Machine Learning and the Accounting Profession: Is It a Perfect Match or the End of the Accountant?

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In coffee shops and at dinner tables around the country, you’ll likely hear doom-and-gloom conversations about technology squeezing the American worker out of a job; conversations that speak to the evils of an increasingly automated nation capable of producing goods and services without the help of Joe Worker. While blue collar workers have faced these changes for decades, the white collar worker has always felt pretty secure. But with the advent of machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI), and virtual reality (VR), even traditionally white collar jobs may not be quite as secure as they used to be.

For example, you’d be hard pressed to find an accountant today who doesn’t have a supercomputer working for them. How data is stored (in the cloud) and accessed (through programming interfaces) has undoubtedly changed the way accountants work and the tasks they perform. But will these extraordinary advances in data storage and computation eventually make the services an accountant provides obsolete?

Before we answer this question, let’s take a look at how advances in technology have changed the way we access, analyze, and deal with data.

Bigger, Better, Faster: How Technology Has Transformed the Way Numbers Are Crunched

While a country operating solely on computers is still the makings of a good science fiction movie, there’s no arguing that functional advances in computing power and software capability, enhanced by AI and VR, have made what was impossible just a few years ago a reality. AI tools and machine learning have infiltrated our daily lives. Want proof? Just ask Siri. In fact, digital personal assistants, which learn about us and our preferences and provide us with personalized services, are part and parcel of our society.

Thanks to cloud storage, we have access to mind-blowing amounts of data that we can pull in an instant. Machine learning, a subset of AI, involves using complex algorithms to interpret these vast quantities of data and predict outcomes. Machine learning is able to calculate and interpret massive quantities of data and deliver real-time insights—a task that would simply be impossible if attempted by a human bookkeeper or accountant. The insights gleaned through machine learning have guided the decision-making process for companies and allowed them to increase efficiency, production, and the bottom line like never before.

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In terms of general accounting tasks, machine learning has allowed companies to easily audit expenses and ensure compliance, analyze and organize invoices (and generate another invoice if a full payment wasn’t sent), and pull data from past projects to provide accurate risk assessments going forward. Machine learning can calculate large, and often highly complex, amounts of data quicker than it would take for an accountant to pull the appropriate file.

In its simplest terms, machine learning has made accounting software decidedly smarter, automating performing calculations that would have been daunting, time-consuming and, in some cases, just impossible for accountants to handle.

But it’s not the end of the line for accountants—not by a long shot. Instead of poring over the tedious transactions that once consumed the better part of their day, these professionals will begin enjoying unique roles that require greater insight, judgment, and perception. In fact, thanks to automation, accounting professionals will have more time to focus on the work that machines can’t do.

So, back to the question: Will advances in technology eventually make the accounting profession obsolete?

From Numbers Cruncher to Trusted Advisor: The Evolution of the Accountant

The answer is a resounding no.

Computers are no match for emotional intelligence and human insight and certainly not a substitute for an accountant’s instincts and personal experience. Technology can handle the heavy lifting, but then it is up to accountants to swoop in and consider the complexities of the world and make sense of the numbers. In other words, accountants are increasingly valued for their insights, not for their ability to tally up long strings of numbers.

A 2017 Accenture Strategy report, Meet the Finance 2020 Workforce, said it best when they said, “The machine era needs the human touch.” According to the report, tomorrow’s finance workforce will need to possess a different set of skills if they are to remain relevant, trading “spreadsheets for scenarios and reports for recommendations.”

As transactional work becomes more automated, accountants will naturally gravitate into deeper, more insight-driven work, providing clients with unique insights based on the nuances of a company, an industry, or an economy—something that can’t be measured in numbers. According to Accenture Strategy, accounting and finance professionals will have more opportunities than ever to “drive business outcomes rather than simply report them.”

Accountants who adopt machine learning will remain competitive and deliver the real-time insights and recommendations their clients demand. Technology won’t replace accountants—it will complement them.