In this guest blog post, we feature Sean Farnell, Partner at Burgis & Bullock Accountants.
As a partner of an 80+ user accountancy practice and a thought-leader within the sector, Sean explores the role of artificial intelligence and the cloud in the future of accountancy.
There’s no denying that the old saying “May you live in interesting times” has never been truer than the World we find ourselves in today. Shock election results, political uncertainty, and global instability bombard our consciousness daily, but closer to home there’s an equally seismic shift happening within the professions; and it’s being driven by technology.
Where are we now?
I doubt anyone reading this who works in the professions would disagree that clients want more, want it faster, and expect to pay less for it than was the case even 10 years ago before the financial crisis. Now some of this is due to austerity which has undoubtedly had a trickle-down effect on the general population but in my opinion, the influence of technology simply cannot be underestimated.
We’ve grown accustomed to the decaying hulls of factories and abandoned shopping centres. We’ve begun to see the hollowing out of suburban office parks and we can even imagine being transported by fleets of robot taxis. Yet we are working, studying and legislating as though our schools, courts and hospitals will continue as hubs of economic activity abuzz with an app-enabled but largely unchanged cadre of educators, lawyers and doctors.
There’s massive competition in the professions (especially in my field of Accountancy where at the last count there are in excess of 20,000 Practices in the UK alone) so the need to be different is obvious and generally the professions have done a good job in adapting, but the “Google Effect” simply can’t be ignored.
We’re increasingly finding that clients looking for advice have already researched online and come armed with partial solutions to many of their issues. Indeed I was recently asked by a provider of technical information whose use of their systems was declining if I could think of any reasons why. I had to admit that Professor Google is very much a valued member of my own Team.
Now I know that not everything on the internet is accurate (Fake News was introduced into the Oxford English Dictionary recently), but the ability to go directly to the HMRC page that’s relevant to your enquiry is a boon to any practicing accountant, and in most cases simpler than wading through the many references that come up in searching through the in-house information systems.
We’re already seeing technology impinging on traditional roles of the professions and with £billions being spent on Artificial Intelligence (AI) by the big technology and software companies. The days where professionals are needed for many of the more mundane tasks are numbered.
Already with accounts we have Xero (online bookkeeping system) pioneering the code-less posting of transactions (where once you’ve entered 50+ transactions into your financial software the system ‘learns’ where the items are most likely to go and makes appropriate suggestions in real time as you work) and corporate finance firms offering instant lending decisions based on information in businesses cloud accounting packages.
What are the implications?
This may not seem very revolutionary as technology is endemic in our day to day lives, but just pause and think; a lending decision that would only a couple of years ago taken 2 meetings with a bank manager, filling out of various applications and forms, and probably referral to a lending committee now being made in under an hour by AI… This really is the stuff of science fiction becoming science fact.
It’s only a short leap to a (near) future where much of the day to day work of professionals is undertaken by AI, or specifically in the case of knowledge where in previous generations the professionals were the gate-keepers to that knowledge they will be supplanted completely by cloud data and intelligent algorithms. There are already medical systems that are significantly more accurate than human clinicians in detecting early-stage cancers from scan results.
So are we witnessing the decline of the professions?
Whilst undoubtedly there are threats to our traditional roles, I’m an optimist and can see significant opportunities for those professionals willing to see technology as an enabler to embrace change and re-engineer their working practices to suit client needs rather than professionals’ comfort zones. When technology is no longer seen as a threat, companies, including those in the professional sector can realise the potential for technology to enhance the service they offer, resulting in further efficiencies, better customer service and more productive staff to name a few. In the digital age we should be able to ask "how can technology help?" without the fear of "who will technology replace?".