Concerns about the impact of automation on jobs date back hundreds of years, but for much of that time, the assumption was that it was blue-collar workers that would be most vulnerable - but are white-collar workers in fields like accountancy now facing a tipping point? The impact of artificial intelligence and machine learning on accountancy, and the implications for what the jobs - and companies - of the future could look like, are expected to be profound. Tech companies specialising in robotic process automation, or R.P.A., are seeing rapid growth to meet rising demand, as illustrated in a 2020 Deloitte survey which found that almost 8 in 10 corporate executives had implemented some form of R.P.A. already, while a further 16% plan to do so within three years. In accountancy, EY, KPMG and PwC are each set to spend more than $1bn a year building out teams and developing AI, automation and data analytics solutions. But will automation kill jobs, or just change them?
Earlier this year, the New York Times looked at the combined impact of the availability of new technology, with increasingly affordable and easy-to-use R.P.A. bots, and the COVID-19 pandemic, which has driven up demand in some sectors while shutting down offices, disrupting the human workforce as companies adjusted to remote working, and impacting budgets. Forrester Research analyst Craig Le Clair, who studies corporate automation, says companies are automating “like crazy”, adding that with R.P.A., “you can build a bot that costs $10,000 a year and take out two to four humans”, while Raul Vega from Auxis says automation is becoming “more politically acceptable” as businesses fight for survival. Sales of automation tech are set to rise 20% last year, accelerating from a 12% increase in 2020, while McKinsey recently upped its estimate of the number of U.S. workers likely to be displaced by automation from 37m by 2030 to 45m.
As interest in automation grows, it’s important to remember that when it comes to technologies like artificial intelligence, not all tasks are equal. A breakdown of accounting tasks by McKinsey considers the suitability of different tasks to automation, from general accounting operations (with 77% of such tasks considered ‘fully automatable’), through financial controlling and external reporting (where that figure drops to 36%), and external relations and business development, where no tasks are considered highly or fully automatable. “Accounting teams”, argues Nikko Jones at FloQast, “won’t be so much replaced by robots, as augmented”, and firms should embrace that process. He urges companies to “look at all of your existing tech and processes”, to identify “pain points” and unused capabilities in existing technology. New technology, he suggests, should be introduced side-by-side with existing processes, allowing for an interactive process of adjustment to ensure everything is working smoothly.
With the profession facing such a fundamental upheaval, how can firms stand out in an increasingly automated marketplace, and attract clients who may be tempted to use new technology to manage their own accounts? The Association of Accounting Technicians spoke to Steve Collings, Director at Leavitt Walmsley Associates, who argues that the “fact that technology has changed the way accountants work doesn’t mean they will be redundant”, with accountants still vital to “help clients deal with compliance, tax, legislation and standards”, while the human touch in areas like customer service will become a key differentiator. Will Lopez, Head of Accountant Community at Gusto, makes a similar argument - that a “valued accountant is a holistic business advisor to clients, solving human problems that technology simply cannot — and will never be able to — solve on its own” and argues that accountants can “add tremendous value in this new world by leaning into their advisory role”.
Pieter Bensch, Executive Vice-President for Africa & Middle East at Sage, concurs. Artificial intelligence, he argues, is a “powerful tool that can enhance every aspect of the human experience”, while finance professionals are among the groups that stand to benefit the most from its introduction. Most accountants, he notes, “complain about time scarcity”, a scarcity in large part created by time-consuming, simple, repetitive tasks “that add little to no real value to the business”, and which are perfectly suited for automation. “Imagine”, he suggests, “what you could accomplish with an extra five or ten hours per week – from sharpening your consulting offering and upskilling in emerging technologies to spending more time providing strategic counsel to your customers.”
Whatever changes are on the way, our team at Accountancy Slice will be following them closely. From the growth of new major technology players, to changes in the workforce, to the impact of regulation on an increasingly automated sector, the accountancy field is in for an eventful, challenging future - but one that also presents big opportunities to those ready to adapt.
Martin Knight, Industry Slice
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