Future trends impacting the accounting profession

At the Professional Accountants in Business Committee meeting in New York a couple of weeks ago, we heard from Daniel Suskind, author of “The Future of The Professions.” Daniel Suskind summarized the book as pointing to two possible futures for the professions.

The first future is one where existing professionals use technology to streamline what professionals do, but the professionals still do it.  The second future is one where machines take over many of the actual professional duties, and the people using those machines look very different from a professional today.  While both futures are moving forward today, the author concludes that ultimately it is the second future that will survive.  If you don’t believe me, I simply ask you to look at tax software.  The people writing and designing this software are not your traditional professional.  Some look like your IT department, others are focused on knowledge mining.  Some of that knowledge comes from professionals, others from rules, etc.  But while a few “traditional” professionals are involved, the reality is that it takes very few of these traditional professionals to support millions of customers; something that is not possible under today’s professional service delivery model.

A key point for professionals is not to think of these changes as a robot taking over the job as the job exists today. Instead, look at the work at a task level.  Which tasks will be automated and what will that automation look like for each task.  Going back to the tax software example, there are several layers of automation.  The data gathering from the taxpayer has been automated in levels.  The taxpayer can directly enter it, or they can have parts uploaded/downloaded from existing data files or other online resources such as borax age statements and W-2s.  The task of then entering that data into various lines on the tax return has been automated and so forth.

One of the points many professionals bring up is that certain tasks rely on “judgment” and that is something machines can’t do. But, before leaping to the conclusion that judgment is the savior of profession, we need to question what using judgment really represents.  In many cases judgement is about making a choice in the face of uncertainty.  Once you can define the uncertainty, then it is possible to automate a process for determining an answer to that uncertainty.  In fact, machines can probably process thousands or millions of possible answers to an uncertainty a lot faster than any professional.

While none of this will happen overnight, it may happen faster than anyone thinks.  The rising Artificial Intelligence ability of computers and the retirement wave of professionals will both drive the movement to the second future.  All this means that continual change and continual learning of new things – both professional knowledge and how we do our jobs will be highlights of successful professionals now and especially into the future; whatever those professionals may look like.

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