People 'n' Issues

Accountants’ future: more than tick boxes

July 27th, 2017
The accounting world, which is sometimes perceived as mundane is about to be dramatically changed by artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things and the blockchain, says ANTON VAN HEERDEN, MD and Executive Vice-President, Africa & Middle East at Sage.

If you think that tech is done with transforming the way accountants work (and every sector for that matter), you’re in for a surprise. As an accountant by qualification, I see a very bright and exciting future.

The accounting world, which is sometimes perceived as mundane is about to be dramatically changed by artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things and the blockchain. Yes, recently these technologies have been spoken about at a large scale, but the job of an accountant will change as much as the first computerised accounting packages did or the arrival of mobile and cloud computing.

Invisible accounting will be built on the back of these three powerful emerging technologies, as illustrated in Leading the Invisible Accounting Revolution, a new whitepaper from Sage and Ovum.

The exciting news is that these technologies will allow for us to focus on the things we care about most, such as working with clients or the business’s leadership on strategic financial plans. What each of these technologies will do is free us from more routine admin work, while ensuring that we can work more accurately and efficiently. They will also give us more real-time visibility into our financial performance.

Smart assistance on the go

We’re all becoming rather used to speaking to machines, for example, asking Siri on our iPhones for directions or Bixby on the new Samsung devices to seek out an answer to a trivia question.  The interfaces to technology are becoming more natural and conversational as we use voice, gesture or touch to interact with computers rather than a mouse and keyboard.

In the background, AI technology crunches massive datasets to help us complete our personal tasks or our work. This technology doesn’t simply follow a set of programmed rules; it can also learn from our responses and its databases to improve its functionality and its usefulness over time. For now, consumers are the biggest users of such technology, but it is rapidly moving into the business world, too.

At Sage, we recently launched our conversational bot Pegg, which works with collaboration tools like Skype, Facebook Messenger and Slack. Rather than needing to navigate a bunch of fields on your accounting software, you can simply ask Pegg questions such as: “How much money did we make this month?” or “Does anyone owe me money?”

Imagine how useful that might be if one of your customers phone you for an invoice when you’re out-and-about, and you don’t have easy access to your computer. You can also note expenses, so you don’t forget to file the receipt for your parking when you’re out on a business visit. This sort of technology is going to rapidly evolve so that you will be able to ask your virtual accounting assistant a wide range of business questions, without needing to dive into tables and fields in an accounting package to get an answer.

Effortless tasks

As an accountant, I’m always excited to find a technology or process that reduces the ‘friction’ of administration. By friction, I mean the time and effort it takes to record transactions or complete tasks.

The Internet of Things – the many smart and connected devices in the workplace – will do a great deal to reduce friction. It can give us real-time information about assets and transactions so that we don’t need to record it after the fact. For example, a telematics device or GPS in a company car could automatically capture mileage information and upload it to the accounting solution, so drivers don’t need to report it in with their logbooks. Or we can track items as they move through the supply chain for an up-to-the-second view of sales and inventory on hand.

Blockchain with a touch of human

Further into the future, the blockchain has some exciting potential for accountants. The blockchain is a type of distributed ledger or decentralised database that keeps records of digital transactions. All participants have an identical copy of the transaction that can be accessed and viewed in the present, and all parties need to verify the authenticity of a set of transactions (a block) before a new block can be added to the existing chain.

Blockchain records cannot be altered, and every transaction is recorded and verified. As such, blockchain brings new levels of trust and transparency to transactions. When we bring blockchain and smart contacts together, we can automate many processes where we have used an independent third party (like an exchange, lawyer or clearing house) to verify transactions.

In future, companies big and small could use blockchain for invoicing, documentation, contracts, and payment processing, all done with high levels of automation and low levels of friction. We’ll spend less time on ledger entry and reconciliation in the book-keeping process. However, there will still be a need for a human touch as accountants and auditors need to ensure that local tax and other regulations are applied.

Seamless processes

Going beyond cloud computing, which is now a given starting point for many organisations, the use of AI and other innovations will lead to Sage’s vision of invisible accounting by 2020. It is a seamless and automated accounting process that will enable us to think about business growth and strategy rather than recording invoices and doing bank recons.

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