This is part two of our ongoing blog series on the Process Automation Decade, in which I examine how automation is evolving the workforce.
Enterprises are rapidly baking process automation into business operations, improving the way we work and defining the 2020s as a period of workplace transformation. But the role of robotic process automation (RPA) will shift over time and will depend heavily on industry, company size and enterprise department.
For accounting teams, automation isn’t a new concept. The industry-transforming precedent set by early adoption of computers in the mid-1950s uniquely prepares accountants to leverage process automation as a means to work more efficiently and incorporate higher-value tasks into a job description.
But for many baby boomers who supervised the digital transition, finding qualified hires is a growing challenge. As new team members are brought into the business, willingness to learn and work with skill-augmenting tech will become a critical job requirement for budding accountants.
Automation will change the way accounting teams work
From accounting systems to payroll platforms, there’s ample space for RPA to take on repetitive tasks, and finance teams should expect to see many of the same changes that other verticals are already experiencing.
In general, more task-oriented work will be automated, leading to a shift in the work human accountants perform. In addition, cross-company involvement in digital transformation will become standard, which means accounting teams will become partially responsible for implementing their own tools — underscoring the importance of integrating finance and tech skills.
Finally, as digital capabilities grow, physical distance will become less of a barrier for collaboration, creating opportunities for a more dispersed, contract-based finance industry.
Automation doesn’t jeopardize career opportunities in accounting. Although we’ll see changes to roles as certain functions are replaced by bots, we’ll also see human value increase in relation to both RPA and customer service. As the reach of automation widens, it requires more team members.
Accountants over the next decade will spend less time doing administrative work, freeing up time and focus on strategy, client relations, and oversight.
As bots transform more job functions, companies will need people to set the agenda and route bots toward tasks that boost organizational efficiency.
Process automation in practice
However, finance leaders have work to do before they can enjoy the full potential of RPA. According to a 2019 Oracle report, just 10% of finance executives feel their team has the right skills to support digital transformation. Even though many companies offer automation support to accountants for invoice notifications and follow-ups, reimbursements and data entry, these tools won’t catch on without significant upskilling.
And it’s critical to start upskilling as soon as possible because by 2030, process automation will be in full swing, changing core functional areas in accounting.
- Less manual data entry
Today, large accounting firms are already moving to eliminate human data entry by transitioning rows of paper-filled drawers into invisible cloud servers with bot-created computer files. Before we introduced our client University College (UCC) to workflow automation, team members performed tedious manual labor that made data prone to error and humans prone to burnout. Staff members filled out paper timesheets and expense reports, which were manually approved and entered into the system, resulting in data input errors, missing signatures, poor authentication, and document omissions.
With Nintex’s help, UCC has entered the new decade armed with tools that scale with the pace of technology.
By 2030, teams will rise to the automation imperative and automate data entry almost entirely. With platforms like those implemented at UCC, and increased awareness and education, automation will become more accessible. Data entry and other simple tasks will be the first functions handed off to bots.
- Evolving team structures and responsibilities
Today, accountants spend a lopsided amount of their workdays performing mundane administrative work. As technology advances, bots will handle more of this work, giving accountants more time to perform other tasks and the ability to function with smaller headcounts. Today, new technology requires significant oversight from team members to ensure bots are using and producing quality data; down the road, human eyes will still be necessary to monitor processes.
By 2030, administrative tasks will largely be automated and the need for human accountants will grow. Accountants will be expected to have advising and consulting skills as they are called on to help clients evaluate and predict financial decisions that computers can’t. They will be conducting audits and making strategic decisions, using their analytical skills to work alongside automation. Think about how the role of bank tellers has shifted since the dawn of ATMs — many people speculated that ATMs would totally replace tellers, but you still see plenty of tellers in branches.
Now, they perform higher-level work and leave simple processes like cash withdrawals to machines. As more technology enters the workplace, accountants should expect to spend more time with real people.
Accountants worried about automation cannibalizing their profession should rest easy. Joblessness for accountants is at an all-time low, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), and it shows no signs of changing. That said, people who are willing to adapt to and work with emerging technology — and RPA specifically — are set up for the healthiest careers down the road. RPA will continue to define the new decade, in accounting departments and across the workforce as a whole.
Check back on the Nintex blog next month for my take on how the role of salespeople will evolve.
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