Humans or robots? Yes to both!

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Artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things (IoT) and virtual reality are just a few of the technologies changing how we live, work and play. Demystified, the emerging technologies pose great opportunities — but only if we are open to new ways of thinking, developing new skills and leveraging new business models.

The pace of change will only increase over time and the opportunities will be exponential. For example, cloud technology is an equalizer across organizations of all sizes and makes technologies like AI and machine learning more accessible than ever before. Today’s small businesses could realistically be tomorrow’s multinational organizations. If we didn’t already have proof of this very notion, maybe we could afford to stay the course or simply wait until someone tries it first. But given that disruption won’t wait until everyone is completely comfortable with change, we must uncover the untapped strategies that will not only develop leaders, but will also enable greater competitive differentiation. And yes, it does raise an increasingly frequent (and uncomfortable) question: “Will robots replace me?” The answer is: “It depends.”

Given the unprecedented pace of change, as well as the innovations and disruptions that occur every day, our AI concerns are valid. But why I do I think it depends? It depends on whether our plan is to resist change or if it is to seek the competencies we need to drive change. We can all think of tasks we’d prefer not to do. If these tasks were automated, we’d be just as busy working on activities that provide added value to our internal and external customers. Change is scary, but it’s far scarier to stand still. Let’s re-imagine this question and think about it as an opportunity to spend more time on business partnering, customers’ insights, and new ways to gain market share. So, humans or robots? YES and YES!

The fear of the unknown and the human instinct to protect livelihoods will not prevent technology from enabling mission critical functionality and enabling new businesses that haven’t yet been created. For example, travel agents, tax practitioners and recruiters have all experienced past disruptions due to online travel sites, cloud tax software and online job boards. These industries didn’t go away; they instead evolved to meet and exceed new customer requirements. So yes, many customers and businesses may leverage technology instead of humans; however, those with irregular travel schedules, complex tax planning scenarios and specialized skill sets still will require and seek human interaction and guidance. In the age of machines, these industries have evolved to include what they were before, but also much more. Many of these professionals may have sought different lines of work, but those professionals who stayed said yes to thinking differently and leveraging technology to offer differentiated and competitive solutions.

Why would the accounting and finance profession be any different? Leveraging technology, we can re-imagine the future with new audit procedures, enhanced tax and personal financial planning, and new advisory offerings. We can reduce the cost of regulatory compliance and implement integrated reporting, enhance decision making and more effectively manage enterprise risks. Technology is how organizations can achieve frictionless interactions with customers and business partners, how organizations can analyze qualitative and quantitative data to make data-driven decisions, and how we can more effectively promote and protect the public interest. With just these benefits alone, we can’t afford to sit on the sidelines. The future is already here; in fact, it was yesterday.

Knowing that technology will play a major part in our inevitable future, what can we do to better prepare? Based on research projects with the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants (AICPA-CIMA), as well as insights from conversations with customers in my role at Oracle, I recommend six simple steps to help organizations embrace a technology-enabled future:

1. Assess your current state: Assess the vision, mission, purpose and value proposition of the organization and determine the alignment between your current skill sets and those needed to improve digital competencies.

2. Identify inefficiencies: Review manual activities that can be automated, such as period close to financial reports, and supplier invoice to payment. Leveraging such technologies as intelligent process automation will reduce operating costs and improve process effectiveness. It will not only highlight the value of accounting and finance to the organization, but will also free up our teams to work on other, more strategic initiatives.

3. Analyze for insights beyond the financial data: Evaluate cost and revenue streams, but also determine where non-financial data can be integrated. As accounting and finance professionals, our experiences lead us to the financial data. However, we can use those experiences to assess the strategy and performance of the organization. Whether an organization completes a full integrated report or not, the process of considering the various components of the integrated report framework — including the business model, strategy and resource allocation, risks and opportunities, and outlook — is useful in determining areas where we can add value. Use these areas to make suggestions on new initiatives that finance can lead, and offer recommendations for new acquisitions, new products or services, and just as importantly, areas the organization should consider not doing.

4. Don’t see the box: Consider the various ways disruption can occur, but not just from the organization’s perspective — disruption occurs at the individual level as well. According to the World Economic Forum, we need to also add competencies that include problem solving, critical judgment, negotiation and creative thinking. The Association’s Management Accounting syllabus includes these skills and others that will enhance our ability to lead and motivate others.

5. Move quickly. If you don’t, someone else will: Identify new digital opportunities and risks more quickly than competitors. These opportunities extend to known competitors, but also to unlikely competitors as well. Strategy sessions that include a journey-mapping exercise will walk through processes that currently work well and also processes that can be automated or performed in more efficient ways.

6. Invest in a connected platform — built to change: Develop digital skills that take advantage of new modern solutions for supply chain, financial transactions, human capital management and enterprise performance management. Move beyond siloed point solutions that increase risk and cost. We don’t have to wait for change to happen. Instead, we can lead transformation, but first we must transform our thinking to see beyond business as usual.

Like many of my Gen X colleagues, I initially approached my career by working hard to be the most knowledgeable in a given area. From my vantage point, it appeared the leader was always the smartest in the room. Today, I would say, “define smart.” My definition would include more than just knowledge; it would include critical thinking, people management, inspiration and success skills. In today’s environment, with robots and bots, skills such as leadership, mentorship and inspiring others are becoming significant differentiators. When team members are motivated and empowered to step out of their comfort zones, technology becomes a path to a win for individuals as well as the organization they represent.

The steps above are not “simply add water” solutions, but will help at both the individual and organization levels. As accounting and finance professionals, we have the best view of the organization and where we can make key recommendations. There will always be a technology of the day that looms over a generation — yet somehow, we adjust, enter into new industries, create new business models and develop new competencies.

The pace of change fueled by technology will not slow down. It presents an undeniable opportunity, and I am confident finance and accounting professionals will continue to lead from the front as we work to promote and protect the public interest — no matter how scary change is.

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Robotics RPA Artificial intelligence Kimberly Ellison-Taylor AICPA Oracle Building a Better Firm