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Rise of the machines - understanding automation

Whilst there’s little denying that AI, machine learning and automation are some of the most important developing technologies, headlines that announce: “The robots are taking our jobs!” may be a little premature. When it comes to the accounting department there’s no technology (yet) that can match the problem-solving adaptability of an experienced human being, and so armies of robo-workers will remain confined to the realms of science fiction, at least for the time being.

The primary benefit of Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is not that it substitutes humans for robots, rather it allows both humans and robots to focus on what they’re best at. Machines can process complex calculations in milliseconds but cannot perceive the complex and critical nuances involved with strategic planning and higher level accounting; challenges that an experienced accountant would relish. It’s not quite the symbiotic relationship between man and machine that Elon Musk has recently been touting, but it’s a wildly beneficial relationship that allows humans to focus on, and sharpen, the most important accounting skills.

It’s an important distinction to make, as a misunderstanding of, and over-reliance on automation will almost certainly cause more issues than it solves. In the world of accounting, where accuracy is paramount, putting your trust solely in the hands of automated processes will certainly lead to fiasco.

There’s an old phrase in IT circles “garbage in, garbage out”, and this holds true for automated financial software. You only get out what you put in. If practices aren’t lean and standardised from the get-go, automation will only accelerate the creation of waste and error. It’s essential then that businesses configure automation in a way that suits their particular accounting needs.

Although the machines may not be taking accounting jobs wholesale, it’s clear that education around automation will have to be a crucial directive for finance departments going forward. Embracing these new technologies, and fostering a company culture that views automation as an opportunity rather than a threat, should be high on a CFO’s agenda. Finance departments still relying on the highly manual spreadsheet approach will struggle to compete against leaner, automated competitors.  

If automation is understood and used appropriately by a finance department, the benefits can be huge. The wider spread, more affordable nature of automation technologies is proving a boon for smaller companies in particular. Whilst Big Data and automation were previously the reserve of only larger companies, we’ve reached a stage where smaller enterprises now have access to the same analytical power.

This sea change couldn’t have come at a better time. As well as helping to level the playing field for smaller organisations against their larger competitors, many finance departments are already squeezed, with margins tighter than ever. Automation improves efficiency, and provides the requisite cost-cutting.

Automation isn’t set to replace humans, but it can certainly change our roles. If used appropriately it can free up people’s time to concentrate on the things that humans are best at – analysis and forecasting. Costs can be cut, efficiencies gained and frustrating busywork kept to a minimum. Automation is an increasingly powerful tool, but don’t expect your next CFO to be metallic. Not yet, anyway. 

 

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Andy Bottrill

Andy Bottrill

Regional Vice President

BlackLine

Member since

24 Feb 2017

Location

London

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