How will AI and automation impact the role of accountants

With the evolution of increasingly sophisticated technology and artificial intelligence (AI) across the UK economy, many businesses are now considering the impact that automation could have on them. 

The accountancy profession is no exception. When we recently surveyed UK accountants for their thoughts on the impact of automation and AI, we found that they are generally optimistic about the impact that new technology will have on the profession, with almost one in four accountants (24%) thinking automation and technology will cover all or most of their work within the next five years. 

In fact, all respondents surveyed said they believed that at least some portion of accountancy work will be automated within the next five years, while 41% said that they did not expect to be doing the same day-to-day tasks at work in five years’ time. It is clear that, in some form or another, automation and AI is likely to continue to change the way accountants go about their roles in the coming years.

Automation means more time for your clients 

Saving time by automating repetitive administrative tasks is one of the main benefits that technology is having in the accountancy industry. Cloud accounting and bookkeeping software has already made a huge impact in helping both accountants and their clients to streamline this process and cut down on paper – and this will only increase as technology becomes more innovative.

Small simple tasks require paperwork and endless data-entry, and they are the things that often get left to the end of the day or week. Not only does this take up a significant amount of time when workers eventually get around to them, but it can lead to unnecessary levels of stress and boredom.

Almost half (42%) of accountants surveyed said they thought they could save between 1-2 hours per day if their simpler work tasks and processes were automated, one in ten (10%) believed that automation could save them more than 4 hours each day, while just 3% said they didn’t think automation would save them any time at all.

Freeing up time with automation is not only beneficial to them but can save a company a huge amount in hours for just one employee over a year. By simply eliminating mundane, time-consuming processes around simple tasks, automation can bring explosive change that truly has the potential to revolutionise accountancy as a profession. 

With less time spent on admin and logging data, accountants then have time to focus on other aspects of the job including more consultative work, which will also bring significant benefits to their clients. In fact, the majority of accountants (70%) believe automation will provide them with more time to work with their clients and around half (51%) said that automation would save them from stress or boredom. 

Accountancy advice to be delivered by artificial intelligence

Many accountants believe that AI and automation will go a lot further than conducting simple admin tasks. Our poll found that 66% of accountants said they would feel comfortable offering additional advisory services such as financial planning and tax advice, brought about by advances in automation and technology – while almost one in ten (8%) accountants would let artificial intelligence make senior management decisions for their practice. Interestingly, more than one in five (21%) said that, if it were possible, they would “definitely” run their practice without having to meet or deal with clients in person, while 23% said they would either “maybe” or “definitely” allow a robot to deal with their clients for them.

More needs to be done to educate customers on the benefit of technology

Our research suggests that some aspects of financial technology remain underappreciated, since almost three quarters (72%) of respondents said they did not think small business clients understood the concept of Open Banking or the benefits it could bring them. This indicates that more work needs to be done in order to fully inform the small business sector about the benefits that this framework will offer them in coming years.

However, accountants themselves appear to be more optimistic and knowledgeable about the legislation, with two thirds (66%) saying they thought Open Banking will have a positive impact on accountancy over the next five years, while just 3% thought it will have a negative impact. 

 It’s a fairly turbulent time in the accountancy sector right now, with the UK economy in flux due to coronavirus and the fast-approaching end of the Brexit transition period.

Despite this, the insights from our survey show that while many accountants working in the UK today have a positive outlook on the work they do and the services they provide, they are simultaneously preparing to future-proof their careers. Perhaps even more importantly, these new frontiers of technology seem to be eagerly anticipated by those in the profession.

 Forward-thinking attitudes will be crucial in shaping the landscape of the accountancy profession for years to come. Accountants who embrace technology to not only help them save time, but offer additional services to those they have done traditionally, are those that will be at the forefront of this recovery.

By Ed Molyneux, co-founder and CEO of FreeAgent

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