Why patience is important with AI

The experts in our annual technology roundtable examine artificial intelligence, including the need for realistic initial expectations.
By Jeff Drew

In Part 2 of the JofA’s annual accounting technology roundtable, our experts explore aspects of artificial intelligence, including what CPAs can realistically expect from initial AI implementations.
Image by Rost-9D/iStock

At a time when technology is fueling change at ever-increasing speeds, you might be surprised to hear someone calling for patience. Yet, that call was indeed heard during the latest JofA accounting technology roundtable.

CPAs need to consider long-term goals when assessing the implementation and initial performance of technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI). The transformation of accounting that technology is bringing requires immediate action by CPAs, but expectations of immediate results often may be unrealistic. Professionals must expect some pain with this progress.

To help accountants navigate this process, the JofA once again convened three experts to discuss the most pressing tech topics in the accounting space. Short profiles of the panelists — David Cieslak, Liz Mason, and Amy Vetter — are on page 41.

The JofA is publishing an edited transcript of the roundtable conversation in two parts. Part 1, published in June (see "What's 'Critical' for CPAs to Learn in an AI-Powered World"), looked at how far the accounting profession has advanced with technology adoption and also deemed AI and advanced data analytics as the technologies that will most influence the profession's future. Part 2 takes a deeper dive into various aspects of AI while also previewing the coming development curve of data analytics, examining ways technology will affect the workplace, and touching on other cool technologies.

To listen to the JofA podcast featuring the 2019 accounting technology roundtable, go to Part 1 and Part 2.

To accompany this year's roundtable, the JofA debuted an occasional series in the June 2019 issue called Future Tech Today. The series provides firsthand accounts of the ways accounting firms, finance departments, and others are working today with "future tech" such as AI and blockchain.

Dave, what AI terms should CPAs understand?

Cieslak: Artificial intelligence is kind of an all-encompassing term. There's robotic process automation, or RPA, and natural-language processing, which includes everyday tech like Amazon Alexa or Siri. Still, when many people talk about artificial intelligence, they go right to machine learning, specifically machine learning fed by pertinent datasets such as customer data or operational data. Machines can learn from data, and that's going to give us insight in terms of process, customers, and opportunities.

As we talk about artificial intelligence, we need to understand that it's essential for our future. We want to be using the latest and greatest products from vendors that have forward-looking technology road maps, because we're going to want to take advantage of this great technology — specifically, things like predictive analytics.

With machine learning, our machines will learn how to look at a dataset and predict likely business outcomes. That kind of predictive analytics is starting to arrive in products today — like Salesforce with Einstein. A little further down the road, we're going to start seeing prescriptive analytics, which will show us what we should do, not just what's likely to happen.

AI is a multiyear process. It's not just arriving on the scene. It's been around for a while with simple automation. But as we continue to apply technology to more and more datasets, it's going to become far more helpful and useful.

Vetter: When I discuss artificial intelligence with conference attendees or people I consult, one of the things I hear is, "Oh, I tried that and it didn't work" or "It gave me the wrong answer." You have to give artificial intelligence more time. You can't expect it to be perfect at the beginning. When we say machine learning, it's literally the machine that is learning.

Product developers have been working to improve desktop software for 20, 30, 40 years. With all of this much newer technology, you need to understand that some things will be missing that you used to have before. But I suggest that you step back from the implementation process and assess if the new technology is creating a better experience than you had before. For example, let's say it improves or automates 80% of a process or function. It can be frustrating to create a workaround for the 20% of the process the software can't yet handle, but it's important to appreciate the 80% that the software is handling properly.

Technology allows for people to work remotely and to work with colleagues half a world away. How do you think this affects how we're going to work with one another? And how does it affect leadership?

Mason: Because of technology, we can have staff and clients anywhere in the world. This can really change the way that we offer services. So rather than having to serve a local geographic area, we now can specialize in different industries and be able to deliver services to anyone, anywhere.

The thing is, we need to think about how we deploy these technologies so that there's still a human connection. When you're doing web meetings, require that everyone have their webcams on. It strengthens relationships, and it also helps us as leaders to see body language and facial expressions. You miss out on that kind of personal connection if you are on a call with no video.

It's also important to make sure that we're not implementing technology that makes people more stressed out. We need to be hyperaware of why we're putting in each piece of technology. We have to be very careful of how we implement technology to not add more work.

Take Slack as an example. Slack is an amazing tool that helps with collaboration and people interacting from various locations. However, if you don't implement updated communication processes and rules when you implement Slack, you are simply adding another communication channel you have to service. If you have a message to send, you can post it on Slack, but if you're not sure whether people are checking Slack, you may also send the message in an email as well as in an instant message. In such a scenario, the technology adds extra work with no real benefit.

I think the problem is a lot of times technology is put in place without adequate training on when and how to use it.

Liz, based on what you've seen, how well prepared are accounting students in terms of technology skill sets? What are the technology skill sets these young CPAs should have upon entering the workforce?

Mason: I would encourage students to take an information systems course, maybe even a basic computer science course. I would also encourage students to take statistics. If advanced statistics is not part of your curriculum in accounting, it should be. All of data analysis going forward is based on math, and it's incredibly important to the future of this profession that we understand what statistics are at that level.

Vetter: Can I just add to this? This is like a passion question.

Mason: Yeah, absolutely.

Vetter: Everyone needs to understand that software companies put out 500 to 1,000 new features a year. If I'm using a piece of accounting technology in my practice, I have to constantly be learning. How I learn is by looking it up. The accounting students I've hired have been trained to memorize a lot, but they haven't been trained to go figure out the answers. If they are asked to find information, they're stuck. To me, if someone graduates and knows how to do research, interpret research, and apply research in their jobs, they are much more valuable than someone who's been memorizing for tests.

Mason: I absolutely agree. People need critical-thinking skills and the ability to adapt.

Cieslak: I agree accountants need critical-thinking skills, but they also need wisdom, which they can gain only through experience. We must rely on our employees to be critically thinking and agile, constantly changing and evolving their skill set, but we need to make certain, too, that we leave a place for the wisdom that comes only through experience.

Liz, what are the coolest technologies in general — or coolest uses of technology in accounting — that you have seen?

Mason: I think there was a fundamental switch somewhere around 2015 between visual-based data discovery from historical information sets to advanced analytics and augmented analytics. That to me is so cool because I can see what's happening inside of my clients' businesses to help them make real decisions. We can start seeing predictive measures, which means that you can apply a level of intelligence on top of different platforms that pull in data from real-time transactions. From a technology and an accounting perspective, we're able to see practical, fundamental-level, real-time dashboards of what is happening. From that perspective moving forward, we'll be able to see more predictive dashboards of what could happen.

Dave, you have been keynoting accounting conferences for years as Inspector Gadget. Are there any new gadgets you're geeked about?

Cieslak: The technology I'm most excited to see actually start showing up within products and devices is 5G. It is going to be incredibly transformative. 5G is going to be even faster than the hardwired broadband connections in our homes. It's really going to provide real-time responsiveness among all of our connected devices (including internet of things). Now, it is going to require an upgrade for all those products and those devices, but we are going to want those 5G radios in all of our devices.

Amy, why don't you take the last word on this roundtable. What new technologies are you most excited about?

Vetter: Mine are two apps that I use that may make a difference in your day. One is a transcribing app called Otter. There are other transcribing apps, like Rev and Temi, but this is how Otter works. You record a conversation, like maybe you're listening to a training session, and Otter then transcribes it for you as a document. The transcription is pretty awesome, which makes it a great efficiency tool.

My other tech has absolutely nothing to do with the actual work, but how to stay present in your workday. I talk about this a lot, how it just takes a few minutes in your day to step back and try to get your mind settled, take it away from the stress so that your brain is fresh and can be innovative and creative. An app that I use for this is Headspace, a guided meditation app. You can do three minutes, you can do five minutes, you can do 10 minutes, you can do it on a walk, you can do it on a run. But it's an easy way throughout your day to learn and refresh your brain before you go into your next meeting, your next interaction, or your next major piece of work.

The panelists

David Cieslak, CPA/CITP, CGMA, chief cloud officer and executive vice president with business-consulting firm RKL eSolutions LLC and a popular accounting conference speaker best known for his Inspector Gadget keynotes.

Liz Mason, CPA, founder and CEO of High Rock Accounting, an Arizona-based firm that specializes in using "cutting-edge technology" to enhance clients' accounting operations.

Amy Vetter, CPA/CITP, CGMA, a keynote speaker and business adviser who is CEO of The B3 Method Institute, Technology Innovations Taskforce leader for the AICPA Information Management and Technology Assurance (IMTA) Executive Committee, and author of the book Integrative Advisory Services: Expanding Your Accounting Services Beyond the Cloud.

About the author

Jeff Drew is a JofA senior editor. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact him at Jeff.Drew@aicpa-cima.com or 919-402-4056.

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