The role of AI in shaping the future of accounting

Pieter Bensch, Executive Vice-President, Africa & Middle East at Sage, explains how AI will shape the future of accounting.

Pieter Bensch, Executive Vice-President at Sage Africa & Middle East

Dystopian movies tend to paint a picture of a world where computers and robots turn against humans and seek to exterminate or enslave them. More mundanely, it’s easy to find numerous articles on the web predicting that artificial intelligence (AI) will put hundreds of millions of people out of work within the next decade.

However, in the real world, we’re already surrounded by numerous examples of AI systems with which we unknowingly interact that improve our daily lives – whether asking Siri for information on our iPhone, using facial recognition to identify ourselves to our mobile device, reading a book suggested by Amazon or listening to a tune recommended by Spotify.

As these examples show, AI should be regarded as a powerful tool that can enhance every aspect of the human experience. In the workplace, one group that stands to benefit the most from AI is finance professionals.

Making up for lost time

The reason for this is simple: most accountants, whether working in a corporate setting or private practice, complain about time scarcity. Many of them spend hours executing simple and repetitive tasks that add little to no real value to the business – things like sorting through and categorising receipts, exporting data to spreadsheets and managing calendars.

These are all tasks to which algorithms and machines are better suited than human beings. In fact, some studies estimate that nearly half of job activities could already be automated. This isn’t restricted to low-skill process activities like data entry but extends to many tasks in skilled roles such as finance, medicine and business leadership.

Yet, embracing AI doesn’t necessarily translate into lost jobs for accountants. Instead, it clears the way for them to transform their ways of working. Rather than replacing accountants, AI will augment their capabilities and automate low-value tasks to free up time.

Imagine what you could accomplish with an extra five or ten hours per week – from sharpening your consulting offering and upskilling in emerging technologies to spending more time providing strategic counsel to your customers. Seen in that light, AI becomes a capable co-worker that takes care of the basics efficiently and cost-effectively so you can focus on adding value.

Augmented capabilities

In addition, AI can augment your capabilities with more accurate information so you can help your business or customers make better decisions. Instead of wasting time entering or sifting through massive amounts of data, struggling to stay up to speed with ever-changing legislation and accounting standards, your team will have more bandwidth for higher-level strategic thinking.

Therefore, forward-thinking accountants understand that AI is a tool that will help them transition to a business model where they can sell knowledge and expertise, not hours. With this new model, the focus shifts from selling your time to selling intellectual capital and efficiencies. You can move away from counting hours to billing for outcomes and value.

This business model could transform your relationship with your customers. You will have time to explore deeper, richer conversations about their business to provide insightful advice. Your value will come from your knowledge, which can’t be tracked by the hour. It is an opportunity to become a real partner to your customers or the business.