Jim Bourke, partner and managing director of consulting services at Top 100 Firm Withum, is excited about the prospects the technology holds for the future. At the same time, he said, it’s important to keep things in perspective to avoid overselling these advances. They can do a lot, Bourke says, but they’re not ready to do it all yet, despite what some salespeople are saying.
“I don’t think accountants are wrong about technology. I just think they’re trying to take it for more than it actually is,” he said.
Take robotic process automation: While true RPA exists, Bourke said people often use the term for things where it just doesn’t apply.
“When someone tells me they’re doing RPA and then tells me what they’re doing, that’s an algorithm. There’s no robotic process automation going on. When I ‘explore, all these companies are talking about a lot of algorithms. There’s a fine line. We have to overcome algorithms and move to true RPA and it’s going to happen. But it’s taken us forever to get to the cloud, so that going to take time,” he said.
He even pointed the finger at companies that present themselves as specializing in RPA solutions for accounting. Although they tend to be much more advanced than other companies, they still need humans, usually overseas, to complete tasks.
“[Some companies] have developed a process that involves bots that automate, that outsource, the accounting process. They haven’t perfected it because there are still people in the Philippines who are part of that process. The bots go out, they get the data, put it where it needs to be, the outsourced group in the Philippines looks at it and says, ‘Let’s make it a phone expense,'” he said.
These humans actively participate in making robots smarter, he said, because by examining data, they teach machines how to perform a process. Eventually these bots will become more advanced and the true promise of RPA will be unlocked, but at this point it’s less common than often claimed.
He cited tax software as another example. Although the current suite of solutions is quite advanced, there are too many accountants who think the software does the job for them, which can make them more accommodating to mistakes. This is an understandable mistake, as the software seems to do it all: the accountant scans into the W2 and the computer automatically fills in the information, knowing exactly what information goes where.
“I am an accountant and I use this technology. We have accountants sitting on the screen, they say the comeback is done, the W2 is here. Wait, they took the software for granted, assuming everything was populated correctly, and then they complain when the system parses and populates incorrectly,” Bourke said.
It’s important, he warned, that accountants see this software as a beginning, not an end. It’s a tool that helps you do your job, no more, no less. No tool can cover all possible errors and while software can fix some, it will leave others behind, much to the chagrin of a less than diligent accountant.
“Humans, for example, make transposition errors, like a six instead of a nine. Well, the technology won’t make those mistakes, but if it’s a dirty scan, the technology can detect a three as an eight. He may not totally see it as a human might, so accountants quickly have these issues with technology. They need to understand that it’s just another tool for us in the process. Don’t expect him to do the tax return, don’t expect him to scan and complete the entire return,” he said.
He noted that if it really was as easy as scanning a document and clicking an icon, then why would anyone need a CPA in the first place? Clients, he said, look to accountants for professional advice. If all they needed was to file a simple return, they could sign up for TurboTax.
“A lot of our young professionals don’t like this piece very much. Why would you use a CPA unless you get extra value from their advice? ” he said.
This story is part of an Accounting Today series called “The Frontier,” where we explore the cutting edge of accounting technology through conversations with thought leaders across the country, who will share with us their observations, hopes, their concerns and even some predictions here. and there. We’ll see you at the border.
See the rest of the series here.