In January I wrote about three major shifts on the horizon for accountants – collaboration, automation, and triple-entry accounting. Recently, automation in particular has created a lot of industry chatter, and I would like to explain what exactly the impact will be on your firm ... specifically, your workflow.
For the record, in our space we have seen:
- H&R Block partnering with IBM’s Watson for tax automation.
- Chatbot launches from Sage, and pending launches from Xero and Intuit.
- Migration to AWS for machine-learning capabilities by Xero and Intuit.
- MACPA and the Business Learning Institute joining forces with IBM on skills in artificial intelligence, big data, and cognitive computing.
So, let’s explore automation more deeply and look at what it means to you, your practice, and your workflow.
The Age of Automation
Today, automation rests in the hands of the major online accounting software providers. With their access to enormous amounts of data from more than 3 million online subscribers (2.2 million from Intuit QuickBooks Online and 1 million from Xero), they are aggregating their customer data to build algorithms to auto-categorize, auto-configure, auto-alert, and auto-complete many of the tasks within their products.
This is changing your day-to-day by simplifying data entry and tasks. Specifically, client services, such as tax, bookkeeping, and payroll, are most impacted, and soon many of these underlying data-entry tasks in these client services will be eliminated altogether.
Extending the Ecosystem
A constantly growing ecosystem of products surrounding the online general ledgers is making it easier to extend the workflows for your accounting system. Working with specific vertical industries or within your practice is becoming more seamless.
In some cases, additional workflows are being embedded inside general ledger software, such as the extension of QuickBooks Online with time tracking (via TSheets) and AR/AP management (via Bill.com). In other cases, applications and their subsequent workflows are being stitched together by savvy practitioners using programs like Zapier and Workato.
In the medium-term future, you will be able to use broader APIs, notification proliferation, and easy-to-configure connectors to create cross-application custom workflows. These sophisticated workflow objects will manage, coordinate, and complete a set of predetermined tasks without you needing to lift a finger.
Your Workflow, Your Way
With the advent of online practice management applications and lightweight offerings like QuickBooks Online Accountant Practice Management, many firms are already documenting, deploying, following, and completing the necessary workflows that support their practice and complete the work for their clients.
An essential starting point for all practices is to identify key processes to document and standardize across the team. A central place that outlines how work is done will ensure quality, consistency, and efficient delivery. To fully take advantage of workflow automation, this must be done today.
Automation by the large players like Intuit, Xero, and Sage will make your client work and other workflows easier by auto-completing or eliminating steps through learned, repeatable behavior. The reach of your existing workflows will be expanded with greater insights, real-time information, proactive vs. reactive actions, and more control over what can be done across other industry and small business applications. This is all evolving right now.
But what practice automation can you leverage today? Within your accounting application like Xero, you can map your clients’ chart of accounts to one common ledger to automate your report production via a standardized set of reporting templates. Intuit's recent release of auto-categorization will auto-recognize the vendor and present recommended categorization for the transaction based on similar crowdsourced behavior.
As for your small business clients, TSheets and its GPS functionality can track when and where people clock in and out. Hubdoc can automate the process of fetching documents and parsing bank statements and utility bills. Or vehicle mileage can be auto-captured for clients with Expensify's mileage tracking feature.
The list of apps, activities, and automation is growing every day. It is a matter of learning what your core apps are capable of doing and leveraging the technology to simplify the workflow of your firm.
We are already experiencing the effects of automation in the accounting industry, and this is only going to shift further and more rapidly. The challenge for you and your practice is to embrace this now, get a jump on your competitors, and make technology do as much heavy lifting as it is capable of.