Why robots should be welcomed by the finance function – not feared

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Sooraj Shah
Technology journalist
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Many in the profession, including some AccountingWEB members, have expressed concern that the profession could be pushed to the brink of extinction as developments in computers make their roles redundant. But are these fears justified, or is there a place for robots in the workplace? Sooraj Shah investigates.

In recent years it seems report after report has been released suggesting that robots will steal human jobs. These aren’t just the easy-to-do, mundane tasks, but highly sophisticated jobs which have taken humans years to specialise in. The most recent of which, by none other than the Bank of England, saw its governor Mark Carney claim that as many as 15m jobs were under threat, and that entire professions such as accountancy could be pushed to the brink.

But while these scaremongering reports may be aimed at filling those working within the finance function with dread, the reality is somewhat different.

According to recent research from ACCA, more than half of finance professionals under the age of 36 believe technology will replace entry level roles in the profession, but crucially, the majority (84%) welcome this, saying that technology will enable them to focus on higher value-added activity.

Supporting these findings, a poll conducted at Finance Transformation 2016 asked delegates – many of whom were CFOs, finance transformation officers and other senior finance employees – what topic offered the biggest opportunity for their organisation, and artificial intelligence came out on top with 56% of the votes.

John Williams, head of ACCA told AccountingWEB he believes that the accounting profession won’t put up barriers to stop AI providers coming into the industry given the opportunities on offer.

“AI is a huge opportunity for accountants and the accounting profession, and the best way for us to maximise it is to welcome it with open arms,” he said.

Williams explained that while artificial intelligence is a powerful tool that can perform repetitive processes and interact with multiple applications in a fraction of the time – and at a fraction of the cost – of a human worker, it is not capable of building relationships or making judgement calls.

Because of this he believes AI, at least in the form of automation, couldn’t replace all systems and staff.

“This is why the implementation of artificial intelligence is actually a natural next step in the evolution of finance transformation, and something that will benefit accountants and their profession. Accountants will progress from just ‘crunching the numbers’ to actually analysing and communicating them,” he said.

“[They] won’t be the ‘score keeper’ or ‘caretaker’ of a company’s figures any more: they will shift up the value chain to become a business partner, strategic advisor and communicator,” he added.

Ton Dobbe, chief evangelist at Unit4, recently hosted a roundtable discussion with CFOs and finance transformation officers on this topic. He told AccountingWEB that there are specific duties currently carried out by some accountants which will be taken over by AI – such as compliance. As a consequence of this, he believes accountants need to evolve their existing skill sets.

Dobbe said that AI will be more about augmenting accountants’ existing roles – in other words making them a better version of themselves, as opposed to taking the job away from them.

“AI is really about automation, but the biggest impact is augmenting them in areas that they are already providing added value,” he said.

In his blog, Dobbe revealed some of the ways that his roundtable participants see the finance function evolving as a result of technologies like AI.

These include shared services ceasing to exist, accounting processing roles reducing even further, bots taking over both duties of in-house finance teams and outsourced duties. This includes project/budget variance analysis, scanning for fraud and inconsistencies, flagging compliance risk and delivering statutory reporting. The idea of bots here would typically use machine learning algorithms.

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08th Dec 2016 11:35

This is a great opportunity for accountants to shine and demonstrate their value added consultative skills to their clients. Technology is going to threaten many task based roles in finance, but it won't replace the ability to have a conversation with a client on how to grow their business, or identify a remedy to a business issue. Automation is not about the rise of the machine in the accounting sector; it merely triggers the rise of the human.

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08th Dec 2016 12:13

A key factor in smart automation is who owns the technology. Technology vendors are moving increasingly towards subscription, percentage fee or pay per use market models. This will replace or severely disrupt the market previously served by accountants' own in-house staff, and not just for the routine or mundane tasks.
The AI element also poses an interesting challenge to accounting software giants such as Sage who tend to replicate olde worldy bookeeping, accounts department and accounts practive ways of working.

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By Mike18
08th Dec 2016 13:34

I detect a lot of complacency. How many small business owners will pay for the high value added consultancy services, when an 'app' will meet all their compliance needs. I am not surprised the big accounting firms are cheering on the technology.

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08th Dec 2016 18:16

I don't think the opinions of people hoping to profit from new technology are a very good basis for assessing its likely impact. Much of this article reads like a sales spiel for technology firms; clearly it isn't a good tactic to tell your clients that in time virtually everything they do will be replaced!

How do the finance professionals under 36 who welcome AI imagine other professionals will be able to get started on the ladder if the entry level roles are being done by machines?

Does Mr Williams who believes that AI will do the number crunching thus freeing accountants up to perform higher value activities such as "analysis and communication" not understand that those things will also be done by AI - in fact it is the ability to analyse, interpret and communicate which identifies a system as being an AI. Mr Williams also asserts that AI is not capable of building relationships or making judgement calls. Not yet maybe but that is certainly the aim of the companies developing it.

If bright, thoughtful individuals like Carney are raising a red flag, we should all be concerned I think.

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09th Dec 2016 16:43

Some would argue that most accountants don't develop relationships or make judgement calls! However, you should not confuse AI with the sort of robots under discussion. AI is not about automation whereas robots are. AI is being used for medical diagnosis, which I would suggest is a pretty high value skill, and could definitely be used in high end accounting functions. As most accounting functions are rules-based, I see no reason why robots cannot be use very effectively in the majority of finance, compliance, and accounting. Robots combined with AI would remove the inconsistency in the sector.

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