Voices

Technophobia eases as more people use tech and build it

Workers today have developed technophobia. Technology advances seemingly daily as more bots and artificial intelligence (AI) systems are showing up in the workplace.

But if history is any guide, technology can offer huge benefits on the job. Otherwise, accounting professionals like me would still be handwriting and manually calculating everything. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy writing handwritten letters, but I’m grateful to have the opportunity to hand off the more mundane and repetitive tasks to my bot counterparts so that I can focus on offering high-impact insights.

Bots are regularly used to pull invoices for monthly sales and use compliance and audit support. The leading tax compliance tools provide spreadsheet connectors to automate the importing and exporting of data.

The original concept of democratizing technologies focused on users. In offices, word processors, then PCs and the internet helped us produce, record, analyze, connect and learn. They increased our value and allowed us to broaden our horizons as workers.

Technologies like bots and AI — once considered the wheelhouse of computer scientists — are not only used by everyone today, but, most important, they are often built by domain experts instead of traditional computer experts. Today, we can all be computer programmers of sorts, combining functions to improve data and its analysis. As workers with a green belt in tech, we know how to build it and to augment our own capabilities and careers. This level of comfort moves the technology industry forward.

The democratization of technologies places increased value on domain knowledge as it increases our ability to perform our jobs. For example, tax is highly technical. In recent years, the tax industry has benefited tremendously from technology, but fear can become an obstacle. Tax pros who still believe technology is exclusively for the tech literati fear that overreliance on tech will replace their own value and possibly their careers. But as more tax professionals embrace technology advancements and treat bots as peers instead of a job threat, they see the value it brings to their careers.

History of tech meets tax:

The first spreadsheet computer program eliminated the need for sequential steps to reprogram each new calculation, so that one change in data instantly and automatically updated all related processes.

And in walks the tax man …

This killer app-turned-accounting tool, which combined formulaic calculating with graphics, truly democratized business tools on PCs.

The spreadsheet has become the leading accounting and tax software in the world today. Despite the rise in popularity of commercial tools for tax provisions, many companies still use spreadsheets to compute their tax provisions. With the recent significant changes in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, tax professionals turned to their old standby to model the implications of these changes without having to rely on IT.

New bots go beyond organizing and manipulating data through mathematical functions, and are able to analyze and communicate the implications with charts, graphs and plain English that everyone can understand. These days, tax domain users are becoming software “developers” to increase their own professional value.

Tech doesn’t lead to irrelevance — fear does. Ignoring the newest apps in hopes of controlling the value humans bring to the tax function just makes humans less capable. Being closed-minded to technology only hinders a tax practitioner’s capabilities in the future.

Within every industry, continuing to invest in one’s own education and professional development is key to staying relevant. Similarly, today’s tax professionals need to have a higher degree of technology knowledge in order to improve their tax performance. It’s essential for a tax professional to have an understanding of both tax and software systems to invent programs. The low barriers to entry for citizen developers to build applications has accelerated solution development in all industries, not just tax. Citizen developers such as myself are what Gartner calls “fundamental to digital transformation.

Among more than 1,000 bots created by Ernst & Young LLP in the last couple of years, many that are used by the firm’s tax practice were initiated by a tax lawyer or CPA.

One class of AI tools finding application in finance and tax is document intelligence. Finance and tax professionals often need to extract key elements from unstructured documents, such as contracts, or semi-structured data such as invoices or tax forms.

Document intelligence tools are infused with AI and designed to be used by domain professionals regardless of a computer science or data science degree. The professionals review the documents and, by highlighting key fields and phrases on an initial document set, the machine learns what information needs to be extracted. The humans review the results extracted by the computer and then feed corrections back into the tool to improve its learning. Professionals spend less time on the routine data extraction and more time on the analysis of the results and making judgments.

Support from technology like this is gradually helping to shift workers from fearful to appreciative, as they spend more time focusing on the insights that provide value to clients. That higher value, in turn, increases how much they are appreciated. It’s a win-win, as soon as we get past the phobia.

The views expressed by the author are not necessarily those of Ernst & Young LLP or other members of the global EY organization.

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