Jim Pettigrew: Why CAs will never be replaced by robots

Jim Pettigrew
By Jim Pettigrew CA

16 November 2015

The automation of repetitive 'bean-counting' tasks enables CAs to move up the value chain, argues Jim Pettigrew CA.

Robots are invading the modern workplace. The stuff of science fiction is becoming reality.

In recent weeks, there has been an explosion of publicity about automation, technology and robotics. A Deloitte report claimed that a third of existing jobs in the UK are at risk from automation over the next 20 years, and the BBC's Panorama programme asked the great British public "Could a Robot Do Your Job?"

Jobs in repetitive processing, administration, and support services are the first in the firing line. But new roles in digital and big data will replace many of them. Fully understanding and anticipating the changes coming from automation and robotics will be essential fare for CAs.

Today industrial robots perform 10 per cent of all manufacturing tasks. In 10 years, it is estimated that will have risen to 25 per cent, and 52,000 more industrial robots are expected to be sold between now and the end of 2017. Cars that drive themselves are being developed right now.

So, sit down and distance yourself from any sharp objects, as I ask, "Could CAs ever be replaced by machines?"


Before we answer that, it is worth observing that technological innovation is nothing new to accounting. Oliver Cromwell's private secretary invented the calculator 330 years ago.

Back in the days when my ICAS membership certificate was still hot off the press, I first encountered the Kalamazoo system. This was a wonder of the early 1980s accountant's office, named after the town in Michigan where it was first invented. To my astonishment, it produced an invoice and automatically posted it to the sales ledger.

The Kalamazoo was light years behind the software, cloud computing and big data that now aim to automate and streamline accountancy processes. All the Big Four firms have impressive technology partners as they work on transforming their businesses.

At our New ICAS Conference in Glasgow on 27 November we will hear from KPMG on how they hope to take the predictive data insights of Formula One and revolutionise the audit.

Sifting data for the insights we need is like looking for a needle in a haystack, yet doing that better than others will be the key to competitive advantage – customer insight is the gold dust of business.

Where does all this leave our profession?

It gives us an opportunity to serve our clients and businesses better if we stay at the leading edge of technological advancement. It also leaves us with an opportunity to use automation to reduce the risk of manual intervention. It means we can automate many of the mind-numbing tasks that blight some CAs' early years in the profession and earned us the nickname of "bean counters".

But most of all, it gives us the real opportunity to move CAs even further up the value chain. It should allow us to focus even more on judgement, expertise and insight.

Currently, the profession is expanding at an astonishing rate. The seven UK and Ireland professional bodies have seen their combined global membership grow from 365,000 in 2006 to 485,000 today. There has never been a greater demand for chartered accountants.

The more we focus on being valued advisers, the more the profession will prosper, as an old saying goes, "from Kalamazoo to Timbuktu".


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