How to Beat Automation in Accounting

Classic drawing/puzzleFour frustrations ... and which one to focus on.

By Hitendra Patil

Do you see an old lady or a young lady or both?

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According to brainbashers.com, this image appeared in a 1915 edition of the Puck.

Our cognitive biases predominantly dictate what we see. According to Wikipedia, "Cognitive biases are tendencies to think in certain ways that can lead to systematic deviations from a 'standard of rationality' or good judgment, and are often studied in psychology and behavioral economics."

Technology. Cloud. Automation. Artificial intelligence. Succession. Staffing. Millennials. Regulations. Complexity. Seasonality of workload. Value pricing. Bringing in new clients. Retaining existing clients. Profitability. Productivity. Efficiency. Business environment uncertainty.

There are already too many challenges accounting and tax professionals are dealing with. But there is one HUGE challenge that is a constant across generations and technological disruptions...

Humans!

Come what may, accounting and tax pros have to deal with humans. Actually, deal with human biases. Human behavior scientists call these “cognitive biases.” Even after evolving for two million years, this old human organ cannot cope with the challenges the universe throws at it. That organ is your brain. To do its best, the brain conjures cognitive biases. If not, one lifetime is just not enough to manage to figure out even necessities of life.

I have dived deeper into the study of these human biases, specifically how they relate to the day-to-day situations accountants and tax professionals deal with. Someone spent weeks analyzing all the scientifically researched 180+ biases and, astonishingly, identified just four fundamental mysteries humans can figure out through these 180+ biases.

Automation, as you will see in this article, will address three of those four fundamental mysteries, in some ways or other. Therefore, you are left with only one thing to master – to beat the perceived threats of automation in accounting.

Let us first examine all four, because the challenges you willl face in your practice depend upon how much automation you are leveraging in your practice.

Four Fundamental Flummoxing Frustrations

Frustration #1: Too much information.

From 500 B.C., when the Chinese abacus was reportedly invented, until 1989 when the web was born, and even after that until just a few years ago, people went to information. Read: Clients came to accountants for information.

The Internet started liberating data and information from the clutches of locations. But computerization started creating more and more information – way too much information for humans to grasp as quickly as they wanted. That led to the creation of several new biases that forced us to bypass the limitation of not being able to handle so much information in the time available to us. And that created potentially colossal problems.

Accountants – in their day-to-day work – collect, arrange and organize data to convert it into information. After that, they do the most important, actually the key component of their work for which they are paid, i.e. look for relevant meaning from that information.

With too much information, the time, effort and cost of collecting, arranging and organizing data itself was so much that it became difficult to manage information – so much so that there was not much time left to find meaning. This made the biases step in much more regularly in a bid to create more time for finding meaning, at times by overlooking detailed information in favor of perceptions of trends, patterns, situations that conformed to the biases.

Guess what? Suddenly integration and automation were threatening to take away the mass chunk of “work” (of collecting, arranging and organizing data) from accountants’ daily lives. If clients will pay more for that “arranged information,” rather than for meaning, automation is a real threat.

Automation will help accountants effectively deal with too much information. And it will force accountants to change their business models – to derive and sell meaning.

Frustration #2: Not enough meaning.

Too much information brings in too much complexity. Too many factors to correlate. And, many times, too little meaning after too much effort. This is where cognitive biases take over to make us feel there is a justified reward commensurate with our efforts.

We pigeonhole everything that comes our way. We think we know it all. We go by our experiences to identify similarities, to reduce our efforts. Profit. Loss. Receivables. Payables. Taxes. Compliance. We quickly organize for known meaning. But even to organize for known meaning takes a lot of time and effort.

It is too hard to relate profit or loss to decisions taken or not taken. It is even harder to correlate the mindset, the thinking, the fears, the overenthusiasm, etc. to why the decisions were taken or not taken. There is not enough meaningful meaning.

Guess what? Integration and automation will help us organize for known meaning much faster than humanly possible – and at much lesser cost. The impact will be a level playing field as software brings in required knowledge to its subscribers, increasing competition and thereby creating immense pressure on pricing. At the same time, it gives you profitable scalability to serve many more clients within existing resources.

Frustration #3: Need to act fast, i.e. not enough time.

Software in the accounting profession has evolved so much that errors in organizing information are minimized to a large extent. “Rules” in software enable you to avoid a lot of errors – increasing your levels of compliance. But the time taken to organize information and derive meaning out of it means when it is decision time, you simply do not have enough time. Have you felt that you need to explore more, research more, investigate more, double-check, etc.? But you need to act fast by using your intuition, hunches and wisdom because there is not enough time. You invariably end up feeling jittery and hope that things will work out eventually. No wonder accountants voted “decisiveness” the topmost success trait!

Guess what? Automation and integration will free you up significantly. You will have more time to make sure your decisions are made only after more comprehensive analyses. When automation results in your practice growth, you will still be faced with not having enough time but many of your manual analyses will be already done for you by the software and hence, you will have more internal assurance that your decisions are more sound than before.

Frustration #4: What should we remember?

When you look at the accounting information of a client, everything looks too important to miss. That circles us back to frustration #3 – not enough time. So we tend to figure out only the most important things and that leads us to selectively ignore a lot of details – by trusting our past experiences and instincts in similar situations. The challenge is what information can we safely skip and what we must remember.

Guess what? Automation will help us automatically figure out what we ought to remember, based on our own repetitive actions. In other words, instead of trying to remember not to forget seeing important details, automation will help accountants to recognize the insights.

The focus will shift from routine to relevance, and that alone will increase the value accountants produce and deliver.

The Mystery of Future Success Is in Finding the Meaning

Automation will address #1, #3 and #4 much more quickly than it will address #2, i.e. discovering meaning in the context of who you are interacting with and why.

Once accountants provide the financial statements to their clients – the business owners – it is a Herculean struggle for business owners to spot the real meaning and insights from such statements. Remember, the business owners – unless they are accountants themselves – are not brain-trained to decipher accounting intelligence.

This means that very subtly, automation shifts the struggle for meaning from business owners to the accountants. And that means more opportunities to earn from a “high value, high returns” business model for accountants – provided accountants are ready with the necessary skills that enable them to find that meaning for their clients.

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