With artificial intelligence (AI) set to be an accountancy game-changer, many firms are still unsure about embracing it, citing high costs and lack of knowledge.
However, introducing it to your workplace could be much easier than you think. In the second of our AI series, we outline how automation could benefit your business, along with the easiest ways of installing it…
Already a huge part of accountancy
Think of artificial intelligence (AI) and you’ll probably conjure visions of driver-less cars, eerie ‘social robot’ Sophia or algorithms going berserk. Yet, it’s already playing a seismic role in accountancy. As we explored in our previous AI article, accountants are now using AI in everything from preparing tax returns to identifying fraud.
With AI accelerating at such breakneck speeds, its easy to feel daunted, especially given its exorbitant cost and concerns that the technology could be obsolete within a few years.
Whether it’s increasing staff productivity or creating more accurate audits – could be too good to miss out on. Indeed, recent McKinsey research has shown British companies that fail to adopt AI are at risk of losing 20 per cent of their cashflow.
Meanwhile, those firms that invest in AI could grow in value by as much as 120 per cent. AI needn’t be expensive or complicated either; some AI platforms can be easily integrated into your existing software.
But where do you start? What’s the best way to upskill your workforce? Do you need to radically overhaul your business model? And should you bother investing in AI in the first place? These questions, and more, will be answered below…
Before introducing AI into your practice, it’s worth taking a quick glance at its advantages first…
Your staff won’t be spending hours on boring, routine tasks
Cast your mind back to last January. Like many accountants during tax-return season, you were probably hit by a never-ending volley of bank statements, indecipherable invoices and annoying last-minute client requests. Now, imagine how painless this process would be if machines were doing all the dirty-work for you.
“By taking away the more mundane aspects of the job, such as data entry and coding corrections, accountants can focus their efforts on the advisory aspect of the role,” says Mike Day, director, UK education sector at Xero.
“You can devote your time and expertise to advising clients on the best course of action for their business. Advisory services can distinguish your firm from the competition and provide more value to clients, meaning greater revenue for you.”
AI makes accounting more accurate
AI can carry out tasks more accurately than humans ever could. Such is AI’s wizardry, it can transfer data across systems automatically, rather than having one employee painstakingly copy-and-paste cells from spreadsheets.
If you’ve ever had to make a red-faced apology to clients after an admin assistant has accidentally inputted the wrong data, you’ll realise how valuable this can be.
AI analytics is useful for your clients
“Data is the new oil.” So says nearly everybody who works in the digital world. Why? Thanks to AI being able to crunch huge volumes of data, it can generate all manner of valuable insights.
In accountancy, this data is extremely helpful for forecasting new business paths; something your clients will appreciate before undertaking make-or-break financial transactions such as IPOs, mergers/acquisitions, borrowing money or restructuring.
It’s a fantastic fraud-preventive measure
The data analytics of AI can also detect any anomalies or unexplained mysteries in a company’s accounts. There’s some sophisticated software out there: PwC has developed its own AI bot called GL.ai which ‘X-rays’ a business, analysing billions of data points in milliseconds to detect any abnormalities in its general ledger.
Your company can provide customer support 24/7
Thanks to today’s on-demand culture, consumers expect businesses to be available round-the-clock. Whether it’s Sunday afternoon or 3am on Tuesday, AI chatbots answer customer questions and deal with their queries.
But unlike harassed human staff, chatbots never lose their patience.
It can also help your company grow…
AI-powered software isn’t just there to benefit your clients: it’ll also boost your business too. According to Accenture’s 2018 Reworking the Revolution report, if businesses invest in AI at the same rate as top-performing companies, by 2022 they could increase revenues by 38 per cent.
By incorporating AI into your own internal applications, invoices and expenses will run much more smoothly too.
A step-by-step guide for adopting AI into your business
Tips for integrating AI into your business…
1) Think about why your business might need AI
Before you start splashing out on the first impressive AI tech you latch eyes upon, it’s worth mulling whether your business actually needs it in the first place.
- Start by identifying any problems AI could solve within your firm.
- Do you want AI to help reduce your organisational tasks and admin
- Or do you want analytics to deliver intelligent insights on behalf of your clients?
- Maybe you just want AI to handle customer requests and drive engagement?
Once you’ve decided upon your company’s needs, it’s time to consider the logistics.
- How easy would it be to implement AI within your firm?
- How would staff engage with it?
- Would they need training?
- If AI can save 20 hours of labour a week, how would you use this time to grow the business instead?
When most accountancy firms first adopt AI, they usually begin with some form of robotic process automation (RPA) before progressing to analytics software later.
RPA (which automates repetitive tasks such as data inputting and preparing tax returns) tends to be popular as it’s cheaper, and can also be integrated into existing software such as Xero and Sage.
2). Choosing the right software
Factors to consider include cost and what kind of ROI the automation might bring. Researching and taking time to familiarise yourself with AI is crucial. Take advice from external AI consultants or check out the below free courses/resources.
3). Consider storage and security issues
Systems that process AI need to be lightning-quick. Before making any software investments, check whether your company has the right storage requirements and bandwidth to host it.
In an age of increased cybersecurity threats, you should also consider safeguards such as encryption and virtual private networks (VPN). If you have anti-malware applications, will they be big enough to handle the vast volumes of data your company will be processing?
4). Start small – small is beautiful
AI can be a costly investment. Rather than drastically overhauling every piece of tech in your entire workplace (“Our office toilets need to be AI-powered!”), try selecting small areas of your business that AI could benefit (for example, collecting data from spreadsheets via RPA). After a few months, assess what value it’s brought, before rolling it out in small, incremental steps to the rest of the enterprise.
5). Getting staff on board
Announce to your staff that you’re thinking of introducing AI, and there’ll be inevitable jittery questions about whether jobs are at risk. Ensure everybody gets on board with new tech by:
- assuring staff AI will create opportunities, rather than robots replacing them
- demonstrate how they’ll be working alongside new AI systems, plus any benefits they’ll receive (e.g. more time to pursue other tasks and/or flexible working)
- offer tailored training via online tuition or external courses. More info here: out more here.
6). Redesigning an AI-ready workplace
Once work-related decisions start to be made by machines (rather than human employees), your firm’s workflow and staff roles will alter accordingly. Consult HR about these changes.
Also, think about hiring strategies. RPA software frees up more time for accountants so you might need to skew your recruiting policy towards attracting accounting talent with advisory nous, communication skills and digital awareness.
7). Think about the future…
After AI has been part of your business for a few months, conduct an internal review to see how successful it’s been.
- Have new workflows gone smoothly?
- Have your staff been more productive?
- What’s the business’s accuracy rate like now?
- If you’ve used chat-bots, has customer engagement increased?
If you’re satisfied with the launch of your AI systems, then consider the next stage of digital transformation, such as going from RPA to analytics tools.
Key takeaway for employers
Unfortunately, adopting AI in your business isn’t an easy process. Firms are likely to face challenges such as cost, uncertainty, logistic problems and staff aversion.
However, as long as any AI rollout is meticulously planned, the benefits are too big to ignore.
Further reading on AI:
- Why automation should not be feared
- How accountants can succeed alongside AI
- AI and accounting: Should we be afraid of the robots?
Christian Koch is an award-winning journalist/editor who has written for the Evening Standard, Sunday Times, Guardian, Telegraph, The Independent, Q, The Face and Metro. He's also written about business for Accounting Technician, 20 and Director, where he is contributing editor.