Bryant Richards knew little about robotic process automation (RPA) when accounting firms recruiting at his school, Nichols College in Dudley, Mass., began saying his students should learn the skill. The push led Richards, an associate professor of accounting and finance, to learn more about RPA, and then to create RPA internships, advocate for the inclusion of RPA in the business core curriculum, and conceive of the college’s Center for Intelligent Process Automation. Richards talked with Extra Credit about how and why to incorporate RPA into accounting programs, and how students react to learning this emerging technology.
How did you first get into robotic process automation?
Richards: It started with our stakeholders, such as trustees, alumni, and employers, saying, “Your students need to have RPA,” and I said, “What’s RPA?” They gave me quick insight into it. It took me two years of research and studying and practice to get myself up to speed.
Why is there so much buzz around RPA right now? Why do you prefer the term “intelligent” process automation to “robotic” process automation?
Richards: With RPA, you are recording instructions that enable a system to repeat digital tasks. Anything digitized that you can do with a computer can, for the most part, be recorded in the form of instructions, and that’s not necessarily new. What’s new about this is that now average users can easily learn how to do it and create powerful automations.
The “intelligent” part comes in when you add artificial intelligence that allows you to explore certain things with prebuilt analysis, to do types of complex analysis such as sentiment analysis. What I think we’ll see in the future is a lot more deployment of artificial intelligence where things will get a lot more, dare I say, intelligent and advanced.
Why is it important that accounting students learn about RPA?
Richards: The big accounting firms all say RPA is something they’re training their folks to understand and use now. They’re sending the message that, if students learn how to do this, it would be very useful to them in their careers. Larger companies are also starting to send that message.
Teaching RPA is a brilliant way to help students experience difficult-to-teach accounting concepts, even if they never end up using it in their careers. When trying to create a “bot,” or software robot, that performs a reconciliation, students explore all the facets of that reconciliation, and it really encourages them, if not forces them, to learn it a new and deeper way. They never forget it [after that].
How do you integrate RPA into your accounting curriculum?
Richards: As of this semester, we introduced one week of RPA training into every one of our introductory information technology classes. Every student who goes through our business core will be exposed to RPA.
We also offer research associate internships, in which students advise companies. Twenty students have completed the internships over three semesters, and I expect to turn the internships into a course in the future. We get students building bots, and we slowly pull the training wheels off and get them doing deep analysis. Usually, by the end of the semester, I’m having them work with a client or solve a problem.
Do students struggle with RPA, or do they pick it up easily?
Richards: At least half the students are apprehensive, if not scared, to start with. Once they get through creating their first four bots, they start getting excited, especially if their bots work. Toward the end of the semester, they feel empowered and they can’t believe what they can do with it.
The accounting students are feasting on this [technology]. For some reason it comes more naturally to them.
Can you give me some examples of “bots” accounting students have created?
Richards: A large bank would dump applications into an Excel file which needed to be typed into another system. A student created a bot that simply read the files and punched the data into the bank’s software program. I’m pretty sure it saved the bank a significant amount of money.
Another student worked for a small public firm, and his role was to go to restaurants and do their accounts payable every week. He saw how that process could be automated. His bot saved him 5 to 6 minutes per client, and he had 30 to 40 a week.
Which software do you have students use?
Richards: We used UiPath, software that is fairly user-friendly and provides a lot of training and academic support. They gave us a free community license.
We recently signed an agreement with NICE Systems to have them be our provider of software in the future. The partnership agreement with NICE gives us the ability to leverage their software for Nichols College while we teach our students.
What advice would you give faculty members who are new to RPA about incorporating it into their classes?
Richards: This technology is coming, and they should be up on it. They are more than welcome to reach out to me.
To understand it, you really need to build a bot. UiPath and NICE have some nice starter training courses that can help you create a quick bot on your own.
I think as faculty we feel like we have to learn stuff before we teach it. But you don’t have to be an expert at RPA to roll it out to students and get them exploring accounting concepts with it in a meaningful and valuable way. The tool might be new, but many of us have significant expertise in the related skills.
What is the Center for Intelligent Process Automation?
Richards: The Center for Intelligent Process Automation (CIPA) will focus on three overlapping objectives: adopting technology for Nichols College to become a showcase for higher education; providing thought leadership and support to underserved communities throughout industry and higher education with a focus on improving accessibility; and providing student opportunity and experience, as it will primarily be staffed by trained student workers. We announced the center, in concept, in September 2020 and will release more information soon.
As we did research, we found two primary skills gaps in the accounting profession, one that is tool- and technology-based, and one around the process, data, and architecture skills associated with automation. Nichols College is good at training on business-user tools. We want to tell the profession: We’re going to help with this problem. We’re going to commit resources. We're going to make sure the skills gap shrinks.
— Sharon Waters is a New Jersey-based freelance writer. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.