Automation Highway
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Accountants Want to Drive the Automation Highway?

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The issue of automating accounting functions impacts accountants everywhere, and at a recent UK event, an accounting technology vendor representative received a harsh lesson in how to properly address accountants, their needs and they way they need to work.

Jun 9th 2022
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While the future of accounting work will undoubtable become be more automated, changing people’s habits and mindsets takes time and vendors must find a better way to communicate the value they generate.

It’s a slate-grey spring morning in a hotel meeting room, where a well-spoken young man from a software company is earnestly addressing a smattering of accounting firm owners. Sporting tight trousers, tattoos and a bewildering lack of socks, he’s urging the group to “drive the automation superhighway.”

While a few audience members are eyeing up the lunchtime buffet, the majority seem to be following along, taking notes on branded Moleskine pads. Suddenly, without warning, the mood changes as our speaker checkmates himself with what must have seemed to him the most rhetorical of questions: “I mean, who likes sitting there and actually MANUALLY typing invoices?”

Without exception, all hands shoot up. Our muscle-bound hero pauses and looks askance, the premise for his next slide in ruins. He valiantly soldiers on but the wind has well and truly gone out of his automated sails. It’s clear these accountants aren’t ready to get on the automation superhighway – but why?

No Single Answer

Obviously there isn’t one answer to this – for the accountants in the room or the profession more generally. It may be they’re skeptical about the tools, don’t see the benefit or can’t relate them to what they’re doing on a day-to-day basis. Or maybe they actually quite enjoy churning through a bit of mindless paperwork with their streaming music of choice on in the background.

Deep down, we know the future will be more automated, to a greater or lesser degree. A recent study from Indonesia on robotic process engineering found that tools developed by researchers to process invoices were 745 percent faster than their human counterparts. The numbers stack up, but that isn’t the whole story.

Automation in accounting takes the most manual elements of an accountant’s work and does them automatically -- often instantly -- replacing tasks that people were previously employed to do. As with any mass shift in workplace practices, it’s a long process of adoption, trial and error.

Believe it or not, the term “automation” has been around for quite some time. No less a source than the internet has Greek polymath Homer coining the term around 900BC while pondering self-moving tables atop popular deity hangout Mount Olympus.

Fast-forward a couple of millennia and in 1898 electricity enthusiast Nikola Tesla bamboozled a crowd at the newly built Madison Square Garden, making them believe they could control a toy boat using their voices, when in fact he was moving it by remote control.

Heady Mix

But these early examples are very much outliers – early steps in the long journey down the automation superhighway. To take what were ultimately flights of fancy or pieces of entertainment and apply them en masse to the world of work you need a heady mix of the right skills, tools, processes and, above all, awareness and training.

It also requires deep-seated behavioral change in the workplace – and that is hard. Just ask Tesla, who’s on record saying: “The world moves slowly and new truths are difficult to see.”

While Nicky Sparkplug’s words ring true through the ages, there are ways in which the process of change can be hacked and progress accelerated. However, those who’ve consistently had the most success with this haven’t necessarily been the ones with the best tools – they’ve been the ones who’ve found problems for their solutions to solve, and clearly communicated their value to those who needed it.

Joseph Jacquard’s punch cards, which told mechanical weaving looms what pattern to make, are a good example from times of yore. Leaning more into the world of accountancy, how about Microsoft Excel’s autofill function? Or more recently, Xero’s bank feeds or find and recode function? Or pre-accounting tools like Dext or AutoEntry? All automation-driven timesavers with specific purposes.

Driving Change

What our tattooed speaker from the start of this tale failed to realize is that using sweeping jargon such as automation, AI or open banking without relating them back to present-day processes and problems often doesn’t have the desired effect.

Being talked at or hectored by multinationals or tech bros doesn’t tend to drive change. The future may be automated, but accountants still want to see themselves in it. Perhaps it might be better for software firms to listen a bit before they speak, then maybe accountants will be keener to buckle up and drive the automation highway.

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