AccountingWEB took a quick flight over to Amsterdam for Unit4 Connect, the showcase event for the Dutch software giant. And, like just about everywhere else, AI was the main attraction.
Amsterdam’s Brabazon Palace is a startling mix of new and old. The hotel, converted from several 17th-century townhouses and a 15th-century chapel, has a modern facade.
It’s here where Unit4 had its annual pow-wow. The Dutch software house creates enterprise software focused on its four core verticals: professional services, education, public services, and not-for-profit sectors.
They’re not the biggest name in the UK, but Unit 4’s nearly half-a-billion in global revenue attests to its pulling power with an astonishingly diverse array of customers. From the Norwegian Refugee Council, the City of Stockholm, the University of Oxford, the company prides itself on its pliability (or ‘sector agnosticism’, in software speak).
Everything as a service
Every conference has its phrase which is repeated like a zen koan: Unit4 Connect’s was ‘Everything as a service’ (or the acronym XaaS, which is pronounced Zaahs).
“People aren’t buying software anymore,” said Unit4’s CEO Stephen Sieber. “They’re buying business results.” Cloud computing is now muscular enough to provide services on demand, independent of location; independent of device.
Graham Kent of the charity Save the Children spoke of employees based in Myanmar filling out their expenses and timesheets. Dispersed, often located in hostile environments, Save the Children needed a specific issue resolved.
AI as an onboarding tool
Artificial Intelligence was another big theme. Unit4 was one of the first to join the bot party with its digital assistant Wanda. She (it?) is currently text-based, but will soon become voice enabled.
Voice interaction is one area where AI has come on leaps and bounds. With the advent of deep learning, word error rates have fallen dramatically. Google’s voice recognition, for instance, has brought the error rate of AI speech recognition (so literally just understanding what you mean) to 4.9%.
For Matthias Thurner, the founder of the forecasting tool Prevero, which was acquired and brought into the Unit4 stable, a voice-guided digital assistant will be a crucial onboarding tool.
One of most common gripes on AccountingWEB about forecasting is the onboarding time required. It’s a large part of what’s stymied the uptake of forecasting software in the UK and, Thurner said, in Europe, too.
But a truly smart digital assistant can change this onboarding issue. Guiding users through common pain points and being able to intelligently respond to queries. “On-boarding won’t be about a graphical interface, anymore,” said Thurner.
The digital twin
The immediate, not distant, future of AI is as a colleague. Or, more specifically, your digital twin that can act independently and make decisions.
This is a scary thought, perhaps. But Sieber sees it as a matter of trust. The same sort of trust you would cultivate with a human colleague. Through demonstrating the effects of its actions, an AI can become a trusted partner, said Sieber.
Thurner foresees AI’s autonomy extending all the way through to enterprise planning, budgeting, and intriguingly, as a sort-of interface for non-financial stakeholders in the business. “80% of the questions asked to a finance team or a CFO could be answered effectively by an AI,” said Thurner. “It frees up CFOs to work”.
About Francois Badenhorst
Francois is a writer, editor and broadcaster specialising in business.