Beyond digitalisation – the automation transformation in accountancy

A recent report from Forrester sees 2020 as being an important tipping point, with automation undoubtedly supplanting millions of workers across the globe.

However, the report also notes that, even as automation gathers momentum, jobs will still be created in areas requiring “intuition, empathy and mental agility”, qualities that any successful accountant has in spades.

At Wolters Kluwer, we foresee a not-too-distant future in which automation has freed accountancy firms to capitalise on their human strengths and skills. In fact, it’s already beginning to happen, as shown in the rise in demand for advisory services.

Unlock the precious resource of time

Client service is the most important driver category of client satisfaction in accountancy as in many industries and markets. For the time being at least, no robot can sit down with a client to explore their business strategy – but automation can create space for you to do so.

Technology can unlock time within your practice to deliver an excellent client experience by applying automation to tasks that don’t need those human qualities of intuition, empathy or mental agility.

The potential to go further

Digitalisation of the accountancy profession has been accelerated by Government initiatives over the past decade, in particular the current strategy of making tax digital. This has stimulated the automation of much routine work around data entry and calculations, dramatically cutting the time that skilled professionals need to spend on tasks that are high in effort but low in value.

Digitalisation has been broadly welcomed by accountants as being a more efficient and profitable way to run their practice. Eliminating high-touch, low-value tasks also leads to happier employees, which in turn has an immediate and long-lasting impact on client satisfaction.

Now, consider the possibility of taking automation a step further to deploy ‘intelligent’ technology more widely in managing and building your practice. In 2018, an ICAEW paper noted the potential of technology to generate new insights for senior partners from the analysis of data and free up their time to focus on more valuable activities such as strategy development and leadership.

Machines can crunch through, analyse and look for patterns in huge volumes of data at a speed no human can match, with consistency and accuracy. This analysis can generate accurate, up-to-the-minute information on the business as it stands today, not last week or last month, actively improving decision-making and problem-solving within the firm.

Insight for oversight

This futuristic scenario is already a reality in some firms. They use software to scrutinise data used in the daily course of business against defined success indicators, tracking performance in real-time.

Where this software automatically sends alerts and reports according to predefined rules (as our own solution CCH KPI Monitoring does), partners and managers can manage by exception, intervening and adding value where most needed, quickly nipping emerging issues in the bud and remaining in control of the business while taking less time to do so.

It’s like having another member of staff keeping a constant watch on what is happening in your business, one who never sleeps or takes a coffee break, but just carries on monitoring and reminding 24/7.

This approach is part of a growing practice of process automation, which enables accountancy firms to automate mundane business processes, freeing staff to devote more time to serving clients and other high-value work.

Any structured process that can be defined in terms of business rules (if…then…) is a prime target for process automation. Sending out automated reminders to clients who have not responded within a specified timeframe could be regarded as a relatively simple example, yet think how critical it is to smooth workflow and how much non-productive time & frustration it saves.

We expect to see the acceleration of process automation in 2020 as practices continue to define and automate routine compliance tasks. Along the way, they will no doubt find that putting their processes under the microscope in preparation for more extensive automation uncovers inefficiencies and reveals bottlenecks, making this analysis a useful exercise in its own right.

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