What AI can already do for your company

Love it or loathe it, there’s no denying artificial intelligence (AI) is set to transform accountancy like never before.

Over the next month, we’ll be examining what companies could be doing right now to harness the groundbreaking potential of these technologies. First up, the AI that’s already available for accountancy firms today…

The robots aren’t after your job

Whenever the words “AI” and “accountancy” are mentioned in the same sentence, it’s usually accompanied by doom-and-gloom soothsaying about how invisible robots will take our jobs and – just maybe – spell the end of the human race too.

With the World Economic Forum (WEF) forecasting more than half of all workplace tasks will be carried out by machines by 2025, artificial intelligence (AI) is predicted to disrupt industries ranging from aviation to banking.

Experts also believe AI’s benefits will outweigh these losses. For accountancy firms, this means quicker and more accurate audits, not to mention phasing out mundane tasks disliked by many in the profession, such as endless inventory counts.

The need for an AI strategy

The robots might be coming, but one recent Microsoft study found more than half of UK firms have no AI strategy in place. Part of this reticence comes from fears over the cost of such technologies. But there also seems to be a lack of understanding about how AI could boost business.

In fact, ignoring AI could be putting some businesses at risk: the Microsoft report also showed organisations using AI outperform their AI-absent counterparts by five per cent.

Becoming digitally literate

“There’s a shockingly low level of digital literacy,” says Steve Wells, COO of Fast Future, a foresight firm behind , a forthcoming book on accountancy’s future. “It isn’t just accounting professionals who don’t understand AI, but many of their clients aren’t ready for it either. The PwCs and EYs of this world will be fine, but those small accountancy firms who aren’t sure what their future is could be displaced by software…”

Today, there’s an increasing number of accountancy firms in the UK using AI to boost productivity and improve accuracy. And the AI technologies they’re using are often cheaper, more accessible and less scary (there’s not one job-snaffling killer robot in sight) than many think…

Robotic Process Automation (RPA)

What does it mean?

Robotic process automation (RPA) is the most common type of AI found in modern accountancy. It’s a software solution that automates many tasks – typically the type of monotonous admin chores that take up much of accountants’ time. Tax preparation, inputting data from spreadsheet shambles, categorising invoices: it can all be done by RPA.

Why use it?

Put simply, RPA frees up more time. Some auditing duties that usually take days or weeks to complete can now be processed within a matter of minutes. For example, the accountants for the Volvo Group previously spent four full days every month validating all financial reports sent to the Swedish carmakers. With RPA, this process now takes around two minutes.

RPA doesn’t just speed things up. It also has the potential to remove human error to – handy in a profession where copying and pasting info from spreadsheets can result in costly mistakes that can destroy clients’ businesses.

RPA is also relatively cheap too: its platforms can be integrated into existing software such as Sage or Xero, all without writing a single line of code.

How RPA is currently being used by accountants:

  • to collect data from spreadsheets before transferring this information into either a centralised general ledger or existing systems
  • calculating book-tax differences
  • preparing tax returns
  • processing invoices. Instead of spending, say, five minutes processing each invoice, RPA can do it within a matter of seconds
  • retrieving data from bank statements and transcribing details from PDF invoices
  • calculating whether price and quantity are different across sales invoices, sales orders, and other documents.

Where can I find it?

There are various RPA software providers, with Blue Prism and UiPath and Automation Anywhere among the most popular.

Cognitive Insight

What does it mean?

If RPA helps accountants with manual and repetitive tasks, then cognitive insight goes one step further: it sifts through vast volumes of data to detect patterns and interpret them. These interpretations are used to make predictions too. Like a robotic Nostradamus, if you will.

Why use it?

Cognitive insight technologies can perform feats ranging from facial recognition to identifying speech, thanks to being embedded with machine learning (systems that learn how to do complex tasks themselves, rather than humans teaching them).

However, for businesses, it’s particularly useful for predicting future trends and what customers might buy (it does this by pinpointing probabilistic matches across databases, which provides new analytics data). In accountancy, cognitive insight can be a great help during the audit process.

The patterns that it detects can not only spot potential risk and fraud, but also tell clients how they can improve their business performance and save money.

How cognitive insight is currently being used by accountants:

  • some firms use cognitive insight technology to extract terms from contracts before matching it to invoice numbers. This removes the need to painstakingly read each document, but also can identify any products/services that haven’t been supplied yet.
  • identifying risk and fraud during the audit process. By learning regular data patterns, the AI can pick up on any inconsistencies or fraudulent behaviour.
  • using a client’s historical internal data to predict future trends for that business. For example, if you have a retail client, cognitive insight will curate data on their weekly revenue and gross profits. The analytics on their daily/weekly sales and best/worst-selling products could inform them where savings could be made within the business.

Where can I find it?

Fluidly (fluidly.com) is an intelligent cashflow engine that can be integrated with Zero, Sage and QuickBooks to produce up-to-date forecasts of cashflow.

Cognitive engagement

What does it mean?

Cognitive engagement largely refers to AI-powered activities that engage employees and/or customers. It could take the form of a chat-bot that suddenly appears on a company’s website and responds to your queries in natural language. Or it could be a coffee chain such as Starbucks pinging you serving suggestions by text before you even approach the store, based on your buying history, the time of your order and the GPS in your smartphone.

Why use it?

The algorithms learn from previous customer interactions, giving companies a chance to improve service by offering a more personalised, bespoke approach; useful in an age when consumers are more brand-disloyal than ever before. Not only that, it also enables companies to provide customer support 24/7 too.

How cognitive engagement is currently being used by accountants:

  • chat-bots that schedule meetings with clients, and/or allow them to pay for your services inside the bot
  • intelligent agents offering round-the-clock customer service, such as password requests to technical support
  • intranet/internal websites that answer employees’ questions on subjects as IT, benefits and HR policy.

Where can I find it?

Should you want to improve customer service via a chatbot, popular providers include Aivo, Botsify, Chatfuel and ArtiBot. You can also use an AI-powered email application to engage with customers, such as Phrasee or Adobe Campaign.

Summary

As accountancy firms increasingly embrace AI, the day-to-day jobs of staff who work within these companies are set to change drastically.

Uptake might be slow at the moment, but it’s believed any firm that adopts AI – whether it’s automating tasks through RPM or more sophisticated analytics software – will future-proof themselves themselves against any disruption, as well as have a competitive edge over any rivals that don’t possess this technology yet.

For more on AI and digital skills:

Christian Koch is a contributor for AAT's members magazine, AT.

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