In the past few months some high profile businesses have had problems with technology. In April, TSB’s upgrade of its IT systems left up to 1.9 million customers unable to access their bank accounts. On Friday 1 June, the Visa card network crashed, leaving people around the world unable to use their cards to make payments. These problems affected each business’s customers directly, disrupting the service that they could have reasonably expected to receive. The two incidents show that although many professions, including accountancy, are embracing technology more and more, we should always be conscious of problems that could arise.
AAT recently surveyed 250 accountants and bookkeepers to look at what the future might be for the accountancy profession. The respondents identified three things that will have the biggest impact on the profession; firstly, automation, where tasks such as entering data, creating electronic documents, and producing receipts are taken over and delivered automatically by software; secondly, the cloud, which changes the way professionals store data, collaborate, and gather information; and thirdly, new developments in accounting software.
In the survey, 60% of AAT members said that they believe basic accountancy processes will be fully automated within the next five years. They were not concerned by this, with 89% saying that advances in technology are a real positive for the accountancy profession, creating new opportunities for them. Three-quarters also said that the technology they have started using already has either made their job easier or freed up time for them to concentrate on adding value for clients, for example by analysing accounts and giving business advice.
It is understandable and encouraging to see that accountants are looking to the future and thinking about how to adapt, and as with other professions and service industries, it is right that new technologies are being used to help serve clients better. At AAT we strive to ensure that our qualifications incorporate the skills required to ensure that accountants will be able to keep pace with the development in technologies that may be increasingly used in the next few years. However, the TSB and Visa cases emphasize that extensive planning and monitoring are key essential ingredients before technology is adopted and implemented.
For example, cloud computing requires a connection to the server where data is stored. If that connection crashes, either due to a problem with the server host, or just a simple problem with the user’s own local internet connection, this could lead to not being able to access or work on important client files. Cloud servers can also be hacked, which could lead to information being lost or stolen; cyber security is a key issue which all organisations should ensure they think about. AAT is taking great interest in promoting awareness around cyber security to our members, embedding checks as part of our practice assurance reviews and working with the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) to promote practical approaches to help small businesses to improve cyber security levels.
To guard against problems with cloud computing, users should still be making sure they back up their information and keep local versions that can be accessed without an internet connection if necessary, or recovered if a cloud account is hacked.
With automation, problems could arise if the system stops working correctly. In this situation it’s important to have the knowledge to be able to carry out the processes automation has taken over manually if necessary. It is also important to have the knowledge to be able to tell if an automated system may be going wrong, if it is calculating figures incorrectly, for example, or not creating documents or receipts properly.
All this means that accountants should make sure that they are maintaining the skills which have always been used in the profession, and not think that once technological solutions have been implemented that those skills will never be needed again. As we move into the future, and with the quick pace of technological change, it is important to make sure that you are keeping up with developments in accounting technology and making sure you are able to adapt. However, it is essential that in embracing new technologies, you have checks and balances, and processes for risk management in place to support your usage of new systems and technological solutions.
Adam Harper is director of strategy and professional standards at AAT (Association of Accounting Technicians).