Aussie accounting: Beware the bots

Chris Sheedy By Chris Sheedy, CA Today

9 August 2016

An Australian futurist says future accounting will be dramatically different thanks to bots. But the news is not all bad, Chris Sheedy reports.

It is not just repetitive manual jobs, such as work on manufacturing lines and farms, that are being taken over by automatons. The same is happening with repetitive work in all fields. 

Experts say many aspects of accounting are ripe for the picking. 

Where manual labour is being replaced by robots, mental labour is being taken over by digital bots.

These bots, explains futurist Dr Kristin Alford, Director of the Science, Creativity and Education Studio at University of South Australia, are pieces of software best described as “packages of artificial intelligence”. They can be set to sift through systems, pick up specific types of information and come back with a defined result.

“All jobs that are repeatable, and jobs with just a little bit of variation, can be done by bots,” Alford says. “These are jobs where you might be dealing with different customers but where the customer problem is the same, or jobs where the amount of variation between each task is fairly small.”

Where manual labour is being replaced by robots, mental labour is being taken over by digital bots.

Where creativity and personal interaction are required - such as in hairdressing - it is difficult for processes to be automated. But where the role mostly involves looking back through sets of data in order to come to a result, that difficulty dissolves.

“That is something that accounting and case law are particularly suited to,” Alford says. “A certain part of those roles is about mining a database. The information is often fixed and unchanging.”

“I am not suggesting that this represents all of accounting. But cases where things are straightforward and data is available are easily automated.”

The bright side

While some roles within accounting will certainly be taken over by bots, forward-thinking professionals will be able to utilise such technology to set themselves up as effective business advisors, Alford explains.

She illustrates this with the example of a physiotherapist managing the rehabilitation of a young boy after a major leg operation. Various specialists are managed by the physiotherapist in order to ensure the best outcome for the patient, and one of those specialists might be a robot.

“The robot takes the child through the rehabilitation exercises that are repeatable and that vary only slightly while the physiotherapist manages the rehabilitation strategy,” Alford says. “It can be the same in accounting. The jobs that are repeatable and regular are automated and this means the accountant works on strategic direction for their clients.”

How can accountants act as strategic advisors to help optimise businesses with the assistance of those automated processes?

“I see accountants grappling with how they provide support for business. How do they make businesses better rather than simply providing assistance around the mechanics of the business function and around compliance?”

Think of the way businesses can now subscribe to software-as-a-service. Entrepreneurial accountants are setting up their businesses the same way, she suggests.

“This means the accountant is on the business all the time and is really helping from an advisory perspective rather than coming in to the business once a year and making sure it is meeting various compliance requirements,” she explains.

“That is the emerging space: How can accountants act as strategic advisors to help optimise businesses with the assistance of those automated processes?”

Why should Australia worry?

In Australia, accountants have been taking some comfort from the knowledge that much of the repetitive work has already been contracted out, so our industry should not be too badly affected by the rise of the bots. But this is false confidence, according to Alford.

“Those regions to which the work has been outsourced have already begun developing an expertise around that work and are now upskilling,” she says.

As a result, such regions then become increasingly expensive in terms of labour costs, and also become actual competitors for accounting business. So the skill growth encouraged by the original outsourcing becomes a threat rather than an opportunity.

Secondly, with technological advancement there are always laggards, Alford says. There are always businesses too large or slow-moving to cope with change. The Australian market has a mix of business types and their chances of success may revolve around their ability to manage such change, particularly in the face of threats from the highly automated regions to which they had previously outsourced. In Australia, the pace of change in various regions is likely to differ.

“In South Australia, for instance, a lot of the economy is driven by small to medium businesses so in that region, where businesses are more flexible, it may be easier to adopt new processes. If an area has a large economy with a lots of very large businesses then it can be more difficult to shift the stream,” adds Alford.


About the author

Chris Sheedy is one of Australia’s busiest and most successful freelance writers. He has been published regularly in the Sydney Morning Herald, Virgin Australia Voyeur, The Australian Magazine, GQ, In The Black,Cadillac , Management Today, Men’s Fitness and countless other big-brand publications. He is frequently commissioned to carry out copywriting and corporate writing projects for organisations, including banks, universities, television networks, restaurant chains and major charities, through his business The Hard Word.

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  • Australia

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