Firms should consider costs and risks to prioritize automating repetitive tasks, panelists in our technology roundtable suggest.
The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the adoption of digital technology supporting remote work and heightened the attractiveness of technology that promises to reduce heavy workloads of firm staff.
The increased willingness to go digital that started with the adaptation to remote work now extends to technology that automates repetitive tasks, such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and robotic process automation (RPA).
Today, firms are more open to harnessing the power of digital technology. Some even are looking into using chatbots.
Panelists on our latest accounting technology roundtable discussed how firms can distinguish automation technology that they can use from tech that lacks maturity. And they talked about the fact that the accelerated digitalization of the past three years has raised the bar on cybersecurity measures considered bare minimum.
Remarks of the panel have been edited for length and clarity, but you can listen to the full roundtable discussion on the Small Firm Philosophy podcast.
Panelists were Wesley Hartman; Donny Shimamoto, CPA/ CITP, CGMA; and Amanda Wilkie. (For short profiles of each panelist, see the sidebar, “The Panelists.”)
What is ChatGPT, and what can we do with it? Is it something accountants should be using now?
Wilkie: ChatGPT is the tech du jour. It’s a chatbot that was developed by a company called OpenAI, and it was just launched in the fall of 2022. It quickly became the fastest-growing consumer app to date.
It makes web searching more conversational. You can build off of the question of the search you just performed, but it can do a lot more than that. It can write computer code or debug code. It’s been writing college-level research papers. It can pass professional exams, and this is really getting attention out there.
One thing that is interesting with this technology right now is that we’re hearing firms really look for ways to use this technology as opposed to look for reasons not to use it.
There are some concerns and plenty of drawbacks to ChatGPT. It’s very new technology. It’s not mature at all. It has a limited training dataset. If you ask it to generate an article about a tax topic or the latest in how companies are using internal controls and internal control audits to support ESG [environmental, social, and governance] initiatives, ChatGPT is getting that content from other sources that are already publicly available. It could be actually plagiarizing that content. You have to be careful with that.
When you’re asking questions to ChatGPT, you’re actually adding to that training set. If you’re asking about specific clients, you need to be careful. We’re not really sure what the privacy implications are quite yet.
And sometimes [ChatGPT] can just be wrong. There have been reports of people asking ChatGPT for song lyrics and they got a wrong answer. I would say this technology is something to keep an eye on, but I wouldn’t leverage it too much right now. You can use it as a tool, but don’t consider anything you get out of it as being authoritative.
Accounting firms and finance departments are suffering from capacity issues — there are not enough accountants to get the work done. AI is loosely related to automation and will probably affect automated processes. How can automation, and RPA in particular, help firms?
Hartman: I do think that a lot of automation is available to accounting firms of all different sizes. Many times, existing technology stacks have automation tools built in already; [these allow for] sending an email or integrating one software application to another. It’s important for accounting firms to look at their tech stack and see what they have. Run a search or even ask the vendor, “Who do you integrate with?”
From there, we want to build more tools into that. [CPA firms can use] off-the-shelf-automation tools like Zapier. Zapier integrates with a lot of products using API calls, but they really give it a nice interface, like a flow chart, so it’s easy to adopt.
If you want to get into the deep stuff, then we’re talking about RPA, where you’re creating custom automations that will do a task for you.
All of this together, I think, can really help alleviate capacity issues in your firm. If you can automate the [tasks], input the data into your data source, and then into existing software, that is all automation. Automation is using these tools that is going to be adding up a lot of little things, not a single big, automation project. Both big and small are valid.
You mentioned APIs. What are APIs and why should accountants care about them?
Hartman: API stands for application programming interface. It’s a fancy way for programmers to import and export data out of software. A lot of web applications now actually create APIs that are accessible if you use their software. There’s a lot of use for APIs.
Realistically, it’s going to be developers using APIs. As a developer, if I want to integrate two software packages together using API, I would send an API command to software A to give me a client list, and I would take that list to my RPA. I then send an API command to software B, “Here’s the client list. Sync all the information.” These are called API calls.
These sorts of things allow you to automate between software packages, especially if there is not direct integration between two packages.
Is RPA ready to provide enough assistance automating repetitive processes that firms can free up enough time for their accountants to do higher-level work or at least lighten their workloads?
Shimamoto: That’s a great question. [Hartman] did a really good job of starting off and saying be careful of a solution looking for a problem. Don’t immediately jump to RPA and think it will solve all your issues. You need to look at can I do something within the software itself? Are there macro or other types of capabilities there? Then, if it’s not there, look at RPA.
This is really about automating repetitive processes. First look at if this is actually going to benefit you. How long does [the task] take for that person? If it’s only a few minutes or an hour, you have to look at that and contrast that with what is it going to cost to implement the RPA, build the RPA, or maintain the RPA. If something that you’re automating actually changes quite a bit, it may not be worth it.
The other thing I often encourage people to look at is the bigger picture. What risks does this incur? Are you actually automating something or storing a password for something within the RPA that might be at risk in a data breach?
RPA is ready. AI is ready. But we have to think about costs, and we have to think about risks.
What’s the most important thing firms should be doing to protect their data and networks from cybercrime?
Wilkie: Firms need to stop doing the bare minimum. We hear a lot about multifactor authentication, advanced threat protection tools, and data-loss prevention. These are all tools that if firms aren’t using, they need to be using. These are becoming the bare minimum.
Firms should also look at their infrastructure. You need to make sure your infrastructure and technology is up to date [so hackers can’t exploit unpatched vulnerabilities].
And the firm needs to have a data governance strategy. You need to know what data you have, where it is, and have a plan for protecting it. Depending on what you have and where it’s at, it may be a different plan. You need to start documenting those things and start executing on them as well.
Shimamoto: You need to think of cybersecurity as a mindset — and [realize] it’s not only for big companies. For a smaller firm or business, it’s easier to do, but it still requires this mindset that “cybersecurity is important, and I have to protect my own data or my client’s or customer’s data.” You have to protect your employees’ data, too. None of us want to have a data breach.
The two main things I think about with cybersecurity are data breaches and ransomware. The other two terms I use are incident response — “Am I ready to respond to an incident?” — and business continuity — “Have I thought about how I’m going to operate if I were subject to ransomware and couldn’t get into any of my electronic files?”
What should the top technology priority be for accounting firms over the next year?
Hartman: Pick one or two processes that are arduous and look for solutions. You really need to look at your problems and find solutions for them. Don’t try to pick 20. You can usually do about one or two big changes per year.
Wilkie: Really focus on your data. If you don’t have that data governance plan, work on that. All the things we’ve talked about — leveraging AI or automation — you really can’t do that if your data is a mess, if you don’t know what you have, or where it’s at. Focus on getting your house cleaned and get your data in order.
Shimamoto: With all the issues that we’re having with recruiting and retention, start to look at people technologies. I’m not talking about processing payroll or performance reviews. My firm has been using different tools that do things like pulse checks — every week my team fills out a form and they tell me about their week, challenges, and anything I can help with.
This is how we’re starting to proliferate our firm’s culture. We’re a completely virtual firm, and we emphasize culture as part of our weekly check-ins. The software also has ways for people to show appreciation to each other.
If you’re trying to reduce turnover and make a good environment, I encourage people to look at these kinds of people solutions.
Wesley Hartman is director of technology at Kirsch, Kohn & Bridge LLP and founder of robotic process automation developer Automata Practice Development. He is based in Northridge, Calif., and is a Technology Q&A columnist for the JofA.
Donny Shimamoto, CPA/CITP, CGMA, is the founder and managing director of IntrapriseTechKnowlogies, an accounting firm in Honolulu that provides technology and business consulting services to small and midsize clients. He is also founder of the Center for Accounting Transformation in Honolulu, which aims to equip accountants and finance professionals with leading-edge tools and techniques.
Amanda Wilkie is a Washington, D.C.-based consultant with Boomer Consulting and a former chief information officer for top 30 accounting firm WithumSmith+Brown. She is also a prolific writer and speaker on emerging technologies.
About the author
Beth Roessner is a senior content writer at AICPA & CIMA, together as the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants.
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“Using ChatGPT With Excel,” JofA, Jan. 30, 2023
“Embracing Technology in the Audit,” JofA, Feb. 1, 2022
“The Payoffs of RPA for One Accounting Firm,” JofA, Aug. 25, 2022
“The Heavier Lifting That Technology Can Accomplish for CPAs,” JofA, Aug. 23, 2022