Can Computers Replace Human Accountants? We Doubt They Can
People remain paramount to the accountancy profession despite advanced modern technology and artificial intelligence. But accountancy is no longer just about financial statements and tax returns.
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"The secret lies in embracing the technological advances without sacrificing the values and ethics that sustains and defines the profession," says Jeanne Viljoen, Project Director: Practices at the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (SAICA).
"Don't fear technology – embrace it and use it wisely. By embracing technology, the profession can provide deeper insight to their clients while helping them understand the rapidly approaching "new normal' for business operations."
The radical transformation of accounting
"It is no secret that accounting has been radically transformed by globalisation, digitisation and a growing amount of technological integration into business operations.
External disruptors, like the use of big data, the cloud and distributed ledger technology also affects the profession, but computers will never replace human interaction or advice.
Computers and algorithms may increase accuracy and can crunch numbers and vast amounts of information at increasing speed, but they have no feelings and cannot learn common sense or the ability to plan creatively. They also cannot deploy human judgement or professional scepticism," Viljoen continues.
This, paired with a human accountant's technical knowledge and adherence to a global Code of Ethics and international standards applicable to certain types of engagement, offers vast new potential for accountants to accurately interpret data and develop insights that will underpin more valuable strategic recommendations for their clients.
The focus of accounting is changing
"While traditional services will continue to remain an important part of what accountants do, the focus will be different. The biggest benefit of using artificial intelligence (AI) instead of manual bookkeeping, is probably the time it frees up for accountants to provide strategic advice to businesses and organisations.
Real-time accounting can help small to medium businesses to take decisions when needed instead of waiting for months for financial statements."
Correct analysis of business data is exactly what gives a business a competitive edge and help generate a higher profit margin.
"If, for instance, your company sell products online, software that enables you to determine when your customers are most active online will help you determine the best time to market to them. The correct technological systems and software can make your business lean and mean and will enable a total overview of your business at the press of a button."
This can prevent relatively small problems like absenteeism on certain days and over claiming on business trips to turn into big crisis situations.
"This is exactly where accountants will continue to play an important advisory role, because they are trained to analyse risks, and spot outliers, exceptions and trends."
Accountants can also assist businesses and organisations with cyber security and successfully navigating their digital landscape, helping to avoid cyber fraud and the theft of personal information.
The future of accounting
Viljoen also referred to twelve predictions about the future of the accountancy profession made by Rob Nixon, an internationally renowned accountancy expert. These are:
- Compliance will be completely commoditised, meaning less "human" time spent on ensuring compliance.
- Cloud accounting will be installed in more than 90% of small- and medium-sized entities, because more and more people want their data and information on their mobile devices.
- More than 90% of accounting firms will have cloud practice management, as it improves efficiency and mobility and lowers operating costs.
- Coaches and consultants – even non-financial – will become competition for tomorrow's accountant.
- Clients will be more transient because of cloud accounting. All that is required for data to be captured is a login code. This will result in tighter and more enduring relationships between client and accountant.
- Offshore teams will be more prevalent – cloud computing will enable your teams to work anywhere.
- Compliance prices will plummet, new systems costs will be reduced and financial reporting will be current.
- Marketing and sales skills will be needed – with commoditised services comes price pressure and new low-cost entrants into your market. Accountants will need to differentiate and give compelling reasons as to why clients should stay with them.
- Young people will not buy into staid and boring systems – they are not interested in old-fashioned systems/equipment and offices. Instead, they will be tech-savvy and will want progress faster than ever before.
- There will be no more time-based billing, but rather a valuation of the intellect that has taken many years to develop.
- The role of business advisor will result in more than 80% of an accountant's revenue, as accountants can add a huge amount of value when they know the facts. Spending less time on compliance services will mean that an accountant will have more time to truly live up to the trusted advisor status that they deserve.
- Advanced technology will mean that clients are finally served properly with real-time data, resulting in the accountant adding real value to the business.
In the light of all of this, it is important for small to medium businesses to look critically at their digital strategy, she concludes. "You don't need to buy the biggest, most expensive accountancy system. Look at your cash flow and needs and invest in a system that can grow with your business. Your accountant will be the best person to advise you on this."