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A photo of a robiot using a calculator | AccountingWEB| Unlock AI's untapped potential in accounting
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Unlock AI’s untapped potential in accounting

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As the AI hype train steams on, many accountants at the coalface are left unaware of the practical ways the technology could support them to do their jobs more efficiently. John Toon has some advice for those firms looking to take their first step. 

26th Feb 2024
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The acceleration of artificial intelligence (AI) over the past year has left many in no doubt that the technology will revolutionise the accounting profession. But do accountants fully understand the potential capabilities of AI? 

“The short answer is no,” tech evangelist John Toon (pictured below) said ahead of the Festival of Accounting & Bookkeeping, where he will be reviewing the accountancy AI roadmap at the event on the 13 and 14 of March at the NEC, Birmingham.

Firms haven’t fully explored the benefits of AI

A photo of John ToonToon, tech strategy lead at accounting firm Beever and Struthers, said that although the initial hype cycle of AI and large language models (LLM) is more than a year old, the potential risks, opportunities and impacts for accounting firms haven’t been fully addressed yet.

Most of the exploration from accountants haven’t moved past the stage of using the LLM for their marketing output, LinkedIn posts and blogs, although as Toon noted, this comes with the risk of creating “samey” content. 

He said that not many accountancy firms have successfully experimented with AI tools and changed their business model or the way they deliver client service. “I think that's partly down to a lack of knowledge, experience and potentially ability,” he said. 

‘‘The robot down the pub said…’

Toon said firms also face the challenge of ChatGPT becoming the new ‘man down the pub’.

Accountants are used to clients coming to them having already triaged their problem, but unlike Google, where the client would have first landed on the Gov.uk page and then clicked a couple more websites before losing interest, the conversational nature of ChatGPT means they can keep asking questions until they get what they think is a definite answer. 

“A client's perception of what the answer to their problem might be will be slightly different from that detached experience of having to Google it and get snippets of information, which they may not necessarily understand because it might be quite technical,” said Toon. 

He added that this could change client expectations and present a challenge to firms dealing with younger, more AI-savvy clients. 

Areas ripe for disruption

Despite accountants only scratching the surface of what’s possible through AI, Toon sees several areas in the profession that are ripe for disruption. The first is customer service, where chatbots have historically delivered a poor experience for clients; at the moment the technology is limited to giving a ‘computer says no’ response, due to the restricted predefined questions, or it hands the user off to a human. 

Toon expanded, noting how clients will often ask firms for their recent tax return or a copy of their last accounts, and these fairly basic, repetitive questions - even with the best internal systems - can take up a disproportionate amount of time for the effort for non-chargeable work. 

He sees this as one example where chatbots with a built-in LLM could retrieve these documents or information while offering a more engaging and friendly customer service experience. However, he said this would still require firms to adopt a good-quality document management system because without that plugged into the chatbot, “you'll have robots running around all over the place trying to get that information”.

As for service lines, the experienced auditor sees his speciality as being top of the list for AI disruption. “Audit is clearly an area where there is a bit of a pinch in terms of staffing and resources. So I can see more disruption to come, particularly in the analysis of an interpretation of documents, whether that's legal documents, leases or reviewing large amounts of documentation,” he said, also seeing further examples in corporate finance, where they have to review sale agreements.  

Toon also expects to see further developments in the way chatbots can be used to leverage information. A good example of this is Tax on Demand, whose founder Nick Stobbs will be speaking at FAB. The UK-based AI company has created its own tax review bot, which plugs into HMRC’s manuals to automate the client review process. Toon said there are firms which are building equivalent knowledge-based bots to support their staff to navigate everything from FRS 102 to revenue recognition. 

“You don't have to be techie to do that, you can buy off-the-shelf products at a reasonably low cost and load them up with information - it's really just a matter of exploring those opportunities.”

And there’s the rub - many firms haven’t had the chance to explore the possibilities of how AI could potentially transform the profession. 

Where to start with your AI exploration

So for those accountants and bookkeepers who are attending FAB to get up to speed with the latest AI developments, the longtime AccountingWEB member (and Technology Champion at the 2020 Community Awards) advised them to “not get distracted by every shiny tool out there and put ‘AI’ into every part of their business”. 

“Let's say you offer accounts, tax, VAT and a little bit of bookkeeping services. If you try and find a killer solution which has a bit of AI for all of those, you're not going to be successful, because you're going to spread yourself way too thinly,” he said. 

Instead, he said accountants and bookkeepers should identify a “pain problem” or a use case, and look for a solution that can help with that. 

“To start with, firms have just got to figure out their strategy for technology, including AI in the broadest sense, and what they want to achieve. What’s the biggest pain point or what’s their biggest priority? Then have a look at the technology in that space, take a step back and look at your processes, systems and operations and figure out where the inefficiencies lie. It’s not always in humans.” 

He acknowledged that technology is not going to be a silver bullet for firms, but added that accountants and bookkeepers shouldn’t dismiss AI. 

“You might feel like it's a flash in the pan. But this isn't crypto, Web 3.0 or the metaverse, we're starting to see use cases with AI, and it will be firms that push to fix a problem that will make the most of these technologies."

He added: “Firms won’t collapse overnight or die away if they ignore AI and everything else but they will slowly become less effective and less relevant, while those that do engage in these types of technologies will become more resilient, grow more quickly and effectively compared to their peer groups. So, the difference between sort of the haves and the have-nots just gets bigger.”

Make your first step into the world of AI at the Festival of Accounting & Bookkeeping. Through workshop sessions, live demos and a vast array of leading AI experts, the two-day event will equip you with the knowledge and real-world, practical ways that you can incorporate AI into your practice. Book your FREE ticket today

Replies (4)

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By Ruddles
26th Feb 2024 20:12

As someone else has said (on this forum?) before we become invested in Artificial Intelligence we need to deal with the problem of Natural Stupidity.

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By FactChecker
26th Feb 2024 21:23

"unlike Google, the conversational nature of ChatGPT means they (a client) can keep asking questions until they get what they think is a definite answer."

It's actually worse than that ... by a factor of 2:
1. Unlike this site (for instance) where responders quickly revert to 'go and appoint someone who knows what they're talking about' and the OP then retires in a huff ... ChatGPT has unending energy to emulate Robert the Bruce and wants to please the questioner.
2. So, however unwittingly, the person posing the question is encouraged to try again and again (with slightly different 'nudges') ... and will tend to keep doing so until they get the desired (not necessarily correct) answer.

Even without the scare stories that are true but not (yet) too prevalent ... like the Bot 'inventing' citations for legal precedence or a 'bad actor' influencing the bias of the LLM ... it is much harder to shift the incorrect opinion of someone who "has been told by AI that is correct" than when they've merely heard it from MDTP.

And, as well as being annoying/frustrating for the professional, this (converting of understanding) becomes yet another unchargeable drain on resources.

Like Joan Armatrading, I remain open to persuasion.
But, beyond a degree of automation within administrative processes (and woe betide any business which confuses that with effective client communications), there's little sign of anyone yet finding a way forward to harness the speed/low-cost of AI 'advice' with the quality/integrity of an experienced human professional (imbued with an ethical sense of morality and even personal pride).

The future looks interesting (although I doubt "it's orange"), but it's much too early to make a call unless your business is pushing 'futures' rather than delivering professional advice.

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By GDavidson
29th Feb 2024 10:50

Ok but I've tried this stuff out with a few trial queries. Every one it got wrong (even the query on PAYE bands). I'll wait a while.

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By indomitable
29th Feb 2024 15:40

This is all very flacky!!

People including myself want definitive solutions and we are not there yet with AI. Alot of the current offerings are just not that helpful.

I have trialled a couple of AI solutions and I have to say they were woefully inadequate.

Also solutions like DEXT already use AI, outlook will be using it, excel is using it or will be, these are useful solutions, but many of the new companies bringing out so called AI solutions have not cracked any problem.

Correct me if I am wrong and point me to an AI solution than can automate bank reconciliations in XERO as one example without making errors?

As for AI chatbots - totally not fit for purpose

Too many people jumping on the AI bandwagon at present hoping to make a 'buck'

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