Over the years, the American Institute of CPAs has promoted the CPA as a “trusted business advisor.”  But what happens to that boast when artificial intelligence (AI) is inserted into the equation? 

Maybe we don’t have to worry about AI just yet. After all, aren’t we really years, or maybe even decades, away from having to deal with the notion that technology might replace us? Maybe AI never will have a significant and consistent impact on the way our clients put their trust in us. Maybe we can ignore it.  After all, a client can’t have a relationship with a machine.

As long ago as last year, Sarah Ovaska-Few wrote in the October 2017 issue of CPA Insider, “Artificial intelligence isn’t coming. It is already here.”

Because CPAs are proud of the respect they have earned from the business community based on their guidance, skills and business acumen, it is interesting to see how today’s CPAs are accepting, or not accepting, the impact of artificial intelligence on their practices.

The projections are alarming

Given that CPAs are well regarded for their ability to cultivate strong, personal relationships with clients and referral sources, the statistics generated by research at the University of Oxford in 2015 cast a negative shadow on accountants around the world. They believe that the value of those personal, human connections may be diminished as machine learning becomes integral to modern firms.  In fact, the prediction in 2015 was that accountants would have a 95% chance of losing their jobs in the future as machines take over their roles in “number crunching” and “data analysis.”

What’s the upside to the trend?

No one wants to see their career prospects shrink, but accountants whose client engagements most often focus on process-driven analytical tasks or repetitive bookkeeping projects should be concerned about the future sustainability of their firms. 

However, when the business community sees beyond the engagements that can be automated and considers instead consultative, strategic initiatives, then there is no real need for worry. In fact, there is good cause for celebrating the types of dynamic opportunities that will define the role of CPAs in the future.

The old adage goes, “When one door closes, another door opens.” This is easily applied to AI and the accounting world. As the routine-type accounting transactions are handled more frequently by machine activity, there will be all the more time for the “trusted advisor” to deliver the thoughtful, valuable advisory services that their clients truly appreciate.

Disruption is here to stay

Throughout the centuries, changes have occurred and entire industries have disappeared. Just think about the fate of buggy whips. As horses gave way to wagons and wagons gave way to automobiles, consumer needs changed as well. 

Without a dependable crystal ball, it is hard to anticipate which jobs will disappear and which new ones will appear on the horizon in response to changes.  But we can make an educated guess as to what might occur going forward.

One thing we can be sure of: change will never cease and business/industrial revolutions of all types will continue.  The World Economic Forum’s most recent ‘Future of Jobs Report’ reinforces the expectation that white collar jobs will continue to be drastically transformed as technology advances gain strength.

It’s what we do to adapt our competencies that matters.

Taking advantage of an altered landscape

As artificial intelligence improves efficiency and quality, seasoned, senior accountants will have to find alternative ways to train entry level accountants whose jobs may be quickest to disappear. Future professional education should focus more on developing emotional intelligence, strategic thinking, and other nontraditional soft skills that will be in growing demand.

A deep understanding of the principles of accounting, accounting standards and tax law will be essential but as importantly will be having the ability to apply this knowledge to each client’s unique situation. Asking questions, probing, sharing insights and looking ahead to help the company achieve short and long term goals will be the most desired skills for accountants in the years ahead. 

While AI will be leveraged to digest and analyze huge volumes of complex data quickly and cost effectively, interpreting the numbers and drawing smart business conclusions will be the areas where CPAs – as advisors - can provide the most help to their clients.   

A more flexible environment is an additional advantage

Along with moving the profession to assume a more sophisticated, consultative approach to clients’ needs, technology will also continue to allow for greater remote access. This means that working remotely from home or at a client’s facility for example can become the norm.  This fits in with the demands for greater work-life balance, flexi-time and other accommodations. In this way, technology will aid the emerging gig economy which is based on freelancing, part time engagements, and offices without walls in addition to other workplace changes we cannot yet even envision.

Hope is not a strategy

Going forward it is clear that firms of all sizes will be incorporating some aspect of artificial intelligence into their practices, drawing on the greatly expanded capabilities that are enabled through AI applications. Clients will be better served when CPAs learn to embrace and harness the power of AI, integrating human and artificial intelligence to reinforce their role as the business community’s ‘most trusted advisor.’