Is robotic automation a given, asks Blackline's Josh May?

Robotic process automation will not replace accountants. In fact, automation can only make life easier, believes Josh May, senior solutions consultant and product manager at Blackline, who spoke last week at Finance Indaba Africa 2017, held at the Sandton Convention Centre.

The motorcar was seen as the death knell for the horse, said Josh. People thought they'd never see another horse, when, in fact, it saved the horse, which became a specialist thing - much like what the robotic process automation will do for accounting, which is to allow the skillset that accountants give to the average finance department to be used more effectively.

Automation will be used to track and learn and see what people are doing repeatedly, and have all the accounting explanations ready, rather than question why certain things are not working, Josh said. "It will make jobs much more interesting," he told conference attendees.

"I have always believed a clean balance sheet leads to a clean profit and loss statement, which gets rid of the more boring repetitive work and allows you to spend time analysing figures."

The digital disruption of robotic process automation (RPA) has been in the works for the last five to six years. According to Accenture, audit fees should be reduced by 40 percent by 2021, with productivity up twofold. Most costs were spent on systems, although, with the introduction of the cloud, this has decreased exponentially. However, as RPA is not replacing accountants, the rates for accountants will not decrease. Accountants will merely be spending more time on analysing figures instead of reconciling books.

To see these changes by 2021, the present needs to change, said Josh. In the FSN Future of the Finance Function Survey 2017, 40 percent of accountants said they spent too much time on transaction processing, while 42 percent said they didn't understand sufficiently how the business operated. Some 33 percent struggled to understand technology because explanations hadn't been written adequately.

The key question is: if companies aren't willing to help their employees now, then how can they hope to make the savings by 2021?