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Is technology actually helping accountants?


With a torrent of time-saving tech tools available at their fingertips, why is the accountancy profession busier than ever? Tom Herbert attempts to bridge the gap between expectation and reality.

31st Aug 2023
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“My firm has got technology coming out of its ears but we’re still too busy”. 

This snippet from the owner of a small firm came during an event last week, and for some reason has stuck in my mind when the time to write this monthly column rolled around.

In 1930, economics galaxy brain John Maynard Keynes saddled technologists with a goal as unreachable as the gents loos at a tech conference by predicting that thanks to technological advancements, his grandchildren would work just 15 hours a week. 

Thanks to a variety of factors, from the rise of consumer capitalism to income inequality, Keynes’s truncated work week has never materialised, in spite of a plethora of tech changes that would have made his marvellous moustache curl in appreciation.

Just in the accounting world alone over the past decade or so, we’ve seen OCR technology, bank feeds, automated transaction recognition, practice management and workflow software and cashflow forecasting tools all become mainstream tools.

So with all these (and many more) time-saving innovations in mind, why is the accountancy profession busier than ever?

It’s compliance, stupid

With apologies for bastardising Bill Clinton aide James Carville’s famous quote about the economy in the sub-heading above, but to answer the question above on a very basic level, accountants are busy because the volume of work in their in-tray exceeds the capacity of most firms.

With the UK tax code expanding rapidly, increasing CPD requirements, AML and post-Brexit regulations, not to mention the ongoing MTD pantomime, many firms feel like they’re sprinting to stand still, regardless of whether they’re deploying the latest shiny new tech tools or not.

The pace of tech change

And then there’s the tech companies themselves. While they remain fonts of innovation (to a greater or lesser extent) and save countless firms many hours, there’s often an expectation gap between what’s promised and what is actually delivered.

While it’s understandable that in a competitive market, tech companies may seek to embellish their utility, when the expected efficiencies fail to emerge it can lead to a certain amount of firm-based frustration. This leaves the vendors to be somewhat a victim of their own hype, forever condemned to be trapped in their own hype loops.

The recent razzamatazz over generative artificial intelligence serves as a contemporary example, with technologists hailing it as the saviour of the profession today rather than the (admittedly impressive) tech demo it currently is. 

In reality, tech change takes time and often involves large-scale systematic changes in infrastructure and mindset. From Thomas Edison's first demonstration of the light bulb in 1879 to mass electrification and the replacement of steam power took at least 40 years, while slightly closer-to-home cloud accounting tools washed up on these shores in the mid-2000s but took more than a decade to become mainstream.

So all this leads us back to the titular question at hand: is technology actually helping accountants? My answer would be a cautious yes, but not as fast as advertised, or perhaps as fast as accountants need given the current rate of compliance change.

Replies (4)

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the sea otter
By memyself-eye
31st Aug 2023 19:07

'tech change' - capital 'T' by the way.... is pointless without persuasion.
If there is no perceived benefit, no one will buy in.
Governments add to the mix at each budget with new measures/taxes/allowances/penalties which individually seem small but, when taken in the round amount to a total nightmare.

Technology only serves to disguise this.

Payroll is a prime example - these days is an effing nightmare!

Thanks (1)
By Hugo Fair
31st Aug 2023 19:44

"Work expands to fill the time allotted for its completion."
- Cyril Northcote Parkinson.

Not that radical a concept 80 years ago ... but unaffected by technology, which simply changes the ways in which one can waste (sorry, use) one's time - often in the service of keeping the technology working or repairing the errors that it has created.

And I *like* technology ... you can have a lot of fun with it, but don't expect it to make your life overall any better.

As we all (except for HMRC) observe most days, any supposed achievement of increased efficiency is derived off the back of degraded quality in performance (not as a straightforward quid pro quo of introducing technology).

Thanks (2)
By johnjenkins
01st Sep 2023 09:48

One of the things is that HMRC have instigated many new changes, compliance, AML, GDPR, pensions etc. and are putting the onus on us as they are completely incompetent to handle modern day business and their own systems.
Technology will always save time to start with and then create the need for more time as more information becomes available.
Technology has grown so fast that many people can't keep up or understand it.
So it is time for the next Government to say "slow down George it doesn't start till 7.30" (advert from years ago) otherwise there will be more chaos than there is now.

Thanks (1)
By dul50n
07th Sep 2023 09:43

As far as I can see, the huge downside of this technological revolution seems to be that a large proportion of people are so overwhelmed by the tsunami of content and information that hits them every day that they become metaphorical "rabbits in the headlights" frozen and seemingly incapable of dealing with the simplest of requests to the point of just giving up

These systems and algorithms can be beautiful applications of pure logic, but they all come unstuck when Joe Bloggs with his not so beautiful mind gets hold of them

Life was so much easier when all somebody had to do was dig out a missing piece of paper that had arrive through the post to answer your question, now questions just go ignored for weeks and months on end

Thanks (1)