In 1963 Stanley Harding, an ICAEW member at Shell, was seconding his most talented staff to the IT department. He was predicting that soon “there will be no books to keep” and, if his staff were to remain relevant, they would need to keep up with technological developments. He was no doubt swayed by the 1960s buzz around artificial intelligence (AI). Despite his prediction being wrong, his vision helped ensure that finance professionals made the most of the realities of technology at the time.
Similarly, today chief financial officers (CFOs) and the accounting profession need to keep ahead of the game by engaging with disruptive technologies. Big data, narrow AI, chatbots, blockchain, robotic process automation (RPA) and so on all hold out the possibilities of higher-quality finance work carried out by significantly fewer people. This is not only with respect to routine transaction processing, reporting and query answering, but also work requiring pattern recognition and some level of judgment, for example forecasting.
It is easy to see why there is some scepticism around what might be achieved and when. Most CFOs have experienced technology promises that failed to deliver, be that due to sales hype, flaws in the software, bad design, lack of processing power, poor implementation and, of course, dysfunctional human behaviours. These risks remain. How many software packages genuinely use AI with some learning capability rather than just follow more sophisticated rules? Moreover, while something may be technological possible that does not make it economically and socially viable.
But there are reasons to think this time it will be different. The cloud makes it easier to experiment with new technologies before deciding and many providers offer free trials. The open source movement and the willingness to share code challenges the proprietary model, with some aiming to democratise AI. Projects can be carried out more quickly and cheaply through agile approaches. There are now more and relatively inexpensive ways of getting different systems to talk to one another. Indeed one of the key issues these days is choosing between the multiple IT options available to address a business problem. For example, those pursuing increased automation have the options of system upgrades, software add-ons, RPA, blockchain and so on.
CFOs have a key role to play in seeing through the hype, but taking advantage of the realities, both within finance and across the organisation. This means exploring new technologies through experimentation, speaking to other organisations, including technology suppliers, and developing knowledge within the finance team. ICAEW is playing its part. We recently published a report titled Artificial intelligence and the future of accountancy and our CFO conference in October will have a number of technology-focused sessions.
If the accounting profession continues to adapt, disruptive technologies will open up opportunities for accountants to exploit their skills in new areas. For example, we currently only measure and analyse a small subset of what is important to business and society. What if the accounting profession were able to access new data and develop new analysis which supported the implementation of the United Nation’s 17 sustainable development goals?
It’s difficult to predict the precise impact of the disruptive technologies we are seeing today. But impact they will. Although CFOs and the accounting profession have adapted to technological change in the past, we should not be complacent. Adaptation did not happen by accident. It was the result of thinking ahead, being open to new ideas and collaborating with those from different professions. CFOs who continue to do so can look forward to exciting, but maybe very different, roles in the future.