Who Wants to Be a Comptometrist?

Dinosaur talking on a rotary phoneHint: You shouldn’t. Here’s why.

By Hitendra Patil
Accountaneur: The Entrepreneurial Accountant

(With sincere respect to the erstwhile comptometrists.)

Only 16 out of over 500 million users of LinkedIn have “comptometrist” as the “past” title. And they held those positions from anywhere between 25 to 55 years ago!

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There are exactly zero comptometrists on LinkedIn today – and likely, in the world.

I read an interesting LinkedIn post by Kevin Phillips that mentioned the term comptometrist. The comptometer was the first commercially successful key-driven mechanical calculator, patented in the U.S. by Dorr E. Felt in 1887, according to Wikipedia. Researching further, the description of the word on Careers.org intrigued me. It defines comptometrists as people who:

“Operate machines that automatically perform mathematical processes, such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, to calculate and record billing, accounting, statistical and other numerical data. Duties include operating special billing machines to prepare statements, bills and invoices, and operating bookkeeping machines to copy and post data, make computations, and compile records of transactions.”

Isn’t the word “comptometer” somewhat synonymous with “automation”?

The comptometer lived for 100 years. Will your accounting technology live that long?

Comptometers were physical devices. Even with initial advent of personal computers, they seem to have been in use for some years.

Software technologies turned such comptometers into digital algorithms. They went into the computers. Became invisible.

Algorithms: Aren’t they just like the (advanced) comptometers?

Comptometers automated some basic functions back then. Algorithms are moving more complex, multi-rules-based functions from human to digital realms. But the algorithms – the digital comptometers – are short(er) lived.

The utility of physical comptometers may have lasted 100 years. But digital comptometers (algorithms) may not last even a decade. Life expectancy of digital comptometers will be much shorter because of artificial intelligence and machine learning. But it creates freedom for humans to apply brainpower to insights, intelligence and impact.

You don’t want to be a comptometrist. The comptometrist is extinct.

Artificial intelligence, machine learning, automation and blockchain have the potential to turn many work processes into “comptometerized” extinction.

If you are in the accounting profession, you don’t want to be a (proverbial) comptometrist. The difficulty is, how do you know which work processes are going to be comptometerized?

Any work process that has input->processing->output routines is among the most prone to be comptometerized.

Even “rules-based processing,” even those with complex rules, can be comptometerized. Think IBM Watson. Anything that can be derived from data and information can be comptometerized. Audit “processes” to collect, organize and verify data/information may get comptometerized.

What, then, is beyond (digital) comptometers? It is the human mind. Specifically, your client’s mind. Your client’s aspirations. Your client’s concerns. How you understand those, relate those with the accounting insights, create relevant plans/options to address them will help you avoid comptometerization.

No wonder the most influential people in accounting are urging accountants to upgrade themselves into advisory roles. It is NOT a “shift” from traditional roles accountants played. Accounting expertise is absolutely, fundamentally essential to move into advisory roles. You will need to add new skills – especially human behavioral skills and more expressive communication skills – to your accounting acumen.

That is the hint that tells you what is beyond (digital) comptometers:

  • Helping clients achieve their dreams is beyond comptometers.
  • Helping clients solve their problems is beyond comptometers.
  • Helping clients work out their choices is beyond comptometers.
  • Helping clients decide between their choices is beyond comptometers.
  • Helping clients limit the downside of their decisions is beyond comptometers.
  • Helping clients optimize their profitability is beyond comptometers.

The common factor? It is not about comptometers – physical or digital – and not about what the software does or can do. It is about them. And it is about what can you help them achieve.

Can you identify what in your practice is beyond digital comptometers?