Robots are replacing some accounting tasks, but only some.
By Hitendra Patil
Accountaneur: The Entrepreneurial Accountant
By one oft-cited study, robots will replace 94% what accountants and auditors are doing today. But look a little deeper and you'll find that instead of replacing accountants, the profession stands to gain from mastering new robot technologies and putting them to work to enhance client service, streamline processes, and provide more high-value high-ticket work.
More Accountaneur: Six Never-Before Opportunities for the Accounting Profession | Urgently Required: A New Definition of Accounting | You Cannot Prove Your Value | Certified Blockchain Accountant: From CPA to CB | You Don’t Need More Clients. You Need Better Clients. | Who Wants to Be a Comptometrist? | Blockchain: Questions Are the Answer | The 7 Experiences Millennials Want from Your Firm | Is Blockchain an Extinction Event for Accountants?
Let’s take an example in write-up work. It was common for the bookkeeper to enter transactions off bank and credit card statements into the accounting software. Output per hour – i.e. how many transactions were entered in an hour, and to the correct chart of account – determined the profitability of that work. Now, the same task can be done by automated bank feeds software – which is essentially a software robot that performs pre-defined, repetitive tasks efficiently and accurately. And you can train this robot to be better, by defining rules. It also obviated the need to wait for the client to send you the bank statements and hence, there is now no need to send follow up reminders.
What do the bookkeepers do now if such a task was one of the major tasks they performed? They review the work done by the bank feeds software. They have more time to utilize their experience to improve the quality of accounting information. The service delivery to the client improves quantitatively (faster turnaround) as well as qualitatively (more insightful). Such robots enhance and upgrade the life (and practice growth and profitability) of accountants.
Such robots are also learning, not just from you – their boss, but also from bosses across the profession. The crowd-sourced intelligence is making these robots even more efficient and accurate, thus freeing up their bosses to do even more intelligent work for their clients.
Are robots replacing bookkeepers?
What’s your answer? Not sure?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the job outlook for employment from 2016 to 2026 for bookkeepers shows less than a 1% decline. In other words, 99% of the bookkeeper jobholders will upgrade their careers despite robots doing increasingly more tasks while bookkeepers will increasingly review more reporting done by robots.
Let’s take the example of audit work. Collecting, verifying, organizing and analyzing transactional data for an audit is a major time, effort, and cost component of the audit assignment. AI-based audit software promises to minimize time and effort, and hence cost, of such work. Also, the audit sample can expand to cover even 100% of the transactions of a given company, because AI, combined with accounting technology can make it practical. Arguably, such technologies can replace such tasks people in the audit team performed. I read somewhere that bigger firms are estimating a reduction of revenue from audit because of technological advancement. I am not sure though if the impact of re-skilling of experienced audit professionals was taken into account when such predictions were made. I am not sure if firms are fully taking into account whether audits will become more affordable for mid-sized companies and hence increase the number of audit clients – to compensate for the perceived revenue reduction from audits.
Blockchain (trusted record of origin of transaction), ability of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to make sense of the context of huge volume of transactional data and other automation technologies that help build data processing modules to support investigation can flip the lower-value, lower-fee, higher-cost cycle into lower-value, lower-cost, faster-turnaround, higher profit work.
Similarly, robots turn many transaction-heavy, data-intensive accounting processes into more profitable services.
It All Fits Into Traditional Structures of Accounting Firms
Despite the fears to the contrary, robots actually fit into traditional structures of accounting firms. For a moment, think about your firm - who used to report to whom and why? What did the reporting person deliver to the supervisor/manager, how and what purpose it catered to? Who reports/delivers service outcomes/explains the results to your clients? If you have automated some parts of your firm’s internal processes, or if you study the processes of more automated firms, you will find that many internal process tasks are now assigned to software robots. But, the interactions between clients and your firm are hardly turned over to robots, other than some automated alerts based on certain thresholds of their process parameters.
Clients want to deal with accountants, not their robots. Chatbots are efficient and cost-effective for answering transactional queries of clients but I would leave it to your imagination if clients would trust the advice given by a chatbot if it does so. And robots make it increasingly possible for you to interact with your clients. They are helping you improve your client service and client relationships.
Robots Report to Accountants
Clients are not asking their accountants if robots did their accounting work or whether the robots prepared their reports. On the contrary, because clients are becoming more aware of the technological leaps in the accounting profession, they are increasingly asking if the accountant reviewed their information and reports personally. Robots are delivering reports to clients, but not explaining the insights and not answering contextual questions relevant to clients or their business situations. It is the accountants who are more and more available to clients to do so.
“Personally reviewed by me” is actually becoming a unique selling proposition for some accounting firms, which have leveraged automation and integration more than other firms have. “We provide personalized service and attention” is becoming truer.
Accountants are getting more time now to review the work done by robots. Accounting software has now given the power to accountants to train, guide, and mentor the robots to do better work, e.g. setting up rules in the software for robots to follow. Even better, robots meticulously follow accountants’ rules every single time.
Robots, with multi-capabilities, are available to accountants. And accountants are deciding which of those capabilities they will use for which clients, and to what extent.
Accountants have always leveraged technology. No wonder robots are reporting to accountants.