Accounting’s greatest asset


Computing technology is incredible, but people are still accounting’s greatest asset

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) not only has an impact on the types of jobs that are being created, but it is also changing roles within the existing workforce. Some jobs have been replaced by automation, with artificial intelligence simplifying or altering traditional roles as we have always known them, accountancy is no exception.

With the introduction and growth of components such as cloud accountancy to the industry, we no longer require the same human resources and infrastructure of the past. In a Professional Accountant article, Glen Ansell, head of intelligent automation at Tangent, said that they ran a test for an auditing firm to determine whether a sample of invoices was authentic. It took an article clerk one working day to complete the task. In the same amount of time, the robot completed the task 560 times. He did, however, point out that human accountants were crucial when it came to risk analysis, explaining that connected devices had an element of vulnerability which humans could counteract.

Although artificial intelligence can replace or automate many tasks previously requiring human intervention, training, and implementation are key processes that will still be left to humans. At the core, systems need to be programmed by humans, the slightest programming error can result in the machine being unable to identify and resolve the error. Such errors can have a compound effect if there is a delay in identifying them, it can have major ramifications for business. Machines may also be able to do the computing, but they cannot sign off on reports or audits.

Since the role of the human accountant will still be the review and control of calculations, and in the confirmation that the outcomes are correct, accountants of the future will do less of the number crunching and will play more of a strategic role. Future accountants will find themselves responsible for the innovative application of artificial intelligence and will be the problem-solvers in charge of the analysis of information and the application of data. They will need to interpret data that is not related to finances and will need to be able to evaluate components that relate to the business to help guide it in a strategic direction.

Rather than delivering numerical findings, accountants of the future will be more focussed on the process and infrastructure of a business. With information now available at the touch of a button, the accounting landscape will transform from one that is reactive to one that is pro-active. The rise of application programming interfaces (APIs) will provide growing solutions, enabling accountants to select the best available tools, essentially custom-building solutions for their business.

Some things will never change, accountants in the Fourth Industrial Revolution will still require keen numerical skills, but it won’t be enough. To, accountants of the future will need a combination of skills:

1. Strategic Planning
Strategic planning will require goal setting based on data gathered from various business players and systems. Based on this data, decisions will need to be made and resource allocation assigned to ensure business goals are achieved. This is not a simple checklist task, it will require skilled human intuition, and complex knowledge and thinking to manage efficiencies, drive outcomes, and boost productivity where required.

2. Problem Solving
This is the ability to think about complex and abstract problems and finding practical and workable solutions. It is the human ability to look at a problem, evaluating all the possible outcomes, and deciding on the best possible solution.

3. Design Mindset
The ability to create tasks and processes which work together to reach a common, strategic goal. This is a very solution-focused human skill, one that requires a person to look at the past, what was done before, while planning for the future, and finding a way to get there.

4. Social Intelligence and Communication Skills
Understanding numbers is one thing, understanding people is quite another. With machines taking over much of the number crunching, accountants will be expected to have even better social intelligence and communication skills. They will need to know how to be personable and connect with people.

5. Virtual Collaboration
In the Fourth Industrial Revolution, many jobs can and are being done remotely, but it takes a special kind of skill for people to work remotely and make the people they work with feel part of a team, part of the bigger picture. Accountants of the future will need to establish themselves as a strong member of the team.

6. Creativity
Changing career roles will see accountants thinking more creatively, using their imagination to come up with original, ground-breaking thoughts and ideas, creating solutions which at times may seem far-fetched and out of reach.

7. Cognitive flexibility and load management
This is the ability to consider multiple concepts at the same time, be flexible in the thinking process, and have a sense of discernment regarding the prioritisation of concepts. This means people will need to think about what needs to be done before the next thing can happen. They also need to be able to do mental gymnastics in the sense of changing direction when it is required.

8. Computational thinking
This relates to the ability to understand and interpret data to create abstract concepts from the organisational data that has been gathered. It largely involves people coming up with practical computer solutions and applications which then need to be built and implemented.

The future and the automation of this sector are in the hands of accountants. Those who stay abreast of progress, embrace change, and are excited by the advancement of technology, will eventually be the leaders in their field.

At UJ we believe we are a forerunner in 4IR thinking and we pride ourselves in our ability to deliver highly relevant programmes to meet the ever-changing 4IR landscape – our BCom International Accounting degree is no exception. Click here to learn more about it and to start your accounting journey.

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