The accounting profession is abuzz with talk of technology automating the routine aspects of accounting services, which in turn promises to free up availability for CPAs to work on the more lucrative and satisfying consulting opportunities in helping clients grow their businesses. While we are being bombarded by vendors with the latest artificial intelligence applications and the future of the audit being morphed by blockchain, there are digital workforce tools that CPA firms are utilizing today that are working alongside and augmenting the work accountants do. Application Program Interfaces (APIs), data transfer utilities, data visualization programs, and Robotic Process Automation tools are currently being utilized by many firms in their traditional client services practices.
In fact, these digital workforce tools are the next logical progression of the transitions that most of us have experienced during our careers. To understand this, it is helpful to look back at digital workforce tools that have already bolstered how accountants work. The influx of accounting programs, spreadsheets and word processing that came with the first personal computers in the 1990s saved innumerable hours by providing totals and allowing for edits, rather than manually redoing this work. Email and collaboration tools that came with the Internet in the 2000s allowed accountants to easily communicate with clients when questions arose rather than manually playing phone tag or physically delivering documents. In virtually every aspect of accounting production, digital tools have assisted accountants rather than replace them. Below we walk through the progression of digital workforce technologies that firms need to first understand and adopt to be effective in servicing their accounting clients.
- Web Application Program Interfaces (APIs): Summarizing, re-keying, and reconciling data from one application into an accounting application is one of the traditional functions performed within client service departments. Whether banking, payroll or expense reporting, there are hundreds of web-based applications that integrate with both on-premise and cloud-based accounting products to streamline data entry and do so without error, again under the direction of the accountant. Three of the leading accounting application providers (Intuit/QuickBooks, Xero, and Sage) have app stores listing hundreds of external applications which client service personnel should be aware of to help automate accounting information transfer. Firms should regularly review the available APIs and those applications that clients are using, which will help identify where a switch to a more automated tool is warranted.
- Data Transfer Utilities: For client applications that don’t have APIs written, firms most often rekey the data or utilize Microsoft Excel to import data and manually manipulate/summarize it to create entries into the accounting product. Think of client service personnel re-keying invoices, payables, and collections from a custom application into the accounting product or setting up new clients/vendors from the client’s CRM or marketing applications. Today, there are data extraction and transfer tools in app stores such as TransactionPro and AutoFy that can capture data from these third party applications and automatically format that data to be imported into the accounting application. These digital transfers not only save time in capturing and manipulating the data, but they transfer the data exactly as it came from the other application minimizing human errors (such as typos or transpositions). These data transfer tools augment the capabilities of the accountant and are another component of the digital workforce.
- Robotic Process Automation (RPA): RPA technology has been around for decades at the enterprise level being utilized by the largest accounting firms to automate transaction processing of business information but was very expensive to implement. It is only in the last few years where the use of software robots or ‘bots,’ have been technically and economically feasible for medium and smaller sized businesses to automate their finance and accounting functions. RPA tools such as BluePrism, Telerik, and UiPath can be programmed to emulate the actions of a human in retrieving data from an external application/website and then processing and entering that information into the accounting application, following very specific rules. Once programmed by the accountant, the RPA tool follows those same keystrokes and processes whenever requested and without error. This can occur assisted whenever the accountant chooses to run the process. For example, RPA can help with running a script of custom month-end reports, automate bank account reconciliation, or run OCR (optical character recognition) to capture data from submitted invoices, and import data such as website orders. RPA tools can also be automated to run unassisted in the background, but again, under the direction and programmed commands determined by the accountant, who would then only deal with the exceptions that the bot could not process. RPA tools are the next logical step in the digital workforce automation process and will eventually evolve to incorporate machine learning, cognitive computing and artificial intelligence capabilities as those technologies evolve from the enterprise level to the consumer-grade tools that most accounting firms can successfully implement.
- Data Visualization: The result of most client service is providing the client with a financial report or analysis. The time saved by integrating digital APIs and transfer tools can then be utilized by client accounting personnel to help their clients better understand these financial reports and identify opportunities for improvements. While most client service personnel have utilized Microsoft Excel to create graphs, many of today’s accounting and finance applications have integrated dashboards that can be utilized to help clients make decisions on a daily or near real time basis, which client service personnel should utilize where possible. Where there are no dashboards, standalone data visualization tools such as Tableau, Qlik, and Microsoft Power BI can be programmed to query financial and customer data as frequently as desired to highlight information trends that the client can then act upon. These tools are critical for firms to utilize as they transition to a more proactive, consultative role with clients where accountants are helping them make future business decisions rather than reporting on past results.
Accountants have benefitted tremendously from the use of technology to enhance their work in servicing clients. However, as technology continues to evolve at an ever-increasing pace, it is imperative that accountants proactively evolve their practices. Incorporating data transfer utilities, APIs, RPA and data visualization tools are critical tools that all client service personnel need to be aware of and utilize as part of the firm’s digital workforce.
Roman H. Kepczyk, CPA.CITP, CGMA, LSS BB is the Director of Firm Technology Strategy for Right Networks and works exclusively with CPA firms to implement today’s leading best practices and technologies, incorporating Lean Six Sigma methodologies to optimize firm production workflows. Roman is also the author of the 2019 Edition of “Quantum of Paperless: A Partner’s Guide to Accounting Firm Optimization” which is available for download to members of the AICPA PCPS section.