CPAs need to account for machine learning

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In October 2016, when a truck delivered a shipment of beer in Colorado without a human driver at the wheel, the question stopped being if automation is changing jobs forever. It is. Beyond blue-collar workers, every single job category will be affected as AI and machine learning technologies advance. Currently demonstrated technologies could automate as many as 45 percent of the activities people are paid to do today. So what will the jobs of tomorrow look like?

Among these professions, accounting has drawn some of the direst warnings about automation disrupting the industry. Bookkeepers are no longer doing their work with books as their name suggests. But will evil robot overlords ever replace your human CPA?

Since its inception, accountancy has been a profession that has required humans to punch in numbers, create financial reports, and tidy up the mistakes of their clients. With the introduction of desktop accounting software, accountants were given the ability to calculate information more quickly and easily. But accountants just became a slave to the computer, forced to work wherever the data was hosted — whether it be on the desktop or server — often visiting their clients in person to complete tasks as tedious as printing paper checks.

With the advent of cloud accounting platforms, accountants were granted the freedom to not only work from anywhere, at any time, but significantly reduce time spent on labor-intensive, low-value work such as data entry. Document capture is now done by mobile apps, bank data flows into the platform automatically, and reports can be generated at the click of a button.

Today, innovations in automation mean that client mistakes can be all but eliminated. My company, Xero, recently introduced a machine learning system into our core accounting engine that learns how invoices are coded and predicts where the next invoice generated should be coded for the small business owner. Machine learning is automating the busy work of accounting, and it’s doing so in many other white-collar professions.

So what does this mean for accountants? Well, with the cloud and automation, accountants are already taking on more of an advisory or CFO-type role within their clients’ businesses. Rather than keying in data, they’re overseeing the flow of it, managing all the integrated accounting systems and interpreting the output. As cloud accounting platforms improve, they’ll be able to use the vast amount of data accumulated from users to develop algorithms that dive into historical financial information and help identify whether a firm will run into trouble and provide them insights on how to survive and thrive.

With increasing urgency, accountants that focus primarily on compliance and execution work will need to evolve and embrace a new way of working and providing value. But it won’t come without some bumps in the road. A recent report by broking firm CLSA concludes accountancy will see material changes where AI and machine learning may cause some disruption in the short term. Although there will undoubtedly be growing pains as the industry shifts, it will be worth it for the future of the accounting profession and the global economy as a whole.

Over the past few years, enterprise-level services have been driving small businesses. But with their own CFO delivering strategic business advice and advisory services, small business owners can keep their doors open longer, improving the mortality rate that sees 50 percent of them close within the first five years of business. As business survival rates improve, so will the number of new businesses. This isn’t just good for the economy, this is good for accountants as well.

Accountants need to stay abreast of emerging trends in their industry, such as the cloud-based and mobile solutions that others are using, and learn how to implement them should the opportunity arise. By looking at what role new technology can play in their sector, accountants can seize the opportunity and start applying advances to their everyday job.

The higher level advisory services that help clients feel more in control of their finances is a key human function that cannot be replaced. This is what accountants and bookkeepers are and will continue to do. A century ago, nobody could have foreseen the industries that would be thriving today. As computer systems become more advanced, jobs won’t die — they’ll evolve. Those who embrace and exploit automation will survive and prosper.

Keri Gohman is the president of the Americas at Xero, a cloud accounting company.

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