Special feature (part 4): Finance professionals are actively investing into digital tools

Accountants think basic accountancy processes will be fully automated within the next five years.

There are literally hundreds of white papers and reports available about what the future holds for finance and accounting professionals. Thankfully, surveys indicate that we are well-and-truly attuned to the coming changes ushered in by digitisation.
 
A survey from the UK’s Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT) found that “60 percent of accountants think basic accountancy processes will be fully automated within the next five years.” Sage’s global Practice of Now research found that 49 percent of accountants said they would like to automate number-crunching, data entry, email, and diary management.
 
Given this, it’s no surprise that finance managers and CFOs are actively investing into digital tools: Sage’s research shows that 66 percent of accountants planned to invest in artificial intelligence (AI) to automate repetitive and time-consuming tasks, and according to PwC’s 2017 Global Digital IQ survey, 62 percent of finance executives in organisations are making significant investments in AI leading up to 2020, and 13 percent are investing in blockchain.
 
According to the PwC report “Confidence for the future: Emerging technology for the finance function”, three promising technologies are robotic process automation (RPA), artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain. 
 
A quick and dirty summary of most of the future-focused writing is that change is inevitable, automation is here, and that professionals will have to sharpen and broaden their unique skills to stay ahead of the curve. But which tools are the ‘job killers’ and what skills will render you ‘safe’ differs from research to research.
 
Perhaps then it makes more sense to try and establish a ‘future view’ and extrapolate necessary skills from that. It’s one of the tactics employed by Deloitte. As part of their “Finance 2025: Digital transformation in finance” report, Deloitte offers eight predictions about the impact of digital technology for CFOs.
 

  1. The finance factory: Transactions will be touchless as automation and blockchain reach deeper into finance operations.
  2. The role of finance: With operations automated, finance will double down on business insights and service. Success is not assured.
  3. Finance cycles: Finance goes real time. Periodic reporting will no longer drive operations and decisions—if it ever did.
  4. Self-service: Self-service will become the norm. Finance will be uneasy about this.
  5. Operating models: New service delivery models will emerge as robots and algorithms join a more diverse finance workforce—think about the integration of freelancers, gig workers, and crowds.
  6. Enterprise resource planning: Finance applications and microservices will challenge traditional ERP. Big vendors will be prepared.
  7. Data: The proliferation of APIs will drive data standardization, but it won’t be enough. Many companies will still be struggling to clean up their data messes.
  8. Workforce & workplace: Employees will be doing new things in new ways, some of which will make CFOs uncomfortable.

The full details of these predictions are available on the Deloitte website, but in short they paint a picture of a profession strongly aligned with the predictions above, where the routine tasks are wiped out of the day-to-day – replaced by software and systems – and the ability to partner as an insightful financial advisor will be the core of the accounting function.
 
As Markitects’s Ian Rheeder told audiences at the 2018 Finance Indaba: “We must prioritise human skills. That will ensure the sustainability of our businesses. Computers can’t negotiate, question, empathise, or lead.” 

Read more: 
Special feature: The accountant of the future - goodbye grunt work
Special feature (part 2): Telepresence technology may cost many jobs in future
Special feature (part 3): Developing your soft skills to stay relevant as a CA

Next: "Future-proofing" the finance profession with ethics