Voices

Embracing AI creates opportunities for mid-market accounting teams

Memes aren’t the typical source for wisdom surrounding artificial intelligence, but one of the Internet’s new favorite memes gives us an effective AI-101. In the meme, people force a bot to watch thousands of hours of a TV show, only to have it spit out a script of nothing but stereotypical phrases stitched together. Voilà! A (very watered-down) explanation of AI.

Artificial intelligence — the perpetually discussed technology has been promised to solve just about every problem facing modern man, from eliminating traffic on the roads, to curing diseases. In many cases, it delivers on these amazing feats, but that doesn’t mean AI is reserved solely for these types of cases. Its glossy exterior and impressive power often make it seem like it’s reserved for titans of industry or mega-corporations with endless resources to throw into its development, when in fact, it has much more to offer to mid-market companies.

While AI is a formidable force with an immense amount of capabilities to offer both business and society at large, it’s not the unattainable or out-of-reach tool that it once was. For mid-market companies, it is both accessible and has many relevant applications. And while some companies are taking on the task of developing AI in-house, others are turning to a more convenient source — their technology providers — to show them the most effective ways to harness AI. Regardless of the avenue, many are quickly discovering the advantages it brings to accounting processes.

VC investment artificial intelligence chart

Cut the BS — what is AI, really?

AI has many applications (and implications) that give it its mystique. While its potential is seemingly endless, at its core, AI is when a computer automates tasks and no longer requires human intervention to complete them. However, it surpasses the capabilities of standard automation, which simply follows rules set by people. AI learns and retains more information as it goes and can simulate human thinking to make subsequent decisions without intervention.

Machine learning is one of AI’s subsets and helps AI become more intelligent by applying different statistical and learning models to data sets. It then uses the models to create inferences and outputs. All machine learning is AI, but not all AI is machine learning. Machine learning can be illustrated by one of the fictitious bots in the aforementioned memes: It studied television artist Bob Ross, famous for his depictions of nature, trees and clouds, and gave us this new gem of a quote based on what it learned and how it thought Bob Ross would speak, “If you need help, ask the cloud.”

What’s in it for the accountants?

In a practical business setting, AI can be used for many tasks, including data entry, identifying fraud, or looking for patterns among data sets. But it is an arduous task to build an AI system, and many mid-market companies simply do not have the necessary fiscal resources or specialized technical talent on staff to do so.

In no way, however, does that mean the benefits of AI are out of reach for mid-market companies. The good news is that their accounting teams most likely already have AI at their disposal through alternative sources, such as their tech providers.

Luckily for accountants, using AI can help relieve some of the number-crunching that’s so often rooted in their day to day. With the future of the industry leaning heavily towards more emphasis on soft skills, automating processes will allow teams to evolve and serve the business in the most meaningful way possible and allow accountants to take on more strategic roles within their organization. Accounting professionals can especially benefit from the automation of tedious tasks like transaction entry as this translates directly to time savings which then leads to overall improved efficiencies and ultimately higher value for either clients or employers.

What can AI look like for mid-market teams

So, what does AI look like for day-to-day accounting teams? One application is well-illustrated by digital payments powerhouse, Bill.com.

Among its roster of solutions, Bill.com now offers a product called the Intelligent Virtual Assistant (IVA). IVA is a powerful yet simple AI solution that takes on much of the tedious and time-consuming legwork that accounting entails. It automates the handling of invoices and approval processes, allowing teams to say goodbye to the typical lag time that comes with handling those processes manually. It looks for human error, such as duplicate invoices, and can create certain rules and workflows based on patterns it finds.

This is just one example of a tech provider being an AI middleman; there are many others. For mid-market businesses who seek tech advancement but lack the resources to develop AI in house, they can look at current vendors and evaluate their AI capabilities. What tools do they have? What can those tools accomplish? If they don’t have those capabilities, is it time to look elsewhere?

Businesses don’t need to be technology companies to invest heavily in tech. As tech providers do the legwork and democratize access to advanced AI capabilities, mid-market accounting teams that choose to capitalize on this will be the ones best situated for growth and advancement.