Despite the doom-laden predictions of tech-based extinction from the mainstream media in recent years, software vendors and industry leaders were lining up at the ICB's annual conference to declare that the future will be bright for bookkeepers.
The great and the good of the bookkeeping profession descended on Heathrow for the Institute’s annual event, where chairman Garry Carter praised bookkeepers as agile, early adopters of technology who had embraced cloud computing and were reaping the benefits of it.
“For compliance or audit-based accountants the need for cloud hasn’t been as pressing,” said Carter. “For bookkeepers with information-hungry clients wanting faster, more direct access to their data it’s been crucial.”
Bookkeeping the ‘last physical presence’
Moving on to the future, Carter explained that in his opinion bookkeeping will become the last physical presence in the accounting world. “It’s all moving up a notch,” he said. “The automation of basic transactions, bank feeds etc takes away 80% of the activity in the accounting space, leaving 20% explaining what’s going on.
“Accountants will move up a level into larger scale, longer-term planning, blockchain will eventually sweep away the majority of the audit market. At bookkeeping level everything will be real-time and transparent, so most of what’s left will be the human element.
While ‘trusted adviser’ may now be a bit of a hackneyed phrase in the profession, Carter insisted that bookkeepers have always been seen as trusted advisers, and with businesses needing information faster, with more accuracy and with better forecasting, they were in a great place to provide this.
“Bookkeeping is not just one product,” said Carter, “It is a range of all sorts of different things, from long-term, big picture things to owner-managers wanting to run their businesses better.”
Don’t just let the software do the talking
Speaking to AccountingWEB after his keynote speech, Carter also urged bookkeepers to continue to talk to their clients and not to just let the software do the talking.
“With the industry moving to cloud, the temptation is to stay behind your desk or put your feet up at home and not communicate, but if you become remote you will fail in the same way that an accounting firm would fail if they lost touch with their client.”
Carter urged members to see software vendors as their allies to help do their jobs better.
Following Carter onstage was a strong coterie of speakers, all of whom used a technology-led future as a central theme, but all of whom were also at pains to point out how central they believed bookkeepers were to its advance.
Sage’s Jennifer Warawa, a former bookkeeper and now an executive vice president at the software giant, tackled a number of key concerns held by the industry, including loss of control, relevance and eventually clients.
According to Warawa, while those who spend time simply organising information may have something to fear from technological advance, those that lead change stand to benefit the most from it. She quoted a Gartner report that in 2020 although artificial intelligence is slated to eliminate 1.8m jobs, it could potentially create 2.3m.
Xero’s UK MD Gary Turner also has a personal connection to bookkeeping, as his mother spent her career working as one – a fact acknowledged later when the ICB inducted her as a Companion of the Institute.
Turner has been at the epicentre of the cloud movement in the UK, but was quick to point out that there is a long way to go to humanise the world of automation and illustrated this with clips from engineer and YouTube star Simone Giertz, the self-styled ‘Queen of shitty robots’.
Turner went on to predict that by 2028 there would be a whole new way of harnessing technology to build a more human workplace, with bookkeepers able to offer better, faster and cheaper services.
Open Banking opportunities
With his firm having been acquired by RBS NatWest, it was natural that FreeAgent’s Nick Longden decided to focus his speech on the potential benefits of Open Banking to bookkeepers: improved bank feeds, better sharing of information between the practice, the client, the bank and the software provider and, with the client’s permission access to seven years of historical data.
“In future FreeAgent will be able to see future VAT or corporation tax liabilities, formulate cashflow forecasts based on history, and check if a client is good for loans or not," said Longden.
However, he was quick to point out that no matter how good your toothpaste you always need a dentist, and this was the same with accounting software and the bookkeeping profession.
Receipt Bank’s chief product John Connolly casually dropped into his presentation that a large proportion of Irish students in the 80s studied bookkeeping: something this writer spent a happy ten minutes on Google confirming.
Connolly urged bookkeepers not to let the government define their future roles. “Choose a challenge, pick something that’s hard to do,” he advised.
Following day one of the conference, the profession geared up for bookkeeping’s biggest night of the year: the annual Luca awards.
In the software categories there were wins for AccountancyManager, Auto Entry, Float, Go Cardless, Sage, Taxfiler and Xero.
There was also a victory for No Accounting for Taste podcast guest and AccountingWEB blogger Zoe Whitman, with her firm But the Books winning the Small Practice of the Year award.
AccountingWEB also took home the award for Media Source of the Year, which we were delighted to receive – thank you to everyone who voted and congratulations to all those nominated and who won.