The accounting and bookkeeping industry has undergone a significant transformation with the advent of artificial intelligence (AI). Tools such as ChatGPT and Bard are already unlocking efficiencies for practices while developing tools and technologies are poised to revolutionise traditional accounting roles even further.
But great change can cause great uncertainty. With such rapid developments showing no sign of slowing down, accountants and bookkeepers have - understandably - been left concerned about the future of their profession.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom. With the right approach, AI can liberate, rather than limit, accountants. Here’s why.
AI: friend or foe?
In the short to medium term, there are significant efficiencies to be gained by adopting AI. Tools can provide better and cheaper data to support decision-making as well as generate new insights from data analysis. AI can automate mundane tasks, enhance accuracy and reduce errors, essentially removing some of the most labour-intensive aspects of an accountant's role. This frees up time to focus on more valuable tasks such as advisory or strategy development work.
In a similar fashion, it can enhance customer experience, especially when it comes to answering client queries and offering more specific insights.
For example, John Toon, Tech Strategy Lead at Beever and Struthers, envisaged a potential scenario for the not-too-distant future: “You could have a client that comes to your website and wants to file their tax return. AI can gather their P60s and their dividends, file them in your document management system, extract the information and post that into your tax software. It can calculate the tax your client might potentially need to pay and share the links they need to pay it.“
However, what AI can’t do is offer the same personalised service as a real accountant. While AI can do much of the heavy lifting, it can’t yet get a deep understanding of personal and business goals. Accountancy primarily remains a client-focused, service-driven profession and relies on the human relationships between clients and their accountants.
Russell Frayne, Head of UK Digital Accounting Solutions at Azets, said: “Clients come to us because there is a level of trust in our expertise. They want someone to look at their unique scenario and provide them with a personalised service. They don’t want something generic that’s been churned out from the internet.”
So what’s next?
It’s impossible to predict how AI will change the digital landscape, but it is clear that technological developments will require the accounting profession to be ready for more radical change.
AI tools are likely to develop to a point where they can take over decision-making tasks from humans and richer, more abundant data will remove the need for human analysis. While this scope of change might seem drastic, it actually unlocks exciting opportunities and broadens the scope of accountancy.
Some roles will undoubtedly still require technical accounting expertise and human judgement to deal with novel cases. But other opportunities might arise in the building and testing of models, or auditing algorithms. Accountants may need to use their expertise in different ways - for example, using AI to identify patterns in data but using human judgement to integrate the results into nuanced business processes. Critical thinking and communication skills are likely to become increasingly important.
As practices begin to adapt to this new landscape, it’s vital that leaders focus on their businesses’ wider strategy and goals, and think about how new technologies can transform their approach. In other words, ensure digital adoption efforts are driven by business needs rather than available technology.
While it seems obvious, it’s easy to be blindsided by shiny new tools that come onto the market promising a quick, end-to-end solution. However, without giving careful consideration to what a practice needs to drive it forward, implementing change could lead to a significant waste of time, effort and resources.
And so, while the accounting profession can’t control the pace of developments in AI, it can control its response to it. Practices that start identifying opportunities for AI to drive their business forward will reap bigger benefits further down the line. Combine that with greater investment in client service and relationships, and practices will be able to withstand anything the future holds.