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Accountants Gear Up For AI Disruption

Corporate accountants are once again bracing for change as another wave of automation, brought on by artificial intelligence (AI), seeps into their industry.

New research from cloud finance and accounting firm BlackLine, released Monday (Oct. 30), suggests more than three-quarters of surveyed accountants are anticipating AI will play a “significant” role in the corporate accounting department. An additional 29 percent predict that role will be “very significant,” particularly as AI software evolves with greater ability to complete tasks typically conducted by humans.

According to BlackLine, which surveyed 150 Australian chief financial officers, accountants and other financial executives, the data suggests these professionals so far have a good understanding of artificial intelligence technology and its ability to disrupt corporate accounting. Most (60 percent) said AI could automate accounts payable and accounts receivable functions without human intervention, while nearly half (49 percent) said AI can automate reconciliation.

“These responses demonstrate that financial professionals understand the growing power of AI tools and the implications this has for the functioning of the finance department,” said Ann Furlong, BlackLine APAC director, in a statement. “Job roles and workflow processes will radically change during coming years as usage of the technology becomes more widespread. This will allow accountants to shift from routine tasks into roles that add a higher level of value to their companies.”

As artificial intelligence becomes more sophisticated, the technology can reinforce solutions to automate various tasks that, today, need a human to at least initiate the automation. In a conversation with PYMNTS last month, Jotham Ty, CEO of corporate accounting software firm Gappify, noted while artificial intelligence can provide automation, human intervention is still required and many AI-based solutions don’t span entire accounting and finance platforms, but rather focus on one single touchpoint.

“So, does that really mean we’re automating transactions if we still have to be reliant on software to do things?” Ty asked.

As BlackLine’s survey suggests, accounting and finance professionals are already assessing how the evolution of AI and its heightened capabilities for automation will affect their roles in the enterprise. One key area that will face major changes is liability, the company said.

“As more financial decisions are taken out of the hands of humans and entrusted to software, the question of liability becomes important,” BlackLine said in its announcement.

According to the survey, only 13 percent said liability should land on the hands of the software developer should a decision made by the software lead to non-compliance, a fine or a fall in company share price. Instead, the most common target for liability was the accounting department (at 19 percent), followed by the chief financial officer or director (18 percent), chief executive officer (17 percent) and IT department (15 percent).

“Clearly, there are differing opinions on where ultimate responsibility should lie when it comes to the decisions made by AI tools,” Furlong added. “This is something that will need to be carefully considered at the board level before key finance decisions are left in the hands of software.”

Despite uncertainty over the impact of artificial intelligence in corporate accounting, BlackLine said its survey suggests Australian professionals are keen to adopt the technology and noted surveys conducted in the U.S. and Europe have shown similar results.

More than one-third of respondents said AI doesn’t currently play a role in their organizations, but they are investigating the technology’s potential to do so. Fifteen percent told researchers they have no plans to deploy artificial intelligence technology this year, but 27 percent said AI is already deployed in their finance departments. Nearly one-fifth said AI already has a role in their organizations, just not yet in the finance or accounting space.

“AI technology will play an increasing role in most finance departments during the next few years,” said Furlong. “For this reason, it’s important that finance professionals take the time now to understand the implications this will have on their organization. Rather than being something to fear, AI has the potential to deliver significant benefits to the finance department. Supported by intelligent tools, staff will be able to shift their attention from low-level processing tasks to higher level, strategic activities. The finance department of the future will be a very different place.”

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