What You Need to Know About Accounting Automation

By Robert Half June 11, 2019 at 8:50am

Finance functions are increasing the use of accounting automation where it makes the most sense. The goal is to boost efficiencies and align with digital transformation initiatives, either in the accounting and finance functions themselves, in the broader business, or both.

But this is just a start, as technology continues to advance. Accounting professionals at all levels need to be ready for whatever happens next.

Here’s more about how automation and other technologies are revolutionizing finance and accounting work, as well as what you can do to stay relevant if you’re an accounting employee or job seeker.

Accounting automation trends

Robert Half’s new report, Jobs and AI Anxiety, explores how technologies like cloud computing, software robots and virtual reality are already transforming workplaces. The future will see many more automation applications that will have an effect on traditional finance jobs. Some of the technologies that will disrupt accounting include the following:

  • Robotic process automation (RPA) — If you’ve ever written a macro in Excel, then you understand the basis of RPA, which focuses on automating repetitive tasks. Modern RPA tools like Kofax and Blue Prism are extremely powerful and can be used to automate even the most complex processes.
  • Natural language processing (NLP) — NLP focuses on bridging the communication gap between humans and machines. It turns documents and speech into structured data and enables computers to speak or write in a way that sounds natural.
  • Artificial intelligence (AI) — We’re a long way from developing AI that thinks like humans, as popularized in films such as “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “The Matrix.” Today, work in the field of AI focuses on copying human decision-making processes and executing jobs in human ways. For example, some financial firms use AI to assess risk or detect fraud.
  • Machine learning (ML) — ML, a close cousin to AI, allows software to edit itself so it keeps improving without human intervention. The software does this by analyzing vast quantities of data, identifying patterns and using these insights to improve future performance. ML is a potent way for machines to learn and adapt over time.

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How will automation impact accounting?

On the road from manual work to full automation, there will be a few intermediate stages. To use a past example, take banking reconciliation. Previously, reconciliation had to be completed manually, but then tools were created that allowed data to be imported from your firm’s bank and enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, reducing the manual work necessary. Many of these tools still require some human intervention, such as when there’s a data conflict. However, they are improving, and reconciliations are now completely automated in some offices.

As accounting automation continues to take over some of the individual duties traditionally the province of finance professionals, here are some of the tasks it is likely to affect:

  • Routine tasks — Number-crunching is the most obvious candidate for automation. Any job that involves following an algorithm — calculating depreciation, for example — can be automated using existing RPA tools.
  • Compliance — While accountants will still need an excellent understanding of compliance, most key controls can be automated. ML can help improve the efficacy of automated key controls, ensuring there are no costly compliance breaches.
  • Customer interaction — The human touch can’t be automated, but NLP can help. NLP allows for the computerization of some customer interactions, from chatbots to contract and document preparation.
  • Strategy — Strategic thinking requires both analysis, where AI excels, and creativity, which is almost exclusively human. Further down the line, this might be an area dominated by what is referred to as “symbiotic computing.” Symbiotic computing is the process of people and AI working together as partners to create the best possible results.

What can you do to keep your career moving forward?

It’s unlikely software or robotic finance professionals will completely replace humans any time soon. However, accountants who want to future-proof their careers will increasingly need to work with automated tools to deliver the best possible service. The following skills can help you thrive in a world of increasing accounting automation:

  • Data analytics — The ability to work with large datasets is becoming a vital skill in all sectors. This requires a knowledge of common reporting tools and experience with cloud-based ERPs.
  • Creativity and strategic thinking — Automation has a tendency to over-standardize matters, which is problematic. Clients will still want to work with finance professionals who can anticipate unique opportunities and plan for all eventualities.
  • Emotional intelligence — This is paramount to any individual’s success in the accounting profession. You need to build rapport with clients, earn their trust and pick up on the nuances of what they’re telling you. Existing AIs cannot provide clients with the same level of trust and empathy people can.
  • Communication — Excellent writing and speaking abilities will always be valued by employers. They enhance customer services and are crucial for cross-departmental collaboration, especially during ongoing digital transformation projects.

As long as you stay abreast of changes and keep your skills fresh, accounting automation probably isn’t going to be a major threat to your career success. When you focus on how you can work with these innovations and use them to your firm’s advantage, you can actually advance your career.

Learn more about how new technology will affect accounting jobs in our Jobs and AI Anxiety report.

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