“As a CPA, I am always looking at how to get better and what I do, and AI is helping me get it done. I see implementing AI as a way of following the principle of continuous improvement today and in the future.”
Stuart Pasternak, CFO, Planet Paper Box Inc., Toronto Regional Director, The CFO Leadership Council.
Accounting is not generally known for game-changing, cutting-edge technology. Let the marketing team chase the latest shiny objects; accountants get the job done without being flashy about it. In fact, the last huge innovation in accounting was double-entry bookkeeping… and that was back in the 11th century.
But the AI (artificial intelligence) wave is coming. In fact, it’s already crashing on the shore. No industry will be immune from its effects. Finance professionals from CPA to CFO should prepare for a change.
This is, overall, a good thing for accounting. Firms that have made investments in AI are already seeing ROI. At the same time, both the potential benefits and potential caveats are getting oversold.
Here’s what accountants need to know about AI.
How AI Will Affect Accounting Jobs
Let’s start with the million-dollar question: Will AI take your job?
Short answer: No.
Long answer: No, but…AI will definitely change your job. Atherton Research released a study saying that by 2020, the majority of accounting tasks will be fully automated.
Right now, a great deal of accounting time is spent on time-intensive, repetitive, low-cognitive tasks. Balancing ledgers. Processing invoices. They’re crucial tasks, but they don’t require intuition, imagination, or deductive ability. In other words, these are tasks that a machine could do. And as the saying goes, anything that can be automated will be. The accountant of the future can expect to do very little, if any, data entry or traditional bookkeeping.
Once we automate the automatable, then, what’s left? Accountants can expect to expand their role into a more strategic information manager offering holistic financial advice to their organization or clients. The skills that help accountants keep track of expenditures can also help keep track of data — a different kind of capital, but equally as valuable as cash.
To prepare for the switch, it’s good to start looking at the larger data environment around accounting. Think about how your know-how could help prepare your clients for a major restructuring, say, or an IPO. While your audits and invoicing is running by itself, you could help steer the business in more profitable directions.
AI Skills to Develop for Accounting
So, AI is taking over a great deal of the mundane, day-to-day tasks of accounting. The AI isn’t going to operate itself, though. Even the most advanced systems still need human intervention. If you have the skills to be that human, you will be well-equipped to thrive in the new accounting role.
You don’t need to become a data scientist to use AI, thankfully. The commercial solutions available now are intended to be easy to use. As natural language processing gets more sophisticated, the software will work like a digital assistant. Imagine saying, “Alexa, balance the ledger for Q3,” and you get the idea.
It is important, however, to add a few data management skills to your skill set. Familiarize yourself with the organization’s data landscape; know where data is stored and how it moves through the organization. Get to know the databases that store and organize data. Learn how to connect data to a management platform and create reports. It’s worth taking an online course or tutorial to develop these skills.
The most important skill to develop, though, has nothing to do with cloud storage or databases: It’s a change-positive outlook. The accountants who thrive in the age of AI will be those who embrace change, eager to expand their role and do more sophisticated work.
Leverage the Practical Applications of AI in Accounting
Your first foray into AI doesn’t have to be a massive investment of time or resources. Start with a modest project as a proof-of-concept. Choose a process that’s repetitive and time-consuming, but doesn’t require great leaps of intuition or imagination. In other words, look for the work that a machine could do. Then let the machine give it a try! Here are a few areas that might serve for your first AI project:
- Asset estimates
Artificial intelligence is augmenting and transforming the accounting function. Learn how you can adapt and innovate with the help of Penny, as well as several AI and Finance experts.