Automation versus human experience: Finding the right balance
By Russell Gammon, Chief Solutions Officer at Tax Systems
In recent years, the accountancy profession has adopted a variety of automation technologies to eliminate repetitive manual tasks and speed up processes, generating valuable operational and efficiency benefits along the way.
With HMRC continually delaying the expansion of the Making Tax Digital (MTD), organisations are using this window as an opportunity to introduce more automation along with AI technologies that have the potential to generate further efficiencies. For example, automation software can enable ‘bots’ to be programmed to manage high-volume, repetitive and rule-based tasks more quickly and potentially more accurately than their human counterparts.
However, newly qualified trainees have previously spent many hours undertaking data entry and analysis tasks to gain a deeper understanding of the basic accounting practices. Automating and, therefore, eliminating these tasks is seen by some as a ‘mis-step’ that could mean future talent will miss out on this experience that enables them to become knowledgeable and specialist practitioners. Similarly, questions are being asked as to whether the growing prevalence of AI-powered automation technologies means human workers will be side-lined or replaced. Predictions are currently estimating that as many as 300 million jobs could be lost or diminished by AI’s growth.
The benefits of adopting automation and AI are clear, but how can decision makers ensure they extract maximum value from these technologies without sacrificing human experience or employee development? It’s a delicate balancing act that will be important to master.
The rise of tech-led innovation
The utilisation of technologies, such as Robotic Process Automation (RPA), has been steadily rising in a number of sectors including banking, insurance, healthcare, telecoms and finance. And accountancy is no exception.
Employing software ‘robots’ to manage large volumes of repetitive rule-based tasks, the benefits of applying RPA to the field of accountancy are myriad. Eliminating the need for the time-consuming manual transfer of data between multiple spreadsheets, the speed and efficiency gains that can be achieved are significant. Something that is of growing importance for an industry under pressure to do more with less. Indeed, according to research by Deloitte, over 90 percent of tax leaders say their budget will be flat or lower over the next three years. This makes the adoption of automation that increases departmental performance and productivity a ‘no brainer’ decision.
Meanwhile, the application of innovative technologies such as AI is helping to unlock further efficiencies and productivity gains. Whilst it may still be relatively “early days” for certain AI software, particularly Generative AI such as ChatGPT, their potential within the accounting industry is significant. Through a simple interface, users are able to ask queries and get responses almost immediately. The challenge to the industry now is to understand how accurate those responses are likely to be. On the one hand, it’s been well documented that GPT is far away from perfect, and often states things that are incorrect. On the other, it hasn’t been specifically trained on accounting documentation, which would refine the model. Over the coming months, we will see the rise of industry-specific generative AI models, and accounting is no exception.
But where does this leave people who are just entering the industry in terms of learning the ropes and developing the competencies, know-how and expertise that will be key to their future careers? More pertinently, should established and experienced accountancy practitioners be concerned that they could be replaced by AI?
Rethinking automation with people in mind
Done right, it’s possible to introduce automation and AI into the workplace without compromising the training and development of future employees. And without alienating existing personnel who may view this as a covert move to eliminate their roles.
Identifying which tasks are ripe for automation, such as data entry and calculations, and which will benefit best from retaining the human touch, like the provision of personalised tax advice, is an important first step to gaining wider acceptance from employees. So too is involving employees in the planning and implementation of automation and AI systems, soliciting their feedback to improve the process and build buy-in from the get-go.
Since the deployment of automation and AI will free up time for employees to focus on more complex and interesting work tasks that will require human judgement and creativity, organisations should view the implementation of these technologies as an opportunity to rethink and restructure work roles. Ensuring that employees get to focus on tasks that will add strategic value for the organisation, are professionally more rewarding, and will ultimately benefit their long term career development and progression.
Similarly, giving employees training in new skills that complement and enhance their ability to work alongside automated systems will open up new vistas and opportunities. This could include training on big data, data analytics, data visualisation, machine learning and programming that will broaden the skills and capabilities of the workforce. Future-proofing their ability to problem solve and deliver in concert with technology to strategically advise clients or organisations.
According to research, three-quarters of employees are more likely to stay with an organisation that offers continuous learning and development opportunities. Investing in extending the range of L&D opportunities offered to personnel is now key for an industry that needs to combat the current endemic skills shortages and increase talent retention rates.
Harnessing future talent
Today’s graduates and experienced workers are searching for engaging finance careers in which they can develop and progress. For digitally native Generation Z workers, the opportunity to get ‘up close and personal’ with the latest automation and ‘big data’ analytics technologies are a top incentive. Especially as these tools free up more of their time to develop their skills.
However, the roll-out of new automation and AI technologies should be viewed as the start of a wider change programme in which L&D strategies will need to adapt and evolve. Similarly, department leads will need to ensure that those entering the industry get to work with an experienced tax expert when reviewing and checking returns generated by automated technologies. Enabling them to build practical expertise without having to dedicate man hours to the task of simply inputting data.
Likewise, experienced accountants will need support to work productively alongside AI. Indications are that technologies such as ChatGPT will require a lot of fine tuning to complete tasks anywhere close to 100% accuracy. Organisations looking to apply these technologies should put guard rails in place to ensure that, should AI be unable to resolve or arrive at a definitive answer, human specialists are flagged and will step in to make an informed decision.
In the next few years the introduction of the ‘AI co-worker’ to undertake carefully selected tasks means that tax and accountancy specialists will continue to retain an important role, especially where human oversight, experience and expert judgement is needed.
Looking ahead: enabling mindful transformation
Today’s tax teams are becoming increasingly reliant on technology to efficiently process and analyse the thousands of terabytes of data that organisations hold.
With budgets under pressure, deploying AI and automation to handle number crunching, take care of repetitive rule-based tasks and streamline processes to generate the capacity and productivity that will be needed to handle a growing volume of work will be mission critical.
When it comes to implementing these technologies, however, those organisations that work smart and apply some strategic thinking to their deployment programmes will reap the best of both worlds. Because while it’s true that the tax professional of the future will need to embrace technologies like AI, interpreting the data and rules will still require the skills of these individuals.
Similarly, with some careful forethought, organisations will be able to retain the uniquely human skill sets and know-how upon which the entire profession is based. Ensuring that in-house teams continue to nurture and develop the tax professionals of the future.