Like an aftereffect of a sci-fi film, the rise in automation within corporate financial teams has led to fears and anxiety: Will humans no longer be needed in the accounting department? Are the CFO and corporate treasurer becoming extinct?
Look at headlines like The Wall Street Journal's last year, "The New Bookkeeper Is A Robot," or one just this month from CFO, "The Robo-Accountants Are Coming," and corporate money managers expect the apocalypse of their careers.
According to WSJ, there has been a steady decline in staffing levels within corporate finance departments between 2004 and 2014 — dropping about 40 percent in this time period, researchers said.
Automation and accounting software may be to blame, the publication said. "Automation is threatening to replace swaths of white-collar workers, as much as mechanical robots have displaced blue-collar workers on assembly lines," the piece stated.
So, why, then, would a corporate accounting and consultancy firm want to introduce its own, sophisticated cloud-based accounting tool for its SME clients?
That's what accounting, consulting and advisory firm BDO is doing. The firm just announced a partnership with SME cloud accounting frontrunner Intuit QuickBooks, an alliance that will help BDO extend Intuit's financial management software to the firm's clients.
In a recent interview with PYMNTS, Kelly Johnson, BDO partner and national lead for the firm's U.S. business services and outsourcing practice, said its SME customers are beginning to demand some more technologically robust accounting tools.
"Clients want to be able to access and manage their financial information in real time," she said. "They don't want to wait for the accountant to work historically, where client transactions put data into a system at a later point in time."
She added that BDO's SMEs also want to be able to access this information at a moment's notice, from anywhere — including from smartphones and tablets while away from the office.
While the demand for real-time and mobile visibility into corporate finances is hardly a new phenomenon within the SME market, these needs are helping to usher in automated solutions where manual services provided by actual accountants — that is, actual people — will no longer cut it in today's hyperconnected, hyperspeed business ecosystem.
That doesn't mean accountants and consultants should pack their bags, though.
According to Johnson, there are some things robots just can't provide to a corporation, especially SMEs.
"It's one thing to talk about the aggregation of data, but it's another thing to talk about what drives the success of a business," she said, adding that there is "absolutely" still a need for the human element in a third-party accountant.
The aggregation of Big Data is now a necessity for many businesses, but once an analytics tool or software program enters the enterprise, companies may not have the capacity to actually make use of this information.
Last year, a report from EMC uncovered a significant inability among businesses to grasp Big Data and successfully analyze it. A survey across 18 countries found that the majority (52 percent) willingly admitted they aren't prepared to analyze the data coming into their systems.
EMC described the situation as "drowning in information overload."
Johnson noted there are key performance indicators — the metrics that need to be understood in order for a company to grow and progress — that cannot be automatically identified by software.
"The automation doesn't take the place of the analytics and the insights an accountant brings to the table," she said. "We're not going to get away from that."
Even the process of choosing the right kind of automated accounting solution needs to be guided by an actual person, the executive continued. While the industry has seen an expansion in the number of software offerings made for small businesses, Johnson said that they don't necessarily adapt to the business as an individual.
"Many of the smaller businesses don't adequately tailor their accounting information to measure the metrics that will drive their business forward," she said. "It's not as simple as just a basic accounting system for you ... Unless you customize or structure your accounting platform sufficiently, you might not be getting the information out of your system that helps you drive your business."
"There can be a disconnect between an out-of-the-box software system and one that's structured appropriately for your vertical," she continued.
The anxieties around a loss of manpower due to automated technology are likely to persist. Last year, researchers at Forrester predicted that up to 1 million B2B sales jobs would disappear by the end of the decade because of the rise in B2B eCommerce. Could accounting Software-as-a-Service lead to the same?
Probably not, argues Johnson, and as she explained, human consultants and accountants should consider embracing automated accounting tools as a way to complement — not replace — their jobs.