What has robotic process automation brought to accountancy?

What has robotic process automation brought to accountancy?

Robotic Process Automation can completely transform our business processes and take away the inefficient, inaccurate and costly tasks which used to be central to an accountant's role

Buzzwords like blockchain, data analytics, and artificial intelligence are now commonplace in the accountancy industry.  Without doubt, these technologies will revolutionise the industry but perhaps the most likely technology to change our profession in the short term will be robotic process automation (RPA).

Accountants, like so many other professionals, rely on employees to fulfil manual tasks for vital business processes, such as collecting, reviewing and inputting information between systems, websites and online portals.  Our industry is a spreadsheet jungle of labour-intensive manual tasks which has created a cottage industry within our admin departments.

These tasks, which often require employees to log in and out of multiple systems, copying and pasting information, can be repetitive and menial. They are often costly, highly inefficient and fraught with inaccuracies.

RPA can completely transform our business processes and take away these inefficient, inaccurate and costly tasks. At the core of the digital transformation, this technology is emerging as a viable solution to data integration and automation challenges that historically never seemed to get solved.

Before we all get too excited, the image of a human-like C3-PO robot joining our force and sitting in our offices is, unfortunately, far from reality.  RPA is simply a software solution which integrates easily into our systems.  Working across multiple software, RPA can integrate to seamlessly enter, maintain, migrate, integrate, mine and test data from spreadsheets.  It’s  an employee who can work 24-7, never get tired and always maintain 100% accuracy in repeating a task over and over again.

You may be expecting me to say that the industry will need to employ more IT specialists to build and maintain our bots, but the real surprise is that the technology is easy to implement and understand.  Often no different than programming a simple macro, their drag-and-drop interface allows even the technologically naïve to create a fully automated script that describes exactly how data should be collected and moved.   Users can then execute their scripts, automating data entry, data maintenance, integrating disparate applications, mining data at will, and even converting entire databases— all without writing a single line of programming code.

While there are significant benefits from saving valuable employee time completing manual tasks, perhaps the most valuable is the consistency in procedure and compliance across multiple employees and offices.  Accountancy firms spend vast resource ensuring procedures are completed correctly and consistently – something RPA would always do.

Excitement must be tempered by the fact that core business processes are sometimes hard to automate as they require a human workforce to make judgements and decisions.  While in the long-term artificial intelligence may solve a number of these issues, the role of a human will likely still be vital in any service industry.  Let’s not forget our clients either, who are likely to want human, rather than robotic, interaction.  Human interaction is augmented further by aligning RPA technology to a client-centric operational process.

Like so many industries, our profession is going through a global digital revolution which is beginning to accelerate at a rapid pace.  We’re going to have to make significant changes in the way we recruit and develop staff, as technology is changing the norm.

The standard training programme adopted over the last 30 years is unlikely to be fit for purpose in the future. Arguably there will be a greater requirement for advisers or consultants and less for those doing the more manual or administrative tasks.  Those compliance services could also be under increasing price pressure as it becomes possible for more work to be automated.

Traditional trainees are unlikely to be needed at the same levels whereas the requirement for qualified staff is likely to increase.  Therefore, the challenge is how you train and develop staff to get to the required level with such a change in approach. In my mind, as trainees are unlikely to be used for lower-skilled audit or accountancy work, this can only lead to a need to change the development and training structure.  I believe this is likely to result in an accelerated college-based training programme in the early years with perhaps more emphasis on practical experience towards the end.

The firm of the future is also likely to have a team of data analysts who will specialise in reading and understanding information before providing this to the qualified accountants and tax advisers to consider the risks and opportunities that arise. HM Revenue & Customs is already using RPA and data analytics in various ways and this is only likely to improve and increase; further driving the demand for good analysts within our industry as we continually seek to avoid any unnecessary questions from HMRC to our clients.

These are truly exciting times which will provide forward thinking firms an opportunity to realise significant advantages and growth, while more antiquated or technology resistant firms continue to fight over a competitive commodity-based compliance service.

 

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