Archives For accountancy futures

2015: Year of the Robot?

accapr —  12 January 2015 — 1 Comment

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By David Poole, CEO of Symphony Ventures 

Automation of business processes through Robotic Process Automation and Artificial Intelligence is the subject of a great deal of speculation. Is the accounting profession on a collision course with these game-changing technologies? Is the future bleak or bright for today’s Accountant?

In the recent ACCA white paper, Digital Darwinism: Thriving In The Face Of Technology ChangeFaye Chua and her contributors make some very insightful predictions about the emerging role of technology in accountancy. The chapter on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Robotics offers an interesting view into the potential role process automation can play in improving systems, reducing costs, and increasing accuracy. As an accountant by training, I am fascinated by what the future holds for this industry.

While far from envisioning a world where mechanical robots can credibly take over the complex and intuitive role of the accounting professional, I believe software robots, or Robotic Process Automation (RPA), are indeed capable of handling labour-intensive tasks in a highly efficient manner. These software robots don’t sit at a desk, but toil quietly behind the scenes, easing the burden of routine monthly tasks including data collection, reconciliations, complex journal entries, compliance testing and master data management (to name but a few). Once ‘taught’, they faithfully follow the processes accurately and reliably until told to stop. They don’t mind working 24/7 or skipping lunch breaks. They never quit, and a fleet of them can upskill as fast as you can say ‘copy/paste’. Millions of bits of data can be processed, analysed, and computed more quickly and efficiently by a handful of digital accountants than by dozens (even hundreds) of junior assistants.

An inevitable trend

The fact that robots can access multiple systems at once and make complex calculations means that as long as a process can be documented and the data is digital, the software can do the work.  The accounting world is well served by very good ERP and finance software which has automated many accounting tasks and created enormous value over the past 20 years. However, there are still a very large number of accounting staff and, some might say, more now than prior to the advent of ERP systems. It’s these human roles that are the target of robotic assistants.

So, how, you might ask, do you take advantage of this trend rather than being thrashed by it? It’s an important question, because automation in accounting is inevitable, and having a plan is critical.

Planning for Automation in Accounting

Your goal in the early days should be to gain a comfort level with automation and introduce it in ways that encourage adoption (rather than resistance).  One such area is for Digital Labour automation to take over the most onerous of tasks so that accountants can focus on the high-value work that best takes advantage of their background and knowledge. This will also create more fulfilling roles for junior staff as they can focus on analysis rather than process. Conservative estimates have such automation infiltrating most accounting offices within the next five years.

The robots can either work as assistants to teams of accountants, making them far more efficient, or can take over entire tasks and work independently in the background. For instance, it’s possible for robots to manage bank reconciliations in real-time and then escalate complex issues as they arise to a human colleague. And, as some have foreseen, the robot may then learn how to solve that problem independently next time it arises.

Areas of Opportunity

Once a comfort level has been achieved, one need not look far to find ripe areas of opportunity for automation. Firstly, look for areas where interfaces with business systems are either nonexistent or only partially implemented. This is robot nirvana. Robots are very efficient at completing integrations extremely quickly, cheaply, and often more reliably than building interfaces to legacy systems. For example, collecting, summarising, and posting sales data, order data, commitment data and so on.

Secondly, there is an ever increasing demand for analytics and reporting to add value to the business.  Robots can rapidly access data from multiple accounting and business systems and present results and insights to a human colleague. For the time being, robots are not as capable at interpreting the results of the analysis in the context of a specific business or industry. However, it’s only a matter of time before even the most nuanced and complex cerebral tasks are being automated as well – thanks to Artificial Intelligence software development being one of the hottest and fastest growing areas of R&D.

The Numbers

As accountants, it’s important that the numbers add up – that this is not just a management fad. Well, they do. All of the tasks described above can today be achieved at a fraction of the cost of employing humans. A single software robot can cost a small percentage of an FTE and yet perform the tasks of multiple humans, work longer hours, and do so with far more consistent results. They can also do so in a format that is highly compliant and auditable. Obviously the set up and implementation of a digital workforce is not straightforward and requires professional help and advice. Typically, however, even with the upfront investment and time taken to implement such automation, it is not uncommon to see a break-even within one year and a 3-4x payback on the initial investment over a period of three years.

With such a clear business case, the march of the robots is inevitable. The question is not ‘if’, but ‘when’ will you need to take a long hard look at the potential of Robotic Process Automation and Artificial Intelligence in your finance function? Many organisations are creating specific automation budgets for 2015 to start to develop their knowledge and capabilities around these new technologies.  The potential across the organisation, not just in finance, will be material in the coming years. Automation projects truly are transformational, but without the huge systems and wholesale restructuring that went along with ERP-grade transformations of the past.

The robots are indeed coming. The value they bring is real, and the competitive advantage they enable is significant. So make 2015 the year of the robot, and begin investing in the future of your profession and your firm.

By Faye Chua, head of futures research, ACCA

In this interview Marie McCrea, Partner at CIL in South Africa, talks about the Drivers of Change research and the imperatives that the accountancy profession and the business community need to focus on to stay successful. Marie is a member of ACCA’s Accountancy Futures Academy.

The accountancy profession needs to reinvent the talent pool. 

There are a range of driving forces that suggests a diverse and growing set of demands and impacts on the accountant’s role in the future. This has a direct bearing on recruitment, professional training and development. The speed of change and the rate of emergence of new requirements place an emphasis on the need for ‘on demand’ accelerated learning-based solutions. Increasingly these will be delivered via the internet and mobile devices. At the same time, an increasingly broad, complex and demanding remit will influence the type of people that the profession seeks to attract. Alongside the traditional characteristics typically associated with the profession, traits such as entrepreneurship, curiosity, creativity and strategic thinking skills will become of increasing importance for tomorrow’s accountant.

Western populations, in particular, are ageing rapidly and financial pressures could mean that people have to work on into their late-60s, 70s or 80s. Hence the challenges of managing and addressing the needs and expectations of a multicultural, global and age-diverse workforce will become ever more complex. Technology and the internet now sit at the core of the modern enterprise and may offer some solutions for workforce integration.

Access to talent at all levels is consistently identified as a critical future success factor for small, medium and large enterprises alike. The challenge of securing a suitable flow of talent is increasingly becoming a top priority for CEOs, who are finding growth and development ambitions hampered by talent shortages.

Businesses must assume and plan for volatility

Expectations of economic uncertainty and turbulence now stretch out for a decade or more – driven by serious concerns over the scale of debt at the sovereign, corporate and individual level. At the same time, rapid shifts of wealth and power are taking place across the globe while concerns remain over the robustness of the global economic infrastructure. Under such conditions, a single business plan and a set of governing assumptions are no longer sufficient.

Leaders have to ensure that their organisations can survive and thrive under a range of scenarios. Leaders must also develop a core competency for thinking the unthinkable and preparing for it. Planning assumptions must consider the potential for economic collapse, nationalisation of assets by governments and disruptive innovations that could transform markets, industries or entire economic systems.

An emerging development priority for leaders is the need to learn how to make use of concepts such as chaos theory and integrated systems thinking to manage complexity within the firm.

Ecosystem thinking, risk management, tackling complexity and resilience planning will all need to become part of the core training and development programmes for managers, leaders and accountants.

The accountant in 2022

accapr —  6 December 2012 — Leave a comment

Drivers of changeBy Ng Boon Yew, chair of Accountancy Futures Academy, ACCA

As the Accountancy Futures Academy chair, I am often asked ‘So what does the future look like?’ As a practitioner myself, I think that the accountant that we know today will be different in ten years’ time – but how different?

For starters, the accountancy profession does not operate in isolation and its main challenges will certainly mirror those faced by the global economy. The areas that will impact the profession the most are: trust and reporting (strengthening public image by providing a more transparent, simplified but holistic picture of a firm’s health and prospects), regulatory expectations, standards and practices (a global approach), intelligent systems and big data (exploiting the repositories of big data), and finally, organisational remit (the increasing expectations that CFOs and the finance function should play a far greater role).

So how can a global accounting professional be better prepared to adapt and respond in a decade of uncertainty and rapid change?

As businesses adapt to a turbulent environment, accountants need to take on a far greater organisational remit, from strategy formulation through to defining new business models, the accounting professionals will need to embrace an enlarged strategic and commercial role. At the same time, accountants will need to focus on a holistic view of complexity, risk and performance and establish trust and ethical leadership. There is growing consensus on the need for reporting to provide a firm-wide view of organisational health, performance and prospects and must acknowledge the complexity of modern business and encompass financial and non-financial indicators of a firm’s status and potential.

Accountant’s global orientation, the ability to master the technical, language and cultural challenges of cross-border operations will be in the spotlight as the pace of global expansion of firms from developed and developing markets increases.

Lastly, the profession needs to reinvent the talent pool. The diverse range of demands on the profession is forcing a rethink of everything from recruitment through to training and development. Entrepreneurial spirit, curiosity, creativity and strategic thinking skills could be the key competences in the selection of tomorrow’s accountants.

There are significant uncertainties about how the driving forces will play out but the accountancy profession will need to be nimble enough to adjust and evolve and be able to maintain the balance between entrepreneurism and pursuing the highest standards of financial stewardship.

How certain is this? From my point of view, pretty spot on but only time will tell!

By Faye Chua, head of future research, ACCA

Labels such as ‘constant flux’, ‘change’ and ‘uncertainty’ have often been used to characterise the global economy over the past few years. And no matter what course of action is taken or the level of appetite for public sector intervention, it seems that volatility is here to stay having become the new normal.

Over the next decade, the global landscape will constantly be reshaped by a number of drivers. Those that will have the greatest influence are market volatility, continued globalisation and innovation, shifts in wealth and power, economic uncertainty and political transitions. These trends will be magnified by rapid advances in science and technology, demographic changes and the emergence of new business models.

So how flexible and agile does one need to be to weather these shifts and volatility? Businesses will need to do more than simply adapt. They will need to be constantly innovating and re-inventing themselves in order to survive and thrive.

You will remember, back in the old days of dial-up modem, when ICQ was one of the coolest internet instant messaging services available. It was then overtaken by MSN Messenger when broadband became conventional. A few years later and large strides in mobile technology raised the stakes and brought us Facebook and BlackBerry messenger 24/7. And today the majority of us are ‘tweeting’ and ‘pinning’ as well. The pace of technological advance has led to the demise of many businesses while a handful of survivors have prospered.

There is no doubt that technological developments are dominating strategy discussion for many businesses of all sizes. As businesses will need to pursue technological leadership, embrace IT advances and leverage technology effectively as well as develop the capabilities of their employees to work with, adapt to and getting the best out of a multi-location, multicultural and age-diverse workforce. Additionally, new mindsets and approaches to technology management are also crucial in maximising value in the next decade.

But there’s more. Technology isn’t the only answer.

Businesses will need to assume and plan for volatility. They will need to account for turbulence as a very real possibility and develop strategies for a range of different economic and market scenarios will become essential. At the same time, they will need to improve their scanning skills to prepare for a wide range of possibilities, tolerate uncertainty and ‘seeing around the corners’. At an operational level, development of a truly global model is becoming a real priority which will require business to prepare for true globalisation. Finally, for companies to be successful in a fast-changing and increasingly complex environment it is essential to develop a curious, experimental and adaptable mental attitude – a critical success factor.

All this is much more easier said than done. But one thing that I’ll bet on is that the rate of change will only increase quite literally at an exponential rate and definitely beyond historical levels, and this can be scary and inspirational at the same time with difficult to envisage effects across the global economy.