Wed. Mar 29th, 2023

Jim Bourke, a partner and managing director of advisory services at Top 100 Firm Withum, is excited about the prospects technology holds for the future. At the same time, he said, it’s important to keep things in perspective to avoid over-selling these advancements. They can do a lot, according to Bourke, but they’re not yet ready to do it all, regardless of what certain vendors may say. 

“I don’t think accountants are getting anything wrong about technology. I just think they’re trying to take it for more than it actually is,” he said. 

Take robotic process automation: While true RPA does exist, Bourke said oftentimes people use the term for things where it simply doesn’t apply. 

“When someone tells me they’re doing RPA and then they tell me what they’re doing, it’s an algorithm. There’s no robotic process automation going on. When I drill down, all these companies are talking about a lot of algorithms. There’s a fine line. We’ve got to get over the algorithms and into true RPA and it’s going to happen. But it took us forever to get to the cloud, so it will be a while,” he said. 

He even pointed to companies that market themselves as specializing in RPA solutions for accounting. While they tend to be much further along than other businesses, they still need humans, usually offshore, to complete tasks. 

“[Some companies] have developed a process that involves bots that automate, that outsources, the accounting process. They haven’t perfected it because there’s still people in the Philippines who are part of that process. The bots go out, they get the data, put it where it belongs, the outsourced group in the Philippines looks at it and says, ‘Let’s make it a telephone expense,’” he said. 

These humans are actively involved in making the bots smarter, he said, as by examining the data they are teaching the machines how to perform a process. Eventually these bots will become more advanced and the true promise of RPA will be unlocked, but at this point in time it’s less common than often touted. 

He pointed to tax software as another example. While the current suite of solutions is quite advanced, there are too many accountants who think of the software as doing the job for them, which can make them more complacent when it comes to errors. This is an understandable mistake, as the software seems like it’s doing everything: The accountant scans in the W2 and the computer auto-populates the information, knowing exactly what information goes where. 

“I’m an accountant employing this technology. We have accountants sitting at the screen, they say the return is done, the W2 is in there. Hold on, they took the software for granted, assuming everything was populated correctly and then they complain when the system scans and populates incorrectly,” Bourke said. 

It’s important, he warned, that accountants see this software as a beginning, not an end. It’s a tool that helps you do your work, nothing more and nothing less. No tool can cover every possible mistake and while software might correct for some, it will leave others behind, much to the chagrin of a less-than-diligent accountant. 

“Humans, for example, make transposition errors, like a six instead of a nine. Well, the technology won’t make those errors, but if it’s a dirty scan the tech may pick up a three as an eight. It may not totally see it the way a human might see it, so accountants are quick to have these issues with the technology. They need to understand it’s simply another tool for us in the proces. Don’t expect it to do the tax return, don’t expect it to scan and populate the entire return,” he said. 

He noted that if it really were just as simple as scanning a document and clicking an icon, then why would anyone need a CPA in the first place? Clients, he said, come to accountants for professional advice. If all they needed was to just file a simple return, they could sign up for TurboTax. 

“A lot of our young professionals don’t have a huge appreciation for that piece. Why would you use a CPA unless you’re going to get additional value from their advice?” he said.

This story is part of an Accounting Today series called “The Frontier,” where we explore the cutting edge of accounting technology through conversations with thought leaders across the country, who will share with us their observations, hopes, concerns and even a few predictions here and there. We’ll see you at the Frontier.

See the rest of the series here.

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