The role of artificial intelligence (AI) is already a well-established topic within the accountancy profession. Automation of data is becoming commonplace within many accounting apps, while some systems use machine learning algorithms to make banking and expense reconciliation quicker and easier.
However, there is still much to be done before AI is fully embraced and implemented. Across the global business community, many employees remain wary about AI and its potential impact on their jobs; others have concerns around data accuracy and how clients and their customers will respond to the technology.
55% of accountancy professionals have little knowledge of AI, and 15% none at all
To take advantage of the benefits that new technology can offer – particularly around streamlining admin – practitioners need to shift this mindset and provide training and tools to bring AI into their firms.
Everyone in finance knows how time-consuming repetitive tasks can be. Invoice processing and tracking, data input, supplier payments and bank reconciliations take a hefty chunk out of the working day for many professional accountants. AI’s ability to shoulder this kind of mundane finance admin work leaves it as potentially the profession’s best friend since the introduction of the spreadsheet.
By using generative AI (ie ChatGPT-type tools that can create new content) to handle time-consuming data-driven tasks, including summarising and providing an initial interpretation of client data, accountants can refocus on expanding their value-rich role as strategic business advisers.
Despite the clear efficiency benefits of AI, staff caution over its use remains a large obstacle for firms.
A lack of experience and knowledge surrounding the technology and worries about machine learning tools replacing jobs adds to this wariness. A recent Institute of Financial Accountants survey reported that 55% of accountancy respondents believe they have little knowledge of AI and 15% no knowledge at all. With this in mind, there is a clear need for practices to focus on bridging the knowledge gap.
ChatGPT is not expected to provide the same level of professional judgment as a trained accountant
There are also widespread concerns surrounding data safety and security breaches associated with AI technology. A recent Thomson Reuters survey found that two-thirds of accounting professionals were concerned about the data risks of using AI in their work. These concerns need to be addressed before wide-scale change in the industry can occur.
Forward-thinking businesses addressing these concerns are already reaping the benefits. PwC’s 2022 AI business survey found that most companies using AI report that they have derived substantial business benefits from it – with improved productivity, customer service and decision-making being the most common. The most AI-advanced third of respondents were twice as likely to enjoy those benefits – the list was topped by improved productivity, which 44% reported.
Many concerns about AI – in particular around the security and accuracy of information – come down to what may happen if the technology is allowed to operate completely freely and independently. But good AI currently needs human intervention and expertise to ensure it works effectively.
We’re still a long way from developing an AI system that is able to autonomously manage and advise clients about their financial data. A tool like ChatGPT is a machine learning model designed to provide information; it is not designed or expected to provide the same level of professional nuance and judgment as a trained accountant. While AI can be quick at analysing information and providing suggestions based on that data, human expertise is still required to check and validate those suggestions.
Firms should train staff in AI services and to add the kind of client value that only a human can offer
So although employees’ fears about being pushed out of employment by automation tools and AI are understandable, they can be addressed effectively by reinforcing a segregation of duties. While everyday tasks can be drafted by AI, they must still be reviewed by staff and made customer-facing. And while AI is likely to reduce work in some areas of accountancy, it will potentially create new roles elsewhere that, with training, can be taken up by accountants who have previously worked in calculative roles.
By showing staff that their work is still imperative, firms can promote the use of AI and redirect resources more easily.
The way forward
It will be important for firms to establish and maintain good safety measures and precautions when using AI with client data. Protecting sensitive financial information is paramount, and practices will be able to maintain trust by highlighting the additional measures being undertaken to stay on top of tax and automation regulations.
The lack of understanding about the potential uses of AI in the profession remains a challenge that practices will have to deal with over the coming years. They should therefore consider how to provide new training and promote a shift in mindset so their staff learn to take advantage of AI services while optimising their own expertise to focus on the kind of client value that only a human being can offer.