Why automation shouldn’t be feared

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The robots are coming for your job. Or that’s how it might seem if you’ve read any of the gloomy prognoses about the effect of automated technology on the workplace over the next few years.

Last year, PwC noted: “The largest impacts [of automation] could be on sectors like financial services where algorithms can lead to faster and more efficient analysis and assessments.” Another study, by Oxford University and Deloitte, found that the role of financial accounts manager had a 97.6% chance of being automated in the near future.

Only telephone salespeople and typists were more likely to be replaced by algorithms. If that wasn’t terrifying enough, Deutsche Bank’s boss told a conference 18 months ago that its accountants (who he claimed “spend a lot of time basically being an abacus”) could soon be replaced by machines. In Japan, it’s already happening: one insurance firm recently replaced 34 employees with an artificial intelligence (AI) system that calculates insurance pay-outs.

Many accountancy tasks involve logic and data – the sort of tasks at which AI systems such as IBM Watson excel. Watson can process thousands of pages of financial documents, interpreting them within seconds and spotting financial anomalies along the way – something it could take an accountant weeks to do.

Making better decisions and improving output

But it’s not all doom and gloom; automating certain tasks frees up accountants to do other things. Cloud-based accounting platform Xero incorporates AI technology into its software to manage tasks such as payroll, tax preparation and categorising invoices. As Mike Day, Xero’s director for the UK education sector, explains: “Instead of replacing jobs, AI helps accountants and bookkeepers make better decisions and improve output.”

For example, automation can save accountants and bookkeepers from spending time going back through accounts and fixing errors, says Day: “Automating menial and repetitive tasks helps alleviate the administrative burden for many businesses. These gains can give forward thinking professionals a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reinvent their profession.” Indeed, many experts predict that automation won’t cause jobs to disappear at all; they’ll simply be modernised and require slightly different skillsets.

Creating more UK jobs

A PwC report last year claimed that AI and robotics would create more UK jobs (7.2 million) than they would displace (seven million). Steve Wells, COO of Fast Future, the foresight firm behind Accountancy 3.0, a forthcoming book on what lies ahead, agrees. “We’re going to need accounting services that don’t currently exist,” he says. “Who’ll be keeping track of blockchain transactions, digital currencies and smart contracts? How will new tech such as driverless vehicles be treated for tax purposes? These will create immense opportunities and new accounting roles.”

Such roles will require accountants to acquire new skills, most crucially an aptitude for advising and decision-making – something computers haven’t mastered yet. “The human element and advisory role of accounting will be more important than the technology itself,” says Day. “Accountants will need excellent interpersonal skills.”

Communication skills won’t be the only key to navigating an AI-dominated workplace, Wells predicts: “Accountants will need to develop digital awareness so they understand these new technologies.” After a spate of high-profile accounting scandals (Carillion and Patisserie Valerie, say), accountants may also go back to playing a watchdog role. “For a long time, accountants have operated as an enabling, rather than policing, function,” says Fast Future CEO Rohit Talwar.

“Technology could change that.” He adds: “Junior staff members entering automated workplaces can expect their day-to-day tasks to be radically different compared to today. Data entry is becoming automated, giving accounting graduates more time to learn how to analyse financial trends and hone skills such as digital cash-flow forecasting.” Automation could see initiating payments, making purchase orders and preparing financial reports become redundant too.

Future-proof yourself

So what should AAT students do to future-proof themselves? “Educate yourself and get ahead of technology trends,” advises Day. “You’ll impress potential employers by having an extensive knowledge of these new technologies.” Accountants can also give themselves a competitive edge by developing their communication and technology skills. “If you’ve got a mind for numbers, then it’d be silly to go and be a doctor,” says Talwar. “There will be more opportunities, because new sectors will be created.

Accountants could be a valuable voice within these industries… In the past, technical ability has been prized in finance. Maybe we need to dial that down and prioritise skills that will become important: ideas, curiosity, foresight and scenario-thinking.” “It’s difficult to say how far AI will go over the next few decades,” adds Day. “But what’s important is that we keep ‘human’ at the heart of AI and ensure companies use this technology to improve human processes, rather than remove them.”

Digital masterclass

Xero’s Advisor Certification Equivalency Course aims to give accountants and bookkeepers in the UK the online accounting skills they need to succeed in the digital age. This six-hour course is free for AAT students. Here’s how to access it:

1. Head to xero.com/uk/training/ certification-equivalent-courses

2. Create an account

3. Enter the code ‘XeroAATStudents’ to unlock the e-learning content

The content team are the owners of AAT Comment.

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