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Finweek: The future of accounting: co-habitation with bots

By Johan Steyn, 19 September 2021

The new breed of techno-colleague is here to stay. We can avoid them at our peril, or we can form a mutually beneficial working relationship.

“Humans need not apply.” Imagine reading those words on a job-seeker website portal. The smart technology era introduced us to computer systems that can be programmed to do the tasks that most human workers do on a daily basis.

Computers can see (computer vision), they can speak and hear (natural language processing), they can execute tasks (robotic process automation) and they can think and learn (machine learning). One might wonder what is left for human workers to do in an age where robots can do what we do faster, more accurately, who are not involved with unions and industrial action, and who never sleep nor need sick leave.

In his book, Humans Need Not Apply: A Guide to Wealth & Work in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, futurist and technology entrepreneur Jerry Kaplan caution readers that the warning signs of techno-unemployment are before us. “The two great scourges of the modern developed world - persistent unemployment and increasing income inequality - plague our society even as our economy continues to grow. If these are left unchecked, we may witness the spectacle of widespread poverty against a backdrop of escalating comfort and wealth.”

White-collar bots are here

For decades white-collar jobs were mostly spared from the onslaught of automation. While robots may be taking over less-educated individuals' blue-collar employment, artificial intelligence (AI) is set to disrupt higher-paying occupations for university-educated professionals, ensuring that no one is immune to the influence of technology on the global workforce.

In order to compete in the global market, organisations are utilising smart automation technology to decrease their operating costs, increase the development and delivery of new products and services, and offering clients a better experience.

Many businesses are attempting to leave their infant shoes of basic process automation. Others are only now learning to walk without assistance by implementing platforms like Robotic Process Automation while others have learned to run the course by embracing smart technology like AI. The race is swift and lengthy, and the finishing line is continually moving out of sight.

On the horizon glimmers a new day of Intelligent Automation. Those businesses who are in their infant shoes or only now learning to walk are very, very far behind in the race. Will they ever be able to catch up?

In a recent global survey, covering all business domains, nearly 90% of business leaders indicated that they plan to deploy Intelligent Automation to stay ahead of their competitors. 42% of CEOs indicate that their organisations are already on a digital transformation journey, with 56% indicating they have experienced gains with the implementation of Intelligent Automation.

Finance functions on techno-steroids

All the functional areas in business are candidates for smarter automation. Perhaps the best of them all is the finance function. Supplier onboarding, accounts payable, audits, procurement, cost management, closure processing, and customer enquiries are among the accounting activities and procedures that computing technology can streamline.

Technology like machine learning may help firms boost their value by improving loan underwriting and lowering financial risk. As corporate accountants, analysts, treasurers, and investors strive toward long-term prosperity, AI may help reduce financial crime through enhanced fraud detection and can pick up on unusual transactional behaviour.

Smart technology is influencing the sorts of employment roles that will be accessible in the future of accounting. Humans will undertake more of the analysis as improved technologies handle monotonous tasks, making them the essential link between data and clients. In the future, technology will continue to have an influence on the function of the accountant and the need for accountants.

Accounting is reaching new heights thanks to technological advancements. Whether you're an experienced accounting professional wanting to keep on the cutting edge of the business or an ambitious novice, you'll want to be aware of how the accounting profession is changing due to smarter technological platforms.

Are they coming for our jobs?

When people hear that robots will be introduced to the workforce, it is normally met with suspicion if not outright fear and resistance. A few years ago I worked in the technology division of a large bank. The bank was the first local one to introduce a humanoid robot called Pepper. Standing just under a meter and a half tall, weighing nearly 30 kilograms, and with large child-like eyes, Pepper was destined to welcome customers as they entered a bank branch.

Despite all the excitement generated around our little electronic co-worker, many of my colleagues expressed a sense of unease. What made matters worse was that in the same week the bank’s financial results were announced. The CEO’s remarks were taken out of context and the media reported that the bank would be getting rid of thousands of workers. Imagine that: the first of a potential cohort of robot workers are introduced and it seems that many would be left without a job.

The bank’s leader actually said that they plan to employ fewer people over the next financial year due to smarter ways of working and better automation. But whichever way you look at it, smart automation and robotics pose a threat to many workers. We can either fear the advances of technology or we can embrace it, ensuring we make ourselves robot-proof.

Educate for the future

What are finance professionals to do? Almost all the mundane, repetitive tasks in the finance function are candidates for automation. They need to ensure that they have a good understanding of the business applications of smart technology. They do not need to become technical experts who can write the algorithms that enable a machine learning platform to operate. They need to understand how their profession is moving from mainly historical reporting and analysis to anticipating and advising on future trends utilising prediction models.

With automation expected to become a big part of accounting in the near future, it's critical to have the abilities needed to perform the managerial and analytical jobs that technology can't. Many accountants may also take on a consulting position with customers, which means they'll need to be adept at analysing large amounts of data to detect patterns and trends. Knowledge of data mining and other data science techniques is essential.

The education of future finance professionals must be built on a solid understanding of technology applications to the craft. Tertiary educational institutions across the board need to review their curricula in light of the rapidly changing demand for skilled, techno-savvy workers.

Technologies impacting finance

Audits, tax preparation, banking, and payroll are just a few of the labour-intensive aspects of accounting that are fast becoming entirely automated. As AI is used to develop self-learning systems, technology will take over the repetitive and time-consuming activities, allowing finance professionals to handle the analytical and advisory responsibilities.

Cloud computing enables access to resources like data and processing power. The constant updating of information is a significant benefit of a cloud-based system, allowing accountants and clients to analyse data and make decisions based on the most up-to-date information.

Blockchain technology will influence the demand for accountants in the future. The appeal of blockchain for accounting stems from the prospect of a new form of accounting ledger — one that can be updated and validated in real-time without the risk of being tampered with or damaged.

Welcoming the future

A new neighbour has moved in next door in the financial fraternity. Do we fear and avoid it, or do we welcome it and learn to live together in harmony? The new breed of techno-colleagues is here to stay. We can avoid them at our peril, or we can form a mutually beneficial co-habitation ecosystem.


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