Robots and artificial intelligence threaten large swathes of the bookkeeping and accounting professions. And the danger is not in some distant future: it is a few years away, according to Nicolaas van Wyk, CEO of the SA Institute of Business Accountants (Sabia), speaking at the Saiba-QuickBooks Future of Accounting event in Sandton last week.
“What this means is that bookkeepers and accountants must develop new skills and become business analysts and advisers,” said van Wyk. “Most of the routine accounting functions such as posting entries to journals can already be done by robots, and you are better off having a background in IT than accounting in this brave new world.”
That does not mean thousands of accountants and bookkeepers are going to find themselves out of work. There is already evidence that they are upskilling themselves to embrace the changes sweeping the accounting sector.
Lenore Kerrigan of UiPath told delegates that accountants may be intimidated by the mountain of technology confronting them, but every generation has had to face a technological revolution. “I went on a spreadsheet course in the 1980s and learned about columns and rows. It turned my world upside down. Technology is moving into the next phase, and it require a change in mindset. Just think about how many errors are made in data capture. Automation does data capture consistently and 100% of the time. Auditing lends itself to automation. Instead of testing a small sample of transactions, automation allows auditors to test all transactions and do it in real time forever.”
There is a misplaced concern that automation will replace humans, said Anton Herbst of Tarsus on Demand. “In the past we sold products to clients because we had products to sell, and in the process we lost their trust. Now we are trying to regain their trust by offering them a service. There’s massive pressure to perform because the economy is not growing, and there is a massive opportunity for those who embrace the transformation that is upon us. We are not automating humans, we are automating tasks.”
How many tasks will be automated? 100%, said Herbst. “The previous industrial revolution dehumanised us. But this technology has the capability to make us more human.”
Earl Steyn, director of Draftworx, cautioned that the full impact of AI is still some years away from changing our lives. “Why are people afraid (of technology)? It’s fear of the unknown. Even developing a website you need someone to guide you. Don’t make the mistake in thinking that your time is free so you can spend time on routine functions. Your time is not free. If you’re going to automate your business, stick with tried and tested solutions such as Quickbooks, otherwise you can end up making expensive experiments.
“If you run your practice on bookkeeping, over the next two to three years you will be dead.”
Junaid Steel of EasyBiz Technologies asked how many of the 300 accountants in attendance had a website. Only about 10 put up their hands. “Maybe the thing to do is get a website first before looking at getting a robot to automate processes. And if you’re worried about the cost of automation, QuickBooks is free for accountants – and so is the training.”
Lourens van Zyl of Transparent SA said organisations tended to dive too rapidly into technology. “You need to marry this with human capital. You start with small steps on your journey to digital transformation.”