IMA CEO Jeff Thomson favors accountants over robots

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Institute of Management Accountants president and CEO Jeff Thomson unveiled a new campaign to emphasize the value of management accountants as more jobs fall prey to robots and automation.

During a speech Monday at a meeting of the Accountants Club of America in New York, Thomson discussed how accountants can deal with the threat of automation by learning new skills and technologies to stay on top of the latest trends. He also showed a new advertising campaign for the IMA’s Certified Management Accountant credential in which a robot gives up its seat at a conference room table to accommodate an accountant, telling him, “Sorry, I was just keeping your seat warm.” The commercial can be viewed on YouTube.

Thomson opened his speech by observing a moment of silence for the victims of the mass shooting in Las Vegas outside the Mandalay Bay hotel. The shooter, Stephen Paddock, was later identified as a retired accountant.

During his speech, Thomson cited reports about how job functions would be growing increasingly automated in the future, including in the accounting profession. A Deloitte report, “The robots are coming,” suggested that 56 percent of finance roles have a high probability of automation, and according to the World Economic Forum's Future of Jobs report, 65 percent of children entering primary school are now expected to end up working in roles that currently do not exist.

“We ought to be working with a sense of urgency at the IMA, the AICPA, the New York State Society [of CPAs] and organizations around the world with academia, with partner firms, with companies, to be talking more about that than about these fancy statistics,” said Thomson. “Whether they’re off by an order of magnitude, I could care less.”

He cited a series of articles in recent industry publications including Accounting Today about the impact of increased automation on audit fees, and how CFOs and others in the finance industry may be becoming obsolete or turning into DFOs, or digital finance officers. “There’s a lot going on in terms of impacts on the audit and the automated audit,” said Thomson. “What’s the role of the advisory professional, the human being? Whether it’s woe is me or great new jobs are going to be created, change is difficult, and getting ahead of change is even more difficult. That’s why we need to be talking with a sense of urgency and a call to action about the competencies that we need to develop today, not in the future.”

Thomson also discussed his earlier career at AT&T watching as automation took over the telecommunications industry.

“What can you do to be future proof, or as future proof as possible?” he asked. “Automation is not coming. It’s here now. It will increase quickly. It’s not a bad thing. I would argue that we as advisors, strategic business partners, have responsibilities not only for operational effectiveness, which is part of automation and cost savings, but also for the long-range strategy. That’s just coming to grips with reality. Embrace technology as an opportunity, not just a risk. Develop your skills in data science and data analytics, synthesis and relationship management. Whether it’s Watson or all the smart robots and chatbots, they still only operate within a very, very narrow scope of influence. They have to be programmed. If we draw the line there and say that’s all that’s going to happen, we’re going to be in big trouble. But I think at least for a while, there’s plenty of room for human judgment, human insight and business savvy.”

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