stuart is Business Journalist of the Year, Wales Media Awards 2017 and Former Head of Research at the Chartered Institute of Marketing.

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