The global pandemic has highlighted stark inefficiencies in how many businesses operate, prompting a growing number of SMEs to turn to robotic process automation (RPA) and artificial intelligence (AI). Highly skilled accounting firms play a pivotal role in helping SMEs tackle digital transformation; however, retaining a warm human touch amid the white heat of technology is vital to maintaining client trust, comments Moore Global CEO Anton Colella

In normal times, if you visit the Henn na hotel near Tokyo, robot dinosaurs welcome you with glassy-eyed efficiency at reception, and most of the humans around are likely to be fellow guests. It may sound strange and futuristic, but dino-robots have been greeting guests since 2015.

Henn na means Weird Hotel, and there is undoubtedly a weird element in how many people regard robotics. More specifically, RPA and AI are technology solutions that sometimes invoke apprehension and worries over potential cost and complexity. In reality, implementing and using these solutions is becoming increasingly intuitive and more affordable to SMEs.

When it comes to the technology revolution currently under way, we need to switch attention away from fears over robots taking our jobs. Instead, we must look at how technology can move the accounting profession up the value chain in the type of work we do for clients. We must focus on the transformational potential of RPA and AI, not only for accounting firms that deploy these solutions intelligently, but also for SME owners that can harness their power to run their businesses more efficiently.

SME mindsets are shifting to a more enlightened view as the benefits of technology become more widely understood. The global pandemic has increased the pace of adoption by SMEs, as business owners have had to confront the shortcomings of paper-driven manual systems and processes. Manual systems have struggled to adapt to different ways of working, such as remote collaboration, resulting in an urgent need for new solutions. Consequently, digital transformation is high on the agenda for clients now.

Multiple benefits can flow from introducing these technologies including, eliminating tedious tasks, streamlining operations, increasing efficiency, reducing both costs and errors, and freeing workers to perform higher-value tasks. Being more easily able to categorise and identify expenditure can also help with budgeting and forecasting.

Actionable insight

There is also growing awareness that automating data makes it easier to extract actionable insight. Accountants can use this to provide more timely advice to clients on issues such tax planning, cash conservation or debt management. For example, a company growing quickly may risk running out of cash. Using AI to identify that risk early could enable an accountant to bring in a corporate finance expert to advise a client on fundraising options.

We see accounting firms in our own global network, as well as the SME businesses they serve, increasingly utilising RPA and AI in both financial and operational contexts to remain competitive.

Robotics are commonly associated with the manufacturing sector, but their adoption is more widespread. The International Federation of Robotics predicted a 38% rise in the number of professional services robots around the world by the end of 2020, and expects the trend to continue rising through 2021 and 2022. Spend is also growing. According to Gartner, global robotic process automation software revenue is projected to reach $1.89bn in 2021, an increase of 19.5% from 2020. This contrasts with a predicted 8% decline in overall global IT spend in 2020.

RPA and AI in practice

There are important differences between RPA and AI. RPA involves software ‘bots’ that make it possible to process vast amounts of data swiftly without the need for manual input. AI is data-driven technology that simulates human intelligence by applying cognitive techniques.

Sometimes an SME may be using AI but may not recognise it as such. For example, companies can use an app to take photos of receipts and send them to their accountant. AI is what enables meaningful data to be extracted from a simple photograph of a receipt.

So how does it work in an accounting context? Take audit analytics, which was the starting point for investment in AI and RPA in one of our UK firms six years ago. The old way of random sampling of data in the audit process was in some ways like looking for a needle in a haystack. Using RPA and AI, the audit analytics system rapidly sifts vast amounts of data and selects transactions which rank highest in terms of risk, according to defined criteria. This makes the audit process far more efficient.

Trailblazers

Firms across our network have been at the vanguard of adopting RPA and AI. Consequently, they have deepened skill sets and enabled accountants and consultants to devote more time to tasks requiring a higher degree of professional skill and judgement and that add greater value to clients’ businesses.

For example, in the US we have seen the application of data analytics to identify potential synergies for consolidation in the consumer electronics sector, identifying which brands would best fit together.

In order to avoid a two-tier service system, some firms have agreed solutions that add value are mandated to be used for all clients. Clients may even see lower accounting fees as processes that were previously manual are automated, reducing billable hours.

If we are to see greater uptake of AI and RPA, it is important to establish suitable price points for mid-tier and smaller businesses and take account of their capabilities and resources. The rise of so-called ‘no-code’ and ‘low-code’ solutions means AI system users need relatively little knowledge of underlying coding to use and derive value from these products.

Recruit, reskill, upskill

Technology is nothing without skilled people. As a result of recruitment and investment in training, we have a growing number of accountants in our network who are also data scientists. That will change our profession in a major way.

Industry-wide training in data science used to be in scant supply, but is now more widely available. This creates excellent opportunities for reskilling and upskilling, and opens new career paths to graduate recruits as well as more senior employees.

We have a wealth of transferable skills in our profession: analytical thinking, problem-solving, applying professional judgement and engaging with clients.

Intrapreneurial

The level of innovation we are seeing is incredibly exciting, and it is also taking place in places that many will perhaps find surprising.

In Yemen, for example, we are working with academics on AI solutions by looking at future usage patterns of scarce resources. And in Afghanistan we are using AI to support our work for donor and humanitarian organisations across the Moore Global Network.

An entrepreneurial member firm in the Czech Republic has set up separate entities specialising in AI solutions and training, while in Belgium analytics experts have radically increased the efficiency of manufacturing processes for clients.

In the UK a second-year trainee with no previous data science training developed a benchmarking tool for independent schools. More laterally, firms are using Covid dashboards to monitor companies’ financial health in real time. They can also perform benchmarking across key areas.

Cybersecurity

If measured as a country, cybercrime would be the world’s third-largest economy after the US and China. It is predicted to inflict damages totalling $6trn globally in 2021.

The potential to use AI to ensure compliance requirements are met and also to improve cybersecurity is generally less well known, but we are making major strides in this area. We are using AI in a compliance assessment application for a company in Latin America, while in South Africa we are using RPA and AI to tackle cybersecurity testing. We did ‘penetration’ testing for a client in South Africa using AI, and were able to control all its CCTV cameras just by accessing an employee phone. Technology and human vigilance must, of course, go hand in hand.

Bright future

There are almost limitless opportunities to use technology to future-proof our profession, and I believe accounting firms with AI and RPA capabilities will become the firms of choice in future. Achieving robotic efficiency is not the only key factor in earning client loyalty, however. We must not lose our human touch. A relationship based on integrity and trust will always be preferable to the cold grip of a cyberassistant.