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14 Jun 2024 22:46

Advertising & Marketing

Artificial Intelligence and Accounting: A Complicated Relationship

In 2018 no matter what your view of technology (our savior vs. our downfall), we do have a relationship with it, even if we don’t talk about it in the language of human ones.

When two people in a relationship have trouble connecting or fail to see the value in each other they might turn to couples’ therapy or to a trial separation period. Relationships are complicated. This is universally understood in people-to-people relationships. And it is no different with people-to-machine ones. In 2018 no matter what your view of technology (our savior vs. our downfall), we do have a relationship with it, even if we don’t talk about it in the language of human ones. And nowhere is this more evident than in the relationship between artificial intelligence and accounting.

The first evidence I found of this complicated relationship with technology as it relates to the accounting and finance function was in a 2016 Computerworld1story about how the Big Four were using artificial intelligence and machine learning to transform their audit and contract functions. KPMG’s use of IBM Watson and Deloitte’s AI contract analysis tool, Kira, the authors contended, might be able to deliver above and beyond customary consulting work.

The stars of this article were the machines (not the people who decide to implement them, program them, or analyze the data they churn out). In the human-machine relationship, the machine got the alpha spot. As an amateur psychologist I would say that the relationship was one-sided.

Fast forward to 2018 and there is much more nuance in how the human-machine relationship is described. Machines, alone, are not being portrayed as the panacea to all that ails an audit department. Humans have a role to play too. For example a recent PwC report2 makes clear it is a human who must recognize a problem can be solved by a machine in the first place. It goes on to explain that machines will need to learn from human experts and can only be trusted after they have proved that they can beat the human (i.e. gamification):

“How do we recognize a good tax problem that can be solved by AI when we see it?  The history of AI suggests we can test a system through the context of a game – a competition with an expert human. A computer “beating” a human gives confidence to business decision-makers that AI is effective.”

Gamification as a method of testing whether a process can be automated is now an acknowledged best practice. PwC has also shared robotic process automation3 (RPA) use case studies widely, so companies are benefitting from a large pool of shared data about the effectiveness of using automation to replace manual and repeatable tasks. Machines are now being described as “in the service of humans,” not as a replacement to us.

Balance has been restored to the relationship. We are coming to acknowledge the benefits of AI, automation, and RPA without fear of our extinction or of being labeled “human doormat” by them. But we still are struggling with how to implement these tools in the service of our goals.

As McKinsey reports4 “AI adoption is still at an early, experimental stage, especially outside the tech sector. Based on a survey of over 3,000 AI-aware C-level executives across 10 countries and 14 sectors, the report found that 20 percent of respondents had adopted AI at scale in a core part of their business, 40 percent were partial adopters or experimenters, while another 40 percent were still waiting to take their first steps.”

Why can’t we embrace what technology has to offer? 

It may be in part that CFOs are uncertain how new technologies will benefit their business, see it as too expensive and/or don’t know how to effectively implement it. CFO Magazine’s Fourth Annual CFO IT survey5 found that while 90% of senior finance executives “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that the CFO of the future will require a much stronger technology skill set, only about half of respondents took any specific actions to upgrade their technology expertise in 2017 (slightly more, 57%, plan to do so in 2018).

Being in a healthy relationship with technology means you must learn about it. That is why IMA’s President and CEO, Jeff Thomson, has discussed the importance of upskilling for CFOs and any other accounting or finance professional that wants to remain relevant in the digital age. He has frequent “Series of the Future” talks on the topic, airing on Facebook Live. And in November 2017 he penned an article for Strategic Finance magazine entitled, “The Future-Proof Accountant.”

“While automation is changing the way accountants work and the jobs they perform, it will also present opportunities for those who become “future-proof.” What do I mean by that? First, the relevance of the professional—and the profession—is at stake. Second, seizing opportunity from the jaws of risk (i.e., routine and repeatable accounting jobs or tasks being displaced or replaced) won’t occur by standing still. Our profession is known for its commitment to ethics but less for its agility, time to market, and capacity for change.”

“The capacity to change” is what has saved many an otherwise doomed relationship. One way accounting and finance professionals can show their interest in growing and learning about new technology is by pursuing specialized certifications like the Certified Management Accountant (CMA) certification. It focuses on developing the skills technology alone can’t do i.e. managing and developing people as well as decision-making, planning, and creativity. The CMA exam is structured in two parts, with an emphasis on how to influence key decision-makers, how to extract actionable insights from data, and how to become a business partner.

I have a complicated relationship with all the tech tools in my life (i.e. my computer has a nasty habit of freezing when three windows are open and my iPhone once refused to type the letter “t” because I didn’t install an update). But they make it possible to write blogs, create music mixes, or stay in touch with people who are far away. So I endeavor to get to know them better and bring in experts when I am confused by how they are acting. When I want to walk away and tell them, “It’s not you, it’s me,” I pause and consider what life would be like without them. And always I conclude that I need them in my life, no matter how messy our relationship can be.

 

Written by Margaret Michaels,Manager of Brand Content and Storytelling at IMA

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