6 steps to accounting automation success

By Lou Carlozo

Compliance has always ranked top of mind for accounting firms and remains a major concern today, but things are changing fast. Just as paper and pencil gave way to desktops and laptops — and now automation and machine learning — the profession stands ready to leap from a compliance emphasis to one of insight and strategy.

“We don’t want disruptions to happen to us, but to consider ourselves disruption agents within our firms — to be the disruptor,” said Arianna Campbell, an Augusta, Ga.-based consultant for Boomer Consulting. “It’s a really exciting time in the profession with new potentials for automation and growth. If we continue to look at it that way, lots of opportunities will emerge.”

During a presentation Thursday at the AICPA ENGAGE 2018 conference, Campbell and Marc Staut, a Boomer principal and consultant, spoke on the opportunities that automation creates for the accounting profession. In interviews conducted in advance of their session, the two outlined six key steps accounting firms can take to succeed at automation transformation:

Develop the right mindset: For Staut, mindset is the key that opens the door to automation success. “If a firm decides to stick its head in the sand regarding the opportunities that [artificial intelligence, or AI] presents, it is going to miss out,” he said. “If you have a fixed mindset that focuses on limitations, things that could go wrong, and areas of failure that could hold you back, that puts you in a place of fear.”

On the opposite pole, firms must avoid throwing themselves at AI as the latest shiny new toy. “It’s about leveraging information, scripting and predicting interactions, generating new insights, and having a deep and valuable impact on your clients and their business,” Staut said.

Build a framework for your change: Automation is not automatic. “This is not change for change’s sake,” Campbell said. She stressed that a strategic approach works best, with key stakeholders within a firm getting on the same page. “We have to understand what we’re currently doing and identify the opportunities to maximize value from the client’s point of view. And that’s when you start outlining and implementing your solutions.”

Set the right goals: Firms and finance professionals get much more out of automation when they grasp what it’s best suited to do. “AI is great at solving routine problems, but they need to be complex enough to gain value from having the systems solve it,” Staut said. There are also opportunities “to integrate artificially intelligent systems into our work life and let them augment how we can do our jobs.”

“You need to build a plan and document it — in writing — because you need to be able to hold people accountable,” Campbell said. “It may not necessarily be perfect. But, if you wait on perfection, you’re going to become irrelevant. If someone comes out of the gate perfect, I’d love to know.”

Embrace the new roles: The dire predictions about automation and attrition have overshadowed potential workforce gains, both quantitative and qualitative. “While Gartner does in fact predict that AI will eliminate 1.8 million jobs by 2020, they also predict that AI will create 2.3 million jobs in the same time period,” Staut said.

In other words, think automation and augmentation instead. Forward-thinking firms will create new positions that maximize AI performance, a challenge that begins with making sure computers start with the best data available. “There will be opportunities that focus on what to do with the generated insights, in auditing and improving the systems themselves, and in creating new technology solutions,” Staut said.

Treat conflict as a positive: That’s right: a positive. “When we look at a transition or shift as large as what we’re going through, you’ll have differing opinions,” Campbell said. Those run the gamut from who’s buying in (or not) to picking the best ways to navigate in-house turbulence as automation technology gets running.

Campbell stressed the distinction between professional, positive conflict — the proverbial iron sharpening iron — and the negative, personal kind. “It also means direct conversations with our clients: Are we prepared to have creative, effective conflict with them?”

Focus on the human-AI sweet spot: In the rush to adopt automation and AI, firms must keep in mind that these new technologies, remarkable as they are, serve as new tools to complement timeless skills.

Computers can process data exceptionally fast and exceptionally well. But they still depend on careful professionals to feed them the right numbers. And no matter how much automation and AI come to the fore in 2018 — or the decades ahead — computers can never be taught sound judgment or professional skepticism. That’s what accountants do best, and always will.

Campbell put it this way: “The CPA profession is so highly respected, you’re in a great position to have people trust the information and the insights you give. To take what we learn from the data and combine it with human insights our machines can’t replace, that impacts communities and people’s lives.”

Lou Carlozo is a freelance writer based in Chicago. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Ken Tysiac, a JofA editorial director, at Kenneth.Tysiac@aicpa-cima.com.

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