Facing the unknown: Preparing accounting and finance departments for emerging technology
The following is a guest article from Jim Walsh, Chief Information Officer of Right Networks.
Follow technology through the modern era and it's hard not to be amazed. From bicycles and cars to space travel and Amazon's Alexa, humans have accelerated from one milestone to another at a fantastic pace.
The accounting and finance spaces, like all other aspects of business, have seen their own advances. The tried and true spreadsheet came along to displace the ledger, a system that had been in place since purveyors were chipping accounts receivable entries into stone tablets.
Today, a new generation of cloud-powered financial applications leveraging Big Data analytics provides finance and accounting departments with transformative capabilities. They can interpret data, draw conclusions and anticipate trends based on the vast troves of macro and micro financial information from within the walls of their company and outside in the marketplace as well.
What's here now: Data integration and the cloud
In accounting and finance, the same data is used in so many different ways. An organization might use their Accounts Receivable data to send invoices to their clients. They might also maintain a separate customer list in a spreadsheet or in a marketing platform.
That same organization might find itself entering information into a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) platform in order to log its client interactions. Perhaps employees there travel among the company's different locations or travel domestically for business.
These employees might file paper-based expense reports seeking reimbursement for mileage driven, lodging and meals. That's not even touching on financial reports, departmental expense logs or payments to contractors as well as supplier invoices. Even in this basic scenario, there are inefficiencies and typically an enormous amount of paper.
Thankfully, cloud computing has come to help with the deluge of data — printed and virtual. Integrated systems, backed by cloud-enabled storage, processing and compute power, has brought about a digital agility that has poised accounting and finance functions to forge an application ecosystem aimed at eliminating manual data entry across multiple platforms.
Working with core accounting applications, like QuickBooks Desktop and Microsoft Excel, in the cloud is just one way to gain efficiency and scale.
What might be coming: Artificial intelligence and blockchain
Thinking of where technology could bring business is just as exciting as thinking about how far technology has brought the enterprise so far. Going forward, predications say that artificial intelligence will do everything from adapting websites for personalized shopping experiences in real time to controlling robotic limbs after amputations.
Robotic Process Automation (RPA) — what some call "weak AI" — is the use of software to handle repeatable tasks at a fast rate and high volume and is already impinging on the low-level tasks in accounting and finance.
Deloitte is deploying "digital tax helpers" that move data between applications and extract and compile it from very large data sets. It won't be long before all bank reconciliations, year-end close procedures, order processing and transaction anomalies for audit (among other things), are relegated to the jobs of other AI systems.
On the finance side, it's been hard to miss the fervor of Bitcoin and the ensuing discussion about the possibilities of cryptocurrency. But Bitcoin's potential impact on the accounting field isn't quite the same as the potential impact of it's backing technology, blockchain.
Digital currency would disrupt accounting and every other sector with it. But blockchain technology has the potential to truly change the way accounting is done and the way accounting professionals do their jobs — and potentially on a faster timeline than cryptocurrency.
If a technology leader is wondering what blockchain can do for an industry, they should ask about the possibilities that would come about from a set of records that couldn't be altered and weren't impacted by time. What might first come to mind, from an accounting perspective, is audit.
Hywel Ball, UK head of audit at EY, points out that, in essence, auditing comes down to having multiple ledgers that need to reconcile against each other. Since each participant in a blockchain has access to the ledger and can see it simultaneously, there's no need for a central authority.
That could lead to far less complex transaction analysis, less complicated record checks and little or no cooperation needed from anyone outside the organization. Also, the data is stored in ledgers that are continually updated, so external auditors could have access to real-time reporting.
Though audit is a natural fit for blockchain, it likely won't end there. Publishing contracts on a blockchain means that participants in the chain can see when terms and conditions are met or when an action is needed.
Auditing rental agreements or property records, for instance, will look drastically different in the future as the contracts will be immutable. For now, as weak AI is takes hold, accountants will have to 'train' the systems and do the interpretations of any gray areas that the systems uncover. That is likely to continue for a while until the machines become more intelligent.
Preparing accounting and finance functions for the unknown
A cornerstone of all accounting and finance technology, past and present, is data. The electronic spreadsheet helped companies share data faster, with more visibility and with greater ease.
Cloud computing allowed actors to plug systems together to create forecasting and analytical insights that they hadn't seen up until now. In finance, blockchain could end delays in transaction verification, settlement periods and money transfers.
It's likely that the enterprise hasn't fully anticipated the ways that conditions and processes will merge to allow for new things. So how can a technology leader prepare an accounting or finance department for a future where technology presents an unknown?
The single biggest thing a technology leader can do prepare their entire organization for impending, uncertain technological change is to foster a data-driven culture internally.
As businesses continue to accumulate more data, they will come to further rely on cloud-enabled applications, integrated systems, process automation and AI to help wade through it. The industry will continue to capture data at a faster rate, and technology systems will get even smarter and better.
That doesn't mean that every employee needs to learn to code. While RPA and AI systems are getting better all the time, most still rely on oversight from trained individuals. Embracing the future means positioning a company to "oversee" these systems — which at least partially means being proficient with data.
Create it, store it, bring it together, interpret it, manipulate it — data, data, data. For the foreseeable future, humans will need to interpret the machine's interpretation of the data. So why not start at what's going to be the source?
Companies that want to position themselves to thrive in an unknown environment should also pair their data-driven culture with a remote-capable workforce. This means not only encouraging a culture that embraces remote work, but putting the policies and systems in place that allow anytime, anywhere access to an organization's applications.
Change is coming. We can't be exactly sure about all of the different ways that business functions might change. But where technology first allowed advances in creating data, the industry is now seeing the shift to focus on the systems generate actionable insights from the systems that were put in place.