The concept of artificial intelligence automatically conjures up images of robots, but it is sectors such as accountancy that may the ones to really feel its impact.
Drawing on data held in accounting systems and invoices, accountants should be able to make use of faster and more reliable analysis, freeing them up from more mundane activities and enabling them to offer a better, and more intelligence-based, service to clients.
“Having the right AI systems in place will be like having an army of interns working 24 hours a day at lightning speed, producing near-perfect results,” says Johnnie Ball, chief data scientist at Fluidly. “This is a massive opportunity for those that embrace it.”
How to benefit from AI
There are a number of ways in which accountants can use this to their advantage. Lee Owen, senior business director at Hays Accountancy & Finance, says AI is already automating processes, freeing up more time for accountants to spend directly with clients or internal stakeholders.
“AI is already able to automate time-consuming tasks such as data entry and reviewing documents manually – a typical example could be reviewing and processing an expense claim,” he says. “Accounting firms that take advantage of AI will be able to analyse significant amounts of data quicker, and deliver more analysis and insight to their clients when they require it.”
Removing some of the more time-consuming, process-driven and mundane tasks will not only reduce the chance of errors but also allow accountants to focus on high priority projects, says James Dening, VP at Automation Anywhere. “This type of work in return drives added value for the business, which is ultimately equal to organisational success,” he says.
For those working within in-house positions or bookkeepers, the use of AI should lead to greater efficiency in the accounts team. “Managers can have visibility on when invoices arrive, regardless of the format, and have them queued for immediate processing,” says Neil Murphy, VP of global business development at ABBYY.
“They can then also have more control over the approval cycle, with the intelligence of captured invoice data, and automatically direct invoices to the right approver. Moreover, managers can make better decisions with the use of graphical dashboards, providing practitioners with a real-time look at staff productivity, invoice status, the source of exceptions, accruals and liabilities, KPIs, enterprise spending and many other crucial metrics.”
Traditional firms will face greater competition from newer, tech-savvy organisations which are better able to meet the new requirements of clients
Be ready for the shift and changes to your role
Accountants, though, need to understand how the market is changing so they can prepare for the shift in their role and responsibilities. Being able to work with and understand data will be a vital part of the future accountant’s role, says Kirit Patel, regional managing director (UK & Europe) at technology implementation consultancy EOH.
“You might programme a digital accountant with rules that flag anomalies and respond to them in prescribed ways, but we can’t yet rely on machine learning to grapple with big and complex issues that affect business decisions,” he says. “AI can provide data back-up and make suggestions to help the human decision-maker, but it’s the human who ultimately has to decide what to recommend.”
This could mean acting as a safeguard against poor decisions made on the basis of AI alone. “While machines can crunch the numbers, people need to be in place to monitor activity and put the ‘human brakes’ on, particularly as self-learning systems begin to make higher level judgement calls,” says Adrian O’Connor, founding director of Global Accounting Network. “Candidates who display a high level of emotional intelligence – and can demonstrate how they have applied this successfully – are most likely to succeed alongside artificial intelligence.”
Such a focus on higher-value activity could see accountants moving into more prominent positions within businesses, whether as in-house professionals or trusted external partners. “Accountants will move from producing the forecasts via their own modelling techniques to contextualising AI-produced forecasts for their clients and providing strategic advice,” predicts Ball. “They will be able to become more engaged in the overall financial health of their clients, so the development of AI represents an opportunity for accountants who can capitalise on this. There will also be a bigger focus on client relationship building.”
More desire for human trust
There are implications here for the accountancy sector in general, as well as those who work within it. “With the evolved role, we can expect to see accountants gain a higher level of trust and responsibility,” says Damon Anderson, director of partner at Xero. “This could involve anything from being introduced to the board via non-executive positions or having more face-time with the decision-makers of a business.”
In time, accounting could move towards more of a business partner role in organisations, providing critical insight and business intelligence to help refine services and organisation outcomes, suggests Owen. “This will improve the perception of the role as a whole, as accountants will be able to provide support and analysis, becoming trusted advisers and adding value,” he says. “Furthermore, this will allow organisations to unlock untapped sources of revenue while optimising their cost base.”
Consequences of not accepting change
There are also threats, however, for businesses that fail to adapt to the new reality. Phil Douglas, managing director of Compleat Software, believes traditional firms will face greater competition from newer, tech-savvy organisations which are better able to meet the new requirements of clients and organisations through the use of AI.
“These businesses will be able to take a more hands-on, strategic approach with their clients, acting as business partners and advisors focusing on the analysis of financial data, not just the capturing of it,” he says. “Over the next five years, AI will continue to enhance the services that accountants can provide, benefit the relationships they can build with clients, and help build productive efficient businesses. Those that don’t adopt AI and automation risk extinction.”
Ball, meanwhile, suggests we’re now at a stage where the hype around AI is reaching a peak, but predicts we will start to see it impact the profession in the next few years. “The next year or two will be spent honing the commercial application of AI to accounting then products will begin to mature and become commonplace in all accounting practices,” he says.
“Within five years AI will be assisting accountants with much day-to-day analysis, forecasting and bookkeeping, freeing them up to focus on higher-value add activities.”
Nick Martindale is a freelance journalist, editor and copywriter. He regularly contributes to a wide range of national and business media, including The Telegraph, Raconteur supplements in The Times and HR magazine.