Faster, cheaper and more accurate, should accountants fear the rise of the robot?
Many years ago, when we were in our early 20s, my sister and I were having lunch in London. I was studying accountancy and having a grumble about my new employer not paying for my school books. She said something I have never forgotten, she said “Why should they?”. We are pretty in tune so this made me stop and think. I didn't agree with her, I believed since my education would benefit them, the least they could do was pay. I was making my own professional development someone else's issue, now I see things differently.
We are entering an age of accelerated transformation. I must have read over 50 articles in the last month or two giving the same message. The robots are coming, or rather they are here. They represent a technological shift bigger even than the internet and are heavily impacting industries such as accounting and auditing. The articles state over and over the nature of jobs will change, but as fast as some skills become extinct new ones are in demand. Those who manage to re-skill, retrain or realign their capabilities will realise the benefits technology brings. They can use their new found or re-kindled skills to better serve their clients. Employability becomes less about what you know and more about your capacity for learning and adapting.
How much can we expect an employer to do for us?
In the face of this development I question how much can we expect an employer to do for us? Should we place our future entirely in their hands? Is this reasonable and fair, they too after all are discovering this new world for the first time. As organisations reshape how comfortable are we that their plans align with ours? Should we be taking a more proactive role in our development, commanding more responsibility over our own personal growth?
8 out of 10 finance processes are subject to automation in the near future, but studies show only 3 out of 10 accountants actually know why their jobs are changing. Different accounts claim different rates of automation adoption in the near or medium term future, but one undisputable fact is that robotic process automation (RPA) it is growing and it will, without doubt revolutionise the accounting industry. The lack of knowledge about RPA amongst accountants is a surprising and worrying statistic. Is it a case of passive acceptance that things are changing, and a blind faith in those in charge to make things work, to fix our futures? Are we as accountants taking it seriously enough, do we appreciate the threat to our own careers, our livelihood, should we not be more interested?
Two weeks ago I sat in Oslo in an auditorium full of open mouthed finance professionals who watched a robot process 40 invoices with almost perfect accuracy in a matter of seconds. We have heard about it, but now we were seeing it with our own eyes. This is Robotic Process Automation (RPA) at work. Assisting this robot was its best friend “Artificial Intelligence” (AI), or Machine Learning (ML) which is a form of AI which ensures the robot learns to do things progressively more accurately, it is a brain that just keeps getting brainier. The more the robot works, the more help it gets from AI, and the more intelligent they/it become.
Powerful, quick and accurate, with the capacity to work 24/7
This is not rocket science, it is just software with the ability to follow rules, recognise patterns, train and learn. Like humans, it can capture and interpret actions of specific processes, it can manipulate data, trigger responses and initiate new actions and communicate with other systems. It has the ability to be aware, adapt to changing circumstances, exceptions and new situations. Powerful, quick and accurate, with the capacity to work 24/7, it is both exciting and threatening to our current way of life.
This article is not about the technology itself, but rather how we can align ourselves with it. It is not only our skills that need to sharpen, but also our attitude and mindset. Each of us must take a deep dive into ourselves to address our own core values, interests and capabilities and how we can use them to carve ourselves a rewarding and sustainable career. This is not a one time job, the way we work will mean a continuous reassessment of where we are, and where we can go. It will be a matter of what my accounting body CIMA (Chartered Institute of Management Accountants) calls “continuous professional development” (CPD). CIMA members need to document every year how they are developing. I used to do this out of duty as a paper exercise, now I see I am doing this for “real”, as a matter of survival. What can I do to make sure I not only survive but thrive?
The traditional career ladder will be replaced by a career matrix where you can hop left and right into different boxes, like the old computer game pac-man where he zig zagged around a maze eating his pac-dots and aspiring to get to the power pellets which would move him on to the next level. There are many power pellets out there, bookstores are overflowing with interesting books giving depth and insight into the mindset of someone who has spent years researching and refining their ideas. There are courses, seminars, blogs, news, interest groups, social media and no end of opportunities to expand our existing knowledge. The important thing is not to jump on every new idea, but find the messages which resonate with our own, deep down to the core, and then internalise them in a way which makes theoretical sense to our own way of being.
Some practical tips about how we accountants can sharpen our pencils:-
The power of reaching out
Today's world is all about ecosystems, networking and collaboration. Building relationships, knowledge sharing, and giving more than we get. The phrase “it's not what you know, but who you know” holds true, but even greater is “it's not who you know, but who knows you”, what impact are we making on our world? Are we proud of what we are known for? Are we known at all?
To foster exceptional relationships our default question to others should always be “what can I do for you”? I am not suggesting that we overcommit and say yes to everything putting our own sanity at risk, but where possible the abundance attitude of giving and recognising the needs of others will propel us forwards quicker than anything else. OK, this this is an idealist picture, and maybe on Monday mornings, our ability to “give” is a little reduced, but simply stated, no matter how we feel, people love being around “people” people.
The power of words
Confidence and effective communication are valuable. The power of finding the right words to explain ourselves, the situation or our ideas is a gift, this is easier said than done. If you are like me, everything sounds so great in your head, but it's not always easy to formulate it in a way that sounds as impressive when spoken. Becoming an excellent communicator involves a conscious effort that must be learned continuously. In a world overflowing with data and stimuli it is just noise if it is not communicated effectively, and our job as accountants is to fade out the noise and help our customers tune in to the facts.
Communication is improved with practise, and it is not only about words. Improvements can be made by watching our body language to make sure that we are attentive and receptive to others, or by training ourselves to avoid the frustrating conversation fillers, like the “umms” and “ahhs”, or best of all learning to become storytellers.
Storytelling in any situation is a captivating and irresistible skill. Tapping into the power of storytelling will inspire people to change or adopt a behaviour in a way that no other method of communication can. We cannot undervalue the power of storytelling, learning to speak to our customers so that they can understand and connect with what we are saying will make sure they keep coming back.
The power of upsetting the status quo
Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it is a fantastic personal asset in a fast moving dynamic world. It ensures that you never stop learning and that you will enjoy an ever expanding knowledge base to draw into your work.
Curiosity will take you to new places, it will lead to change. Hardiness, resilience and learning to thrive in the face of change are also skills that can be practised. It is a normal human instinct to shy away from change, new things are hard, and they sometimes hurt, but little by little they can be conquered if we only dare to take the first step. Notwithstanding of our appetite for change, being adaptable and seeking ways to stay ahead of the game will make sure we are not left behind.
The power of being vulnerable
Daring to speak out, to share our ideas, to own our opinions, to push ourselves towards leadership in our field can feel uncomfortable. Vulnerability leaves us exposed, subject to judgement and criticism and that can be scary. If we are being true to ourselves there will always be some people that don't like us, or who choose to take offence to our outspoken uniqueness, so why not just accept that and do it anyway!. When we are able to give of ourselves, imperfections included, deep connections are sparked since we encourage others to feel comfortable enough to do the same. Being your true self with another is an all too seldom experienced gift, cultivating the courage to step up simply as you are will lead to personal growth and flourishing relationships with colleagues, suppliers and customers.
The power of a panoramic view
We accountants understand numbers, but we are capable of being so much more than the old cliched persona “bean counters”. Do we really understand business? We learnt about it in school, but can we remember how to identify the value drivers, how all the many moving parts of a business fit together and what impacts what?. Can we tear ourselves away from the details to see things from a panoramic perspective, from a strategic position? Can we rekindle a passion for the exciting and volatile world of enterprise?
If we chose to, we can help our customers (who just want to build their “stuff”) to understand what is going on in their business, on how they are performing. But to do this we must step out of our comfort zone and start engaging our creative brains. There is so much opportunity here, for us. As accountants we are experts at numbers, and some say that numbers are the language of business, but actually it is human language that is the language of business. Finding our voice and “story-ifying” the numbers for our customers can be nerve wracking as there is often no one way of interpreting what you see, there is no right answer, no one way of moving forwards, we just have to use our education and experience and help our customers take a stance. This is terrifying and exciting at the same time, it is our chance to come alive, to build real value, to bring life and energy to our career, if we want it!!
The power of being uncomfortable
Stepping out from behind the invoices, away from processing and into the mentoring role is problematic for many accountants, releasing the fear of being put on the spot, of not knowing all the answers straight away. I have pet hate of the assumption that because I am an accountant, I have some sort of inbuilt calculator in my brain which can do complex maths at will. Unfortunately I am so reliant on my machines that my brain does not even do simple maths at will! I also sometimes struggle to see what seems entirely obvious to someone else, however in my opinion if I am not understanding what they are saying it means they are not explaining it properly.
No one knows everything, but we as accountants are often better placed to find answers, or at least to pose some thought provoking questions to our customers. We cannot understand our customer's business as intimately as they know it themselves, but we can take a keen interest in their vision and help them towards it by using our experience to point out the potential pitfalls and danger zones. Given the time to analyze their current position, we can also mobilise them to embrace new opportunities. We do not need to be the all knowing oracle, just a guiding arm and a sounding board or a sanity check, and the more we do this, the more confident and able we become, we just need to get started.
Nothing I mentioned above requires formal education, or money, all these skills are as freely available to us as to anyone else. We are no longer knowledge workers but learning workers, and there is no longer any official program of learning. If we need some help or support we don't need to wait to be sent on a course by our employer, we can seek learning opportunities out and enroll ourselves. Learn and teach at will, it is in teaching that we learn best.
Finding a way to carve out our own future, doesn't mean we all need to take drastic measures and give up our jobs (although I did!), but rather finding a way to shine where we already are. Managing our own professional development is not a job for our leaders, they have companies to run, they cannot be responsible for running us too, they can help and support, and maybe even pay for some of it, but it is up to each one of us to take charge of this for ourselves.
No matter what technology is doing, people need people. There will always be a place for us, it is about getting out there and finding a way to make a difference. There is no textbook, no recipe, and no one size fits all. That is the exciting thing, we all have equal opportunity to embrace the new world and to bring our own essence, our own passion and energy to the fore, this is not a temporary thing, we should consider building our own long term survival strategy, with our own personal mission, vision and objectives.
The American philosopher William James once said “Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does”. We matter.
Feel free to leave a comment, we would love to hear from you
Laura Landmark (ACMA,CGMA) is Co-Founder & CEO of Mantle Analtyics AS, a company dedicated to building business intelligence solutions to provide new insights with speed and depth for companies that want to grow. www.mantleanalytics.com