Special feature: The accountant of the future - goodbye, grunt work

In part 1, experts look at how accountants will focus on relationships rather than numbers.

Remember the good old days when ‘computer skills’ were a bonus that set you apart in a competitive market? When spreadsheets transformed the accounting function and email became the new efficient communication tool? Today, these simple tasks are the absolute basics of tech proficiency required for virtually every job or tasks that children can manage, and even the retired ‘dinosaurs’ of the profession have long since achieved competency.
 
Despite this, we still talk about tech literacy as a gamechanger in accounting and finance. “Many of the benefits that CFOs think they will get from technology in the future are mostly available today,” says Oracle’s Derek Bose. “The tools haven't necessarily changed. What has really changed in the ‘Digital Age’ is the nature of work. Finance professionals are not immune to that change, and they need to adapt to it and transform, to become the agile finance leaders that business wants.”
 
“Technology has redefined the role of accountants and continues to transform the finance function as we know it. However, this doesn’t mean it will replace them,” adds Pieter Bensch (pictured), executive vice president, Africa & Middle East at Sage. “When we look at accounting, technology offers wonderful opportunities for accountants to elevate the automation of mundane tasks, so they have more time to spend on the things that really matter.”
 
So if tech literacy and tech itself are part-and-parcel of the finance function, then what are the real skills that the accountants of the future should be acquiring today?
 
Goodbye grunt work
A change that we are already seeing in the industry is the application of web services such as virtual assistants using AI, and software that offers a natural language style interaction. Through this, an accountant can directly ask a program for outputs. For example, Pieter explains, you can already use an accounting virtual assistant (like Sage’s Pegg) to “easily capture financial information in much the same way you’d ask Siri or Google Assistant to provide directions to your next meeting or compose a text message.”
 
“Rather than navigating several fields on your accounting software,” he says, “you can simply ask the assistant questions such as: ‘How much money did we make this month?’ or ‘Does anyone owe me money?’ The bot will also analyse the business’s data and provide KPIs and reminders, without needing to dive into fields in an accounting package to derive an answer.”
 
“Voice is the new emerging interface,” says Derek. “The IDC predicts that a third of the user interface screens that people work with today, including in enterprise applications, will be replaced by voice. Personalisation is another key element. “AI and robotics are play a huge role in terms of the personalisation. If, for example, you do expenses every Friday, you want your solution to learn that and to pop up the expenses shortcut every Friday morning.  These are small micro innovations that really have to do with learning around usage and behaviour and we believe this is going to develop further. In the years to come, every user will have a completely unique and personalised experience with their technology.”
 
He adds:

“All of these technologies should be baked into your finance, procurement and HR platforms, to make professionals in those spaces more efficient and productive. AI and robotics should take the grunt work out of the accounting profession, and things like blockchain will see the start of a triple ledger environment where all stakeholders in a supply chain participate.”

With these functions handled largely by tech, the CFO and finance team bring their insight and creativity to the fore. This is what Oracle calls the “augmented CFO”, and their mission is understanding how you take new and emerging technology and use it to give the CFO “superpowers”. Derek further argues that having these technologies will become part of a company’s sustainability and staffing strategies. “Financial professionals want to work in organisations where the tools augment their capabilities, so to have a modern finance platform form is actually part of a talent retention strategy for keeping the best people in your organisation.”
 
The examples described above are typical of accounting as an internal function. For accountants working with external business clients, our commentators believe we will see more reliance on DIY cloud accounting packages (such as Xero) used by the client themselves. Clients will be able to run their own books to a greater degree, but instead of replacing the accountant in the equation, this ought to see them moving into a more ‘final check’ and advisory role.
 
This is what Sage calls Accounting 3.0, or (for accountants in private practice) the Practice of Now. In this formulation, Pieter says, “accountants should be looking to consult to businesses on everything from forecasting and financial strategy, to profit growth. Accountants who embrace this new role will be in high demand.”
 
Big data and data analytics, he says, allow us to interact with information in new ways, especially combined with machine learning and AI. He believes that a good analytics solution “tells a story about your business across many different data dimensions”, enabling you to identify risks, opportunities and emerging trends and “then use this actionable insight to make better decisions based on predictive intelligence”.
 
“Rather than focusing on the numbers, it’s about focusing on relationships and understanding the client’s business. It’s about repackaging accounting services as a business solution and using the latest technology to drive efficiency. For accountants, it may involve learning new skills, such as sales, marketing and consulting,” Pieter says.

Next time: Part two looks at telepresence, mobile working and robots