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Sage CEO lays out AI Copilot runway


UK accountants will be among the first to try Sage’s generative AI productivity tool, with chief executive Steve Hare confident the Copilot product can change the perception of accounting software.

10th May 2024
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At Sage’s London office this week, the accounting software developer held a briefing for accountants and journalists to run through plans for Copilot, its multipurpose digital assistant.

Announced in February 2024, Sage Copilot will provide an embedded AI assistant for accountants and business users, allowing them to initiate tasks or receive reports via short written commands or ‘prompts’.

Integrated with the recently relaunched Sage for Accountants platform and Sage for Small Business, Sage Copilot is currently in beta testing with around 150 firms. UK customers can request early access via the Copilot page. At the time of writing, Sage states that Copilot will be generally available in the UK in 2024, followed by a version for Canadian customers.

When launched, Copilot’s functionality will be relatively narrow and expand over time – in part to build trust in Sage’s guard-railed system, which the vendor claims will prevent it from ‘hallucinating’ incorrect answers (a common issue with public large language models such as ChatGPT). 

In summer 2024, Sage plans to include the ability to automate the creation of client records via a Companies House integration, detect anomalies within client data in Sage Accounting and flag issues such as unreconciled bank transactions, and batch communicate with clients (for example when gathering data for self assessment tax returns).

Later releases planned include automating client document exchange and e-signature workflows, providing embedded insights on topics such as cashflow, and the ability to answer practice and client-level questions.

From 'grudge purchase' to 'game-changer'

At this week’s Copilot presentation, Sage chief executive Steve Hare told AccountingWEB he believed the product has the potential to change the perception of accounting software from “grudge purchase” to “game changer” for businesses and their accountants because of the time it will save them.

A chartered accountant with a background in practice and industry, Hare has been hands-on in the development of Sage Copilot, attending weekly meetings about the product and feeding back to developers on functionality.

“Throughout my career, I’ve seen that sometimes when development teams are working on new software products, they focus on how intelligent, how exciting they can make them,” he said. “One of the reasons I've been so heavily engaged is because I want to emphasise that actually, a lot of how you save an accountant time is not exciting. It's repetitive – what I call ‘fetch and retrieve’."

“Something like running an aged debtors’ report requires time and effort,” continued Hare. “I have to go into the application, find the right part, then review the report to see who owes me money, then manually chase them.

“If Copilot can just get a list of who owes you money, draft an email and send it, just based on one short prompt, and that all happens as quickly as I've described. that's pretty amazing. It’s just saved five, 10, or 15 minutes, which adds up to days saved over time.

“So I’ve sat in on the Copilot development because I wanted to be a super user, who could challenge and say ‘are we prioritising the things that will have the biggest impact for an accountant or finance user?’ I think there are huge productivity gains to be made, particularly around automating workflows like this.”

AccountingWEB view

As I’ve reported before, it’s early days for this latest wave of artificial intelligence, and as evident from past attempts (not least by Sage themselves with its Pegg product), the path to AI enlightenment contains many digital cul-de-sacs.

But the rise of generative AI seems more fundamental than previous AI iterations. Sage’s Copilot isn’t just an FAQ-toting chatbot – it can reach down into messy practice or client data and if asked, take a proactive approach and chase clients or staff for information.

With Copilot, Sage’s approach seems less about individual functionality and more about changing how accountants interact with their accounting software – through natural language prompts rather than a predefined series of clicks and taps. 

This is an ambitious goal, perhaps predicated on the assumption that wider society will move in this direction. However, if the promised time savings arrive, Sage will have played a smart AI game, even if its stated aim of ‘removing finance admin’ may be overreaching.

When fully operational, Sage still plans to charge for Copilot. While Microsoft is charging for its own (unrelated) Copilot, many platforms are embedding similar AI models as standard. It will be interesting to see if this approach survives once the product is out in the wild.

Replies (3)

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By FactChecker
10th May 2024 17:57

Personally I can't detect the correlation between being a 'super user' and "Sage’s Copilot .. can reach down into messy practice or client data and if asked, take a proactive approach and chase clients or staff for information."

If I was a client (or member of staff), it would only take *one* 'false positive' from the lovely Copilot before I decided to ignore anything else emanating from it.
With a human it might be worth my time to track them down & enquire 'what gives?'
But with a bot (which, marketing aside, is what Copilot is) I know I'd be wasting my time.

If you're looking for evidence of this trend, look no further than the hallowed halls of HMRC help!

The A in AI still stands more for Automation than Artificial (with little sign of intelligence) ... which, as any fule kno, requires active human oversight.

Thanks (5)
By Rob Swan
11th May 2024 11:00

Full disclosure: I'm very sceptical and suspicious of AI in accounting for exactly the reasons FactChecker illustrates above.
As a software developer I also struggle to see - from the benefits and features claimed - whay these cannot be far more reliably and effectively achieved with (traditional) programming logic and software features; after all, it's all 'logical' processes, which is exactly what traditional software can do very well.
Fetching an aged debtors report and emailing overdue debtors does absolutely not require AI. Conventional software/logic can easily provide a 'one click' solution using an email template, (included with the software or you write youself - so no AI errors!), and the job's done. If existing software can't do that then... it's just not very good.
As for AI 'guard rails'... Well, that's not AI.

Thanks (2)
Replying to Rob Swan:
By MartinJones
11th May 2024 19:55

I agree totally. My background also software development and support of various accounting and business systems.

The AI phrase has become the new “cloud”. If you want to stimulate investment into your product then say it has some AI in it. Most investors have no idea what it means but neither will they care if sticking the AI label on increases the share price.

I would prefer Mr Hare focused on sorting out the chaotic situation he presided over that resulted in the as yet unresolved issue of the perpetual to subscription “coercion” before he dabbled in AI.

Two and a half years later, that issue is still ongoing with no sign of any resolution.

Thanks (5)