Embrace AI as a tool, focus on unique skills, and secure your future in accounting. Anees Pretorius of Bean explains how to thrive alongside generative AI in the industry.
Generative AI is already making its presence felt in the $587 billion global accounting industry. And while top firms are excited about the possibilities, many accountants worry that the bulk of their day-to-day work will be automated, leaving them scrambling to find billable hours. But accountants who serve as trusted advisors to their clients and go beyond number-crunching have little to fret about, even in the era of ChatGPT.
As Deloitte launches a new practice aimed at harnessing the power of artificial intelligence and PWC announces plans to invest $1 billion in the technology, accountants are understandably excited–but also nervous–as generative AI moves deeper into the industry.
On the one hand, GPTs can automate time-consuming tasks like invoice processing, data entry, tax preparation, expense management, and reconciliation, making every accountant more efficient. Long before ChatGPT emerged, McKinsey Global Institute estimated that around 86% of the tasks performed by bookkeepers, accounting, and auditing clerks could be automated. And with GPTs in the picture, it looks more likely that that percentage of the workload will be automated.
The technology can also take significant work off accountants’ plates by finding patterns and trends in massive amounts of data in seconds, which is exciting.
But there is also fear that this improved efficiency could come at a steep cost. A study by the University of Pennsylvania and OpenAI, which placed accounting at the top of the list of industries exposed to disruption and potential job loss thanks to advancements in AI, did little to assuage the fear.
But as any accountant can tell you, the industry is about far more than simply crunching numbers. The human touch, which can never be automated, is as important as data analysis, trend forecasting, and other important functions.
However, generative AI will cause job losses in the accounting industry, at least in the short term. With this in mind, every accountant should take stock of their current job responsibilities and double down on the work machines will never fully master. In some cases, this will mean learning new skills; in others, it will mean seeing your career and what you have to offer clients in a new light.
Some accountants could be out of a job as generative AI begins to take on more accounting work. But those who hone their focus can have a long, gratifying career in the business.
See More: Using ChatGPT: Where to Get Started
What Machines Cannot Do?
Algorithms won’t replace human judgment and expertise. In-depth financial analysis, forecasting, and modeling require more than simply separating signal from noise, which AI is great at. They also require the interpretation of data, which is followed by expert recommendations. This requires human beings.
Accountants are indispensable when advising businesses on strategy, longer-term planning, and investment decisions. Critical thinking, creativity, and a grasp of context cannot be automated.
Building and maintaining strong client relationships is the best example of something humans do well, but AI (at least so far) cannot. Empathy, communication, and negotiation skills are critical in many client relationships, and the most successful accountants employ these traits and skills regularly.
Human judgment is also necessary to navigate ethical conundrums and help ensure responsible business practices, as it is to adhere to accounting standards and regulations.
Machines can crunch numbers and often determine appropriate courses of action. However, applying laws, regulations, and other considerations to specific situations takes human acumen. Every client has different needs, so they will still turn to an accountant even if an algorithm is helping in the background.
See More: The Hidden Costs of Generative AI
Preparing for the Future
Accountants must prepare for a future where generative AI is a useful tool – not their replacement. To that end, accounting professionals should:
- Be a Strategic advisor, not a number cruncher: High-value services like strategic financial planning, business consulting, risk management, and tax planning are more important than ever. Focus on high-value services. Small and young businesses, including early-stage startups, particularly value the strategic guidance an accountant can offer.
- Upgrade your data analysis and technology skills: AI can extract valuable insights from data, so you must be good at this, too. And remember: It won’t be a computer that advises the client on how to use these insights; it will be you. As some tasks are automated, accountants will likely have more face-time with clients, and clients will likely have a range of questions about new technologies.
- Focus on ethics and compliance: Stay up-to-date on changing regulations and accounting standards. Ethics is not AI’s strong suit. You should aim to provide guidance on responsible technology usage and help clients navigate the complex regulatory, ethical, and legal landscapes. This focus will be especially important if clients work in heavily regulated areas, for example, healthcare or government.
- Find new niches: Specialize in specific industries, services, or client segments, and be an expert. Becoming an expert means that your specialized knowledge sets you apart from rivals and AI. The most popular niche areas for accountants today include real estate, manufacturing, professional services, and healthcare facilities – but these are likely to evolve as time goes on.
- Harden up the ‘soft skills’: Building and maintaining strong relationships with clients is the future wave since AI will be performing many more solitary tasks. Client relationship management will be one of the most sought-after skills going forward. The most coveted soft skills will vary by industry, but being able to discuss the future direction of new technologies is a skill that will cut across all business verticals.
You are not alone if you already feel the shockwaves from this powerful new technology. Professionals in every industry assess what they bring and what functions can and cannot be automated.
For accountants, it’s all about going beyond number-crunching, preparing necessary tax and business forms, and serving as a strategic advisor to your clients. Accountants who focus on this are poised to prosper in the future.
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