My robot and I make a great team

Accountants need not fear new technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain and robotics as job destroyers. In fact, by considering them professional partners, accountants have the chance to develop the profession, their roles and their careers in exciting new ways – you just need to remember a key strength you have over ‘the automatons’: you’re human, they’re not.

Automation is now used to perform or enhance many administrative tasks and AI is already more a part of daily life for those working in accountancy and finance. Indeed, the emergence of AI has had a positive impact on the financial sector and has enhanced productivity.

‘In the past, a considerable amount of time would be spent working on spreadsheets, data manipulation, data processing and a number of frequent repetitive tasks,’ says Nicola Hallworth-Rudd, regional director at Michael Page. ‘These typical tasks within a finance function are now being supplanted by machines that require little or no human involvement. This, in turn, is allowing finance professionals to concentrate on more complex tasks that require a human touch, such as planning, reporting, analysis and decision-making.’

Or as Matt Weston, managing director at Robert Half UK, says, automation will take away the tasks susceptible to human error and free us up for higher-value strategic, customer-focused work that brings a higher return on investment.

‘Through all this change, AI is far from a threat to human talent. Innate human skills are bound to remain valuable in the long run, with companies looking to hire employees with fundamental skills that machines do not yet possess.’

Furthermore, machine learning is not without its limitations, says Hallworth-Rudd. ‘In accountancy, banking and data administration, machine learning relies heavily on historical data sets and, as a result, can fall into the trap of becoming repetitive, as well as potentially giving way to conscious or unconscious bias. Employers are now beginning to question how fair a financial system can be without any human involvement.

‘While AI can present a number of outcome options with associated risks, it can’t make a judgment call, and it can’t display the empathy required to consider the human consequences of decisions.’

‘In addition, AI cannot replace the human ability to build personal relationships with clients and colleagues,’ she continues. ‘The human element is needed because individuals have the ability to be aware of their own emotions and those of others, but also their capability of showing empathy in the way they handle interpersonal relationships.’

Mostly human, but a bit robot too

With employees are being relied upon less for the tasks that can be handled by automation, how they add value is creating a talent dilemma – finding the right skill sets for the increasingly digital future is a challenge for employers; an opportunity for finance professionals.

‘A varied skill set will be top of employers’ agendas, as companies navigate the fourth industrial revolution by looking to fill skills gaps, with soft skills likely to become more important than ever,’ says Weston. ‘The findings from our 2019 Salary Guide shows CFOs predict team dynamics will need to change, shifting towards more of a collaborative and communicative approach, with skills such as adaptability and data analysis becoming more in-demand.’

In order to plan for which job functions are carried out by AI and automation and which are carried out by humans, employers will need to ensure that their employees are coached around more human skill sets, says Hallworth-Rudd: ‘These will include interpersonal relationship building, emotional intelligence, making balanced judgment calls, general decision making, dealing with imperfect or incorrect information, planning, intuition, back-up plans when technology fails, and sense-checking AI decisions. These skills are more innately human than technical, and roles in the future will likely lean towards these human skill sets.’

In keeping with one of the pillars of the fourth industrial revolution being greater interconnectivity between human and machine, employers will also welcome the chance to apply hybrid decision-making, says Hallworth-Rudd: ‘These are decisions that encompass the AI and automated outcome along with a judgment that considers human consequences and compassion.’

But skilled professionals will also need to maintain an awareness of their role of being ultimately responsible, leaders with machines as resources, not the other way around. They’ll need to be able to step in where technology fails or is interfered with deliberately, says Hallworth-Rudd: ‘It is likely that roles will become more varied and less niche as the day-to-day detail behind the roles can be speeded up or replaced entirely.’

For those on the hunt for talent, the main challenge facing them, however, will be their ability to hire people who are able to successfully navigate an increasingly digitalised workplace, says Weston.

‘The businesses that will succeed will be those that learn to couple the process and policy changes of digitisation with the need for human passion, creativity and innovation,’ he says. ‘Empathy, cooperation and vision will be the elements which, despite the proliferation of AI, are likely to end in making the workplace more, rather than less, human.’

"While AI can present a number of outcome options with associated risks, it can’t make a judgment call, and it can’t display the empathy required to consider the human consequences of decisions"