At last week’s SuiteWorld 2019, the topic of automation cropped up again and again. It makes sense: if you run the finances for a large business, there’s plenty of drudge work to eliminate. But as technology advances, how much automation is too much?
At SuiteWorld, automation was on everyone’s lips, and why not when it’s perceived as such an easy win? There are, after all, so many undesirable jobs that a finance team would want to do away with and shift their focus to more fruitful, interesting tasks.
The ability to automate the creation of management reports via standard templates has literally saved some finance departments days every month, while innovations such as bank feeds have all but removed the dreaded keying-in errors. And these changes required little in the way of adaptation from finance teams.
But as automation begins to bend the boundaries of what’s possible, it becomes a trickier proposal. Predictive analytics, for example, poses the question of just how comfortable we are ceding complete control to the machine.
Back to the Brainyard
Accountants -- like pilots or doctors -- are often subject to all sorts of blithe predictions of obsolescence. Machines can simply do it better, critics say, and we keep the people around more out of sentimentality than practical necessity.
This is, of course, complete BS. The surgeon and author Atul Gawande incisively deconstructed this misguided notion in a 2011 New Yorker article. “Talk about medical progress, and people think about technology,” he wrote. “But the capabilities of doctors matter every bit as much as the technology. This is true of all professions. What ultimately makes the difference is how well people use the technology.”
Accountants will immediately recognise what Gawande is saying, and the echo of his sentiment was all over SuiteWorld. The most interesting announcements at the conference weren’t really tech related, but rather the ways people are adapting to tech to work better.
“We don’t want to do AI for the sake of doing it,” said Evan Goldberg, NetSuite’s founder. “The industry is awash with these acronyms. We want to harness the power of the suite and give customers the things that they need. That means automating where appropriate.”
The intriguingly named Brainyard epitomised this ethos. Brainyard is a benchmarking tool which packages operational and business performance of more than 16,000 NetSuite customers together with NetSuite surveys and third-party research.
The aim, according to NetSuite’s Senior Vice President of Global Field Operations Jason Maynard, is to help users understand the habits, business practices and performance metrics of successful companies in every industry. Rather than simply hoarding all of this information, NetSuite is dispersing it to its users.
Make automation great again
Brainyard offers a glimpse of how automation and AI can really help finance teams. Instead of opaquely whirling away in the background, we’ll see software that acts more like a colleague. It enhances human insight rather than subsuming it.
“If NetSuite starts leveraging what other people in your industry are doing, and pops up on your system asking something like: ‘have you considered what happens if the Euro changes by the Pound by x percent?’,” explained M+C Saatchi’s FD Michael Saunders, “or ‘you buy a lot of this thing, have you considered what will happen if its price goes up by x percent?’, that is a computer being really useful.”
What Brainyard is not doing is ‘we’ve run your report for you and here are your results’. It’ll be a long time before people fully let things whirl away by themselves. Instead, Brainyard will be another level of the NetSuite service without it being done all for you. No black boxes or full automation necessary.
About Francois Badenhorst
Francois is a writer, editor and broadcaster specialising in business.