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Do accountants really want to drive the automation superhighway?


While the future of work will be more automated, changing people’s habits and mindsets takes time and vendors must find a way to communicate the value they generate.

27th May 2022
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It’s a slate-grey spring morning in a home counties hotel function room, where a well-spoken young man from a software company is earnestly addressing a smattering of accounting firm owners.

Sporting tight trousers, tattoos and a bewildering lack of socks, he’s urging the group to “drive the automation superhighway”. While a few audience members are eyeing up the lunchtime buffet, the majority seem to be following along, taking notes on branded Moleskine pads. 

Suddenly, without warning, the mood changes as our speaker checkmates himself with what must have seemed to him the most rhetorical of questions: “I mean, who likes sitting there and actually MANUALLY typing invoices?”

Without exception, all hands shoot up. Our muscle-bound hero pauses and looks askance, the premise for his next slide in ruins. He valiantly soldiers on but the wind has well and truly gone out of his automated sails. It’s clear these accountants aren’t ready to get on the automation superhighway – but why?

No single answer

Obviously there isn’t one answer to this – for the accountants in the room or the profession more generally. It may be they’re sceptical about the tools, don’t see the benefit or can’t relate them to what they’re doing on a day-to-day basis. Or maybe they actually quite enjoy churning through a bit of mindless paperwork with Heart FM on in the background.

Deep down, we know the future will be more automated, to a greater or lesser degree. A recent study from Indonesia on robotic process engineering found that tools developed by researchers to process invoices were 745% faster than their human counterparts. The numbers stack up, but that isn’t the whole story.

Automation in accounting takes the most manual elements of an accountant’s work and does them automatically, often instantly, replacing tasks that people were previously employed to do. As with any mass shift in workplace practices, it’s a long process of adoption, trial and error.

Believe it or not, the term “automation” has been around for quite some time. No less a source than the internet has Greek polymath Homer coining the term around 900BC while pondering self-moving tables atop popular deity hangout Mount Olympus.

Fast-forward a couple of millennia and in 1898 electricity enthusiast Nikola Tesla bamboozled a crowd at the newly built Madison Square Garden, making them believe they could control a toy boat using their voices, when in fact he was moving it by remote control.

Heady mix

But these early examples are very much outliers – early steps in the long journey down the automation superhighway. To take what were ultimately flights of fancy or pieces of entertainment and apply them en masse to the world of work you need a heady mix of the right skills, tools, processes and, above all, awareness and training.

It also requires deep-seated behavioural change in the workplace – and that is hard. Just ask Tesla, who’s on record saying: “The world moves slowly and new truths are difficult to see.”

While Nicky Sparkplug’s words ring true through the ages, there are ways in which the process of change can be hacked and progress accelerated. However, those who’ve consistently had the most success with this haven’t necessarily been the ones with the best tools – they’ve been the ones who’ve found problems for their solutions to solve, and clearly communicated their value to those who needed it.

Joseph Jacquard’s punch cards, which told mechanical weaving looms what pattern to make, are a good example from times of yore. Leaning more into the world of accountancy, how about Microsoft Excel’s autofill function? Or more recently, Xero’s bank feeds or find and recode function? Or pre-accounting tools like Dext or AutoEntry? All automation-driven timesavers with specific purposes.

Driving change

What our tattooed Travel Tavern speaker from the start of this tale failed to realise is that using sweeping jargon such as automation, AI or open banking without relating them back to present-day processes and problems often doesn’t have the desired effect. 

Being talked at or hectored by multinationals or tech bros doesn’t tend to drive change. The future may be automated, but accountants still want to see themselves in it. Perhaps it might be better for software firms to listen a bit before they speak, then maybe accountants will be keener to buckle up and drive the automation highway.

Replies (8)

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By Tornado
27th May 2022 10:00

To sum up the situation in a nutshell ......... automation is definitely not automatically better.

As always, technology is a just a tool to help us with our decisions and is not there to dictate to us as to how we make those decisions.

Thanks (5)
Replying to Tornado:
By Hugo Fair
27th May 2022 18:33

The salesmen either needs to re-attend the training school or find another career, as he broke the cardinal rule in sales ... best expressed as "Walk a mile in my shoes".

Or as I recall from some management training film (video arts?) in the past:
Prospect to Sales exec "Well that's obviously an excellent solution to a problem - that fortunately I don't have. Maybe you'd better find someone who actually has it"!

Thanks (2)
By johnjenkins
27th May 2022 10:37

Automation is always best when it occurs naturally and not forced. The choice should always be there.

Thanks (3)
By Tornado
27th May 2022 13:27

I have had a quick read through the report and wonder why a complex report like this was required to arrive at the same conclusions that we have known for years.

Quite unbelievable really.

Thanks (5)
By paul.k2
27th May 2022 14:09

As with all industries accountancy practices come in different shapes and sizes.

The software you use and the type and volume of customers that you support, all have a bearing on your ability to apply automation.

So I have sympathy with the difficulty accountants have in identifying suitable opportunities for automation.

What I do not understand, is why so many do not try to better understand or use what they already have.

I remember showing some accountants how to use a PivotTable, I was like Tesla reborn or showing someone fire for the first time!!!!

So many simply don't ask for help, to look for a better way.

Thanks (2)
Replying to paul.k2:
By justsotax
30th May 2022 13:30

I suspect some rely on their instinct and experience....that tech in whatever form is not an improvement, either because it doesn't address a problem, or it requires the user down a pathway they are well aware they don't have the skill set for.

I took my car into the garage recently, the battery was flat (I thought, based upon my motoring experience rather than motor mechanics skills)....of course it has that many electric gadgets that they had to connect it to a computer to trouble shoot the problem....I paid £60 for it to tell me the battery was the problem....

Got me thinking, perhaps an alarm to indicate low battery output would be useful....ah technology....who would be without it.....

Thanks (0)
By D V Fields
28th May 2022 11:14

There is a single answer but it is not being achieved. Correct automation is wanted. The suppliers of automation will, unless and until they understand that, then deliver on it, be left in the dark.

Thanks (0)
paddle steamer
30th May 2022 11:53

Automation will come eventually, imho accountants' reluctance is often more about their clients' ability to use than their own- whilst I may be getting on I have still not come up against a bit of accounting software I am incapable of learning, but I roughly understand debits and credits, catch is I know what my clients were like, know a fair few of them would struggle and know if they made mistakes they might well not spot and if they did spot would likely make a hash correcting.

Once the older generation who did not get taught to use excel/word/powerpoint etc at school all retire thinks likely will be much simpler. (No idea about E & W but in Scotland they even have a computer literacy qualification they get awarded typically in first or second year of secondary) but until that time all schemes for the great British public to do their own bookkeeping using apps etc is likely to be an error strewn shambles.

Thanks (1)