What is automation -- or digitization -- and how is it different from artificial intelligence? This concept is not new to business and has been gradually growing since the first PC sat on a wooden desk in some office.
However, the speed of the digital information and the pathways it moves along have not only increased, but it has drastically changed how we do our day-to-day work. There’s no chicken and egg question here. The words themselves tell us that one had to proceed before the other.
First, we make our information digital, so it is simply code. Then we create artificial intelligence (AI) applications that can read that digital code with adjustable rules, so it removes the need for physical touch, not physical.
The Beginning of Automation
Digitization started with scanners and fax machines. We took words and numbers printed on paper and turned it into a series of 0s and 1s. Between the scanners and online faxing we could now store our physical paper in a computer filing cabinet rather than a metal or wooden cabinet that took up space in our office.
Of course, being a generation of Boomers with a focus on the physical, we would print out documents from our computer storage to do our work on the computer. Yep, sounds kind of crazy redundant today but that is what was done.
Ask someone under the age of 35 if they have a checkbook or get their bank statements in the mail. Ask someone under 25 how often, or even if, they use a desktop computer.
The answer is likely a firm "no." Why? Because they have been working, not on digital documents stored and printed when needed, but rather digital documents stored, accessed and closed as needed. In fact, many people do not even access the digital document anymore; they access the digital data that would be in a static, stored digital document. For that they need little more than a small powerful tool called a mobile phone.
The digital office of the early 2000s began to drastically change around 2005. Maybe not in the accounting profession, but certainly in many other businesses across the world. In 1999, I connected my first bank feed into a program called QuickBooks Desktop. My digital journey began that day sitting at my kitchen table in a remote mountain cabin.
My physical server had disappeared by 2003 and I was fully accessing my virtual server and working from anywhere there had a secure internet access point. I then got rid of my printer and filing cabinets by 2004.
Six years later, I was down to one laptop and a mobile device. By 2013, I could use artificial intelligence with enough confidence in the applications and feeds to cut my work time in half. AI is the outcome of the digital movement.
The Rise of AI
To utilize the advantages of digital and AI, a lot of things had to change in how our office worked. Prior to 2004, we could still maintain the process workflow we always had, back in the age of ‘stone knives and bearskins.’ These processes did not often translate well when utilizing AI technologies.
As we utilized these technologies, it became clear that those past processes and workflows hampered the benefits of technology. Humans were getting in the way. Understanding how ‘everyone’ utilized our old process and finding areas where we needed additional training, became a full-time endeavor. Welcome the advent of the Chief Digital Officer.
Here’s the job description of this must-have member of the Digital/AI Accounting office:
- Lay out and maintain the changes in digital/AI capabilities and their priority as they align with the firm’s growth
- Serve as the ‘quarterback’ for digital innovation. Analyze the impact of digital/AI change to the firm and the firm’s clients
- Maintain a central area for deployment, training and maintaining the firms digital/AI portfolio
- Measure the efficiencies and losses where they occur and act on those changes
- Assist in attracting talent with skills in digital/AI
In Part 2, we will discuss pricing your services and maintaining value in your client relationships when it comes to automation.
Penny Breslin is the founder of MoneyPenny LLC, a consulting firm specializing in helping accounting firms and other businesses embrace the power of technology to simplify their operations and increase their profit margins. Drawing on her years of experience and her knowledge of what it...