What does Artificial Intelligence mean for the role of an accountant?

When movies like Blade Runner, Terminator, and Wall-E were released, maybe you imagined a similar future teeming with bioengineered bodies and lovable robots. When watching such films, however, it likely never occurred to you how such technological advances may impact people's professions, specifically those in accounting.  

Today, however, finance professionals have been struck with a new reality as technology progresses. In a recent Michael Page Talent Trends survey, 35% of respondents in finance and accounting believe that artificial intelligence (AI), particularly, will impact their long-term career plans, making its impact unavoidable.

What do accountants do?

First, let’s define what an accountant does. Accountants are skilled in recording and maintaining financial records, analysing data, budgets, tax filings and accounting records.

Essentially, they receive data and process it (usually) into a computer system. The system then generates additional data and instructions, which may involve paying or issuing an invoice, for example. Finally, the rest of the data is fed into a variety of financial and management reports to inform decisions.  

While this is a simplified explanation of an accountant’s role, such an overview provides a general understanding of their responsibilities. Given the often-tedious nature of their tasks, finance and company leaders have considered the question: how can we do all this quicker, more accurately, with more insight, and at a lower cost?

So, what is AI?

AI is an area of computer science focused on developing intelligent machines that work and react like humans. The rise of automation within finance departments has been revolutionary but has always been dependent on the fixed instructions humans originally programmed into the tool. Today, however, AI is rapidly growing with two new fundamental factors—learning and problem-solving.  

Advantages and disadvantages of AI in accounting

Over the last twenty years, technology has advanced at such a pace that many roles in the accounting department have disappeared due to AI and automation, which now have the capability to perform many of an accountant’s tasks with little or no human involvement.  

For example, with AI, reports can be generated and sent to the appropriate people with automated follow-up and escalation if required. The process is almost seamless and error-free. In cases where there are mistakes, the system “learns” to avoid repeating them.  

Some organisations have recognised the benefits of AI and incorporated it into their operations, for example, using it for high-risk transactions to search for anomalies, and to avoid high-profile fines of up to £40.5 million in the UK. Despite the significant advantages AI offers in accountancy, such as reducing human error, adoption rates remain surprisingly low. A recent Michael Page survey revealed only 10% of those in the accounting and finance job function use AI in their current role.  

While the advantages of AI in accountancy include saving time, improving accuracy, enhancing fraud prevention, risk management, and providing insightful analysis, it's understandable why some professionals feel apprehensive. Concerns about reskilling, exposure of sensitive data, and over-reliance on technology contribute to this hesitation. With advantages and disadvantages of AI in mind, the bottom line is a failure to adapt reveals a staggering reality: the challenge of economic survival is to not only accept these changes but to capitalise on them or risk falling behind–even those in accounting.

This realisation is highlighted in the 2016 report, “The Future of Jobs,” which heralds the Fourth Industrial Revolution, predicting a substantial change for white-collar workers as such technological advances become commonplace. Many of the most in-demand jobs today did not exist ten years ago, and the report predicts that 65% of children currently entering elementary school will be working in roles that don’t exist today!

Looking forward: embracing AI

AI in accounting will continue to persist, so a willingness to adapt is crucial; fortunately, 91% of accounting and finance professionals want to learn more about AI—and for good reason. Despite its current limited capabilities and lack of intuition, AI's ability to automate tasks is its greatest strength, securing its permanent place in the industry.  

Rather than completely replacing accounting and finance jobs, most people believe that embracing AI will enhance their roles and, therefore, allow accountants to evolve into a more strategic, invaluable position.  This sentiment is felt throughout the industry, as a recent Michael Page survey revealed 73% of professionals believe that AI will help improve overall efficiency and productivity and 61% believe it will be used for automation of repetitive tasks.

This shift indicates the demand for accountants in two distinct areas.  

The first is focused on process—establishing the right procedures and workflows for the system to give a consistently accurate output.  

The second role accountants will assume is that of partnering positions, helping businesses take an abundance of data and translate it into meaningful commercial insight.

To conclude, while AI continues to advance, the need for talented finance professionals to review output, correct mistakes, and make authoritative, analytical decisions is not going anywhere. However, future accountants will need to be systems-literate, commercially savvy, and, most importantly, adaptable to succeed.  

Likewise, employers will need to support their finance teams in this transition by providing useful programs and resources, knowing that the most-likely winners will be those best able to analyse and commercialise the overload of data.

At Michael Page, our consultants have the knowledge and skills to meet your finance recruitment needs even in the changing landscape. Learn more about our Finance and Accounting expertise or get in touch with our experts to start a conversation:  Let’s chat!

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