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In this first episode of the ICAEW Student Insights podcast, host Jag Dhaliwal discovers how emerging technologies like artificial intelligence are influencing the work of accountants.


Jag Dhaliwal


  • Daniel Clark, business trainer and writer
  • Fay Bordbar, Global Digital Skills Lead, Mazars


Ed Adams


Jag Dhaliwal: Hello, and welcome to the ICAEW Student Insights podcast. My name is Jag Dhaliwal. I’m a chartered accountant working in the audit sector, and this podcast is all about learning how the world of work is changing for finance professionals. Today we’re focusing on emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and learning how accountants can get ahead of the curve.

Daniel Clark: It is starting to have an impact in the world of accounting, and I’m fairly certain that impact will only increase.

Fay Bordbar: AI can’t replace humans. What we’re seeing as more and more important is teaching people how to apply their human skills.

JD: Technology is a fast-moving space and finance professionals always have something new to learn. There’s also a lot of talk about accountants being replaced as technology gets more sophisticated, so we’re going to bust some myths around that contentious issue. To find out what’s really going on and get some answers on those big topics, I’m joined by Daniel Clark, business trainer, writer and all-round tech expert. And later today, we’ll hear from Fay Bordbar, Global Digital Skills lead at Mazars. So hi, Daniel. Thanks for joining us today.

DC: Hi, good to be here.

JD: You’re fully immersed in this world. How did you develop this particular specialism?

DC: Well, with hindsight, I’ve sort of dipped in and out of new technologies for quite a long time. I think the point where I fully committed to this area was actually – I can pinpoint it – it was in 2008. I’d moved into professional education, and I started hearing about this thing called Facebook, and it seemed like everyone I knew under 30 was using this thing. So, I thought I should have a look at it. And I went and had look at it and thought, this is big, this is going to change the world. I think this is going to be really, really huge. And I decided I would really investigate and see what the implications were. It seemed to me that the place to start was: how can we use these web 2.0 tools to be better at our jobs? I was a tutor at the time, I was teaching people to pass their exams. And I started identifying and giving presentations around the question of how can all this make you a better tutor? How can it help for you to follow certain blogs or to use LinkedIn or to listen to podcasts? How can these resources help? And that’s kind of where it started.

JD: So then, what kind of emerging technologies are you seeing that are coming in the world of business?

DC: There’s a number of answers to that. The ICAEW have identified a suite of technology themes that they believe are going to have the most impact on the work of accountants. I’m Vice Chair of the ICAEW Tech Faculty Board, and periodically we review these themes and say, do we think these are still the right ones? And at the moment, we do. Obviously, they’ll change over time. So those are automation, artificial intelligence, Blockchain, cyber security, cloud computing data, and digital transformation. The biggest, most high-profile is artificial intelligence out of those, undoubtedly, and then automation, actually, there’s a huge amount going on around automation. And they’re a very interesting pair of technology themes because they’re almost polar opposites, but you can kind of use them together as well. Just to give a high-level view, automation is very much about rule-based things, you know, ‘if this, then that’, and you can kind of get all that process to happen without the intervention of people. Whereas artificial intelligence, by definition, is not rule based, it’s about the machines actually kind of making decisions and updating and changing what they do.

JD: In terms of the accountancy profession, which one would it be? Is it more automation? Or is it more the artificial intelligence? Or is it combined? How does it work?

DC: Well, in terms of what the profession is doing now, there’s a lot of automation around. I have worked with a couple of quite big automation companies in the past, and they’ve said, actually, finance is probably the biggest single-use case for what they’re seeing, because we tend to deal with a lot of repetitive processes. You think about your month-end close, or whatever, and you kind of do the same sort of thing. So that stuff is all absolutely ripe for automation. But if we’re looking on the horizon, artificial intelligence clearly is a huge thing, it is starting to have an impact in the world of accounting, and I’m fairly certain that impact will only increase over time, even if it’s a bit unpredictable to see exactly where it’s going to go.

JD: Daniel, what are the practical applications that accountants are using AI for every day already?

DC: What we’re seeing is that AI is being built into a lot of accounting software now. If you look at the big software packages, they have various tools that they’re developing. One example is automating reconciliations, that it can identify a particular transaction and based on the characteristics of that transaction can work out where it should be coded and how it should be matched off. And even the mass-market packages are doing this. So, what that means is that there’s a lot of time being saved in coding up transactions. Another use that’s very commonplace is in risk management, looking at datasets and identifying risk areas. And there’s various companies, I won’t name them, but various companies have tools on this. They’ll have modules around payroll or revenue or something like that, that you can flag up transactions that look old or risky. I think particularly generative AI, and that sort of thing, is also being used as a productivity tool. So, this isn’t distinctive to accountants, necessarily, but for all professionals, it’s being used to do things like summarize email threads, potentially draft emails, draft reports, review reports, generate PowerPoint decks, those sorts of things. It’s used as a productivity boost.

JD: How do you see jobs evolving alongside of that?

DC: I guess what is likely to have the most impact over time is actually the Microsoft Copilot suite, because most people use Microsoft tools, and it’s being built into those tools. So, that will have a big impact. I hope that it will make accountants more productive, as it will most knowledge workers. They’ve been very carefully called copilots, they are there to help you direct to where you want to get to. And certainly, the studies that have been done about productivity show that you can get some quite significant increases in productivity. So, I think we’ll see that and then over time, I think we’ll open up new areas that accountants can add value in. I like to use the historical analogy of spreadsheets. Because the spreadsheet was invented in 1979, and at the time, genuinely, there were fears that this is going to mean lots of accountants out of work. Is this going to replace all of us? And of course, what happened was the absolute opposite. What happened was that accountants were able to add a lot more value, they could do a lot more, they could contribute a lot more to the business, and there are now more accountants than ever, because we’ve learned to do that. And I am cautiously optimistic that we’ll see something a little bit similar with artificial intelligence, that we will learn to use it, it will add more value, and the profession will go from strength to strength. Now, what that does mean is that accountants and everyone else, to be effective, need to learn to use these tools well. And that is going to be a critical skill going forward, I think, understanding what the tools can do and how best to use them.

JD: How much of it is just simply all hype? Because there’s so much noise around it. So, when we see it out there, hear things about it, how do we distinguish between what’s real? You know, that science fact versus what’s more of that science fiction?

DC: There is a lot of hype, absolutely. And there is with any new technology when it’s developed, then people get gradually get excited about it and make all sorts of predictions. I’m old enough to remember when the World Wide Web became popularly used, and there were predictions like, there’s not going to be any physical retailers, and we’ll order everything online and all this sort of thing. And some of that hasn’t happened. But there’s no doubt the World Wide Web has changed the world in all kinds of ways, a lot of which we couldn’t predict. So, I think it’s similar with artificial intelligence, it has become a total buzzword. And you know, you can get your AI-powered dishwashers, it’s being slapped on all kinds of software labels, and not really meaning anything.

JD: Yeah, absolutely. I think we’re kind of at the point where you can’t just ignore it and I feel as though we do need to embrace and adapt ourselves to it.

DC: And adapt the tools to us, by the way, it’s not just one way. There’s an element of we need to adapt the tools, but we also as a society need to take responsibility for shaping the tools to work in positive ways rather than negative ways. Because saying, you know, we can embrace these tools, and they can be used for good, I’m absolutely not ignoring the fact they can absolutely be used for bad as well, and we could have some very negative consequences. But I guess my belief is, the more aware and the more educated and the more skilled we are around using them, the less likely that is to happen, because we will actually own the direction that these things are going in.

JD: I’m thinking I probably need to start putting in time, and really just understanding how best to use it for it to be used, if that makes sense.

DC: And that’s the challenge but also the exciting aspect of that is that’s different for literally every person. Because these tools are so flexible, the way you use them is different according to how you work and every single person works a different way.

JD: How can accountants begin future proofing themselves? Is there anything that we should be doing to make sure that we’re occupying this new and evolved role?

DC: Sure, I work in training, education, my field is around skill, so I think of this in terms of what skills are important. And I think there’s two broad areas that are important to focus on. One is understanding the tools and how to work with them. And that’s all the good stuff that Fay and others do around training in how you use the tools and becoming aware of what they can do, and thinking through what does this mean for me and just becoming aware. The other area I think is important to focus on is the bit that AI can’t do and isn’t likely to be able to do in the foreseeable future. What accountants do a lot of the time, it’s actually to do with people, it’s to do with building relationships and managing stakeholder relationships and communicating things. One example I heard, which I quite liked, is it might well be that in the next few years we have some kind of tool that you can give it a transaction, it can work out the correct tax treatment, or at least the options around tax or something like that. However, if you’ve got a client, internal or external, how do you communicate this to them? You’ve got to think about what’s that person’s communication style? What’s their risk appetite? How do they think about these things? How are you going to handle that conversation? And that is a really, really important skill.

JD: I think a lot of people are kind of assuming AI will be able to do it all. And it is true, there’s a lot of people skills involved in our roles, especially in audit as well, you do need to be able to deliver and relay messages in the way that is best for your client and their needs. So, thank you, Daniel, that was really useful, and I’ve got some new tips that I can take away, too.

DC: That’s great.

JD: Fay, I’m looking forward to hearing your perspective on all of this. Thanks for joining me in the studio today.

FB: You’re welcome. It’s great to be here. Thank you, Jag.

JD: As a Global Digital Skills Lead at Mazars, you must be seeing everything happen in real time. So, can you share your responsibilities that your role involves? What does your day-to-day look like?

FB: My main role is to build the Global Digital Skills Academy, where we want to house all of the technology upscaling that we’ve got at Mazars, to help our people be the best versions of themselves, and to upskill in technology. My day-to-day role involves having calls and answering emails, but also I am fortunate enough to be able to travel to Paris and see the rest of my team, hearing from them about what training they need and how we can create content to suit their needs.

JD: That is really exciting. I wish I was able to go to Paris and all over the world as part of my job.

FB: I need to learn French, but actually, we are testing some AI translating technology. And I can now speak French, via AI.

JD: Ça va?

FB: Ça va bien!

JD: I guess a big part of your role then is around upskilling people, but how can you go about upskilling yourself? Are there any resources at websites or podcasts that you can share with us?

FB: There’s lots out there. I make use of LinkedIn Learning. There’s really good training on LinkedIn Learning called Career Essentials In Generative AI. There’s also some great people to follow on LinkedIn. I follow a guy called David Benaim, who is an Excel MVP, and he posts some really short, sharp videos in the latest things that are being released in Excel. I love to watch those and think how I can apply them to my work in Excel and then show others. And there’s a book called ‘Scary Smart’ by Mo Gawdat. I learned a lot from reading that about AI, and about the dangers, but also about the ethical considerations. There’s one more thing I’d say, and that is to make sure you’re aware of what skills you need at the moment to do your job the best you can. I recently took a week-long course in project management, and from that I’m going to realign my project roadmap, my project baselines, and so that training, I can directly apply to my job to make this project the best it can be.

JD: What tech skills do you and Mazars see as the most important for finance professionals?

FB: Going back to what Daniel was saying, it is really important to upskill people in the technologies. But actually, as far as we stand at the moment, AI can’t replace humans. And what we’re seeing as more and more important is teaching people how to apply their human skills. So, for example, a big area that we are investing in at the moment is innovation mindset training. We want people to think more expansively. We want to encourage a growth mindset and enable people to think how they can solve their own problems – teaching them a new mindset, a new way of approaching their problems, is a better way of moving forward in that area. We are also focusing, of course, on those really important tools that people use every day in the business such as Excel and Power BI, and more recently, the fundamentals of artificial intelligence. The way that we’re tackling this is a little bit different to traditional training methods. We are releasing short, sharp content bites – short, recorded webinars in multiple time zones. Similarly to podcasts, people prefer to dial into a half-hour webinar rather than dialing into a full day’s training, or even a three-day training course. So, we’re working out how we can break up content to make it more accessible for people.

JD: Should we be looking internally or externally as well for those training opportunities?

FB: Both. If you’re lucky enough to be part of a large organization that delivers training internally, like we do, then look at what’s out there, look on your learning management system and ask around, but also do some research. So, if you haven’t got training internally that is relevant or appropriate for what you need, do some research online. Find a couple of courses, and then present them to your managers in the business who can make a decision on whether or not they’ll sponsor you to attend.

JD: Thanks Fay, I think that will really help some listeners who are perhaps from smaller firms. You became an ICAEW member in 2019. How valuable has the ACA been in pursuing that career in the tech space?

FB: It’s been vital. I trained with Deloitte in an audit analytics role, and I got some experience in internal audit and project management at that time. As my roles evolved, I’ve done some accounting work, some bookkeeping management accounts, but really what I’ve always been passionate about is technology and how to apply technology to people’s roles. Having the ACA gives me a foot in the door, and a level of understanding that I have the skills to apply new knowledge that I can learn to a new scenario. It’s allowed me to focus on the area that I’m most passionate about, which is sharing my knowledge and upskilling others, and I think if I didn’t have that ACA knowledge, and if I didn’t have that day-to-day bookkeeping knowledge, then I don’t think I’d hold as much stead with people when I’m trying to explain how to use technology to perform their roles better. I think it’s very hard for someone without an accounting background, or someone without a qualification like the ACA, to sit down with an auditor and say, “This is how you could use technology for your role.” Because the auditor will think, “Who are you to tell me that? You don’t know what my job involves.” Whereas I can confidently sit with the team and say, “I know what it’s like, I’ve done what you’re doing, and I think I know how I can help, but tell me more and I could look at the processes that I think we should change, which will really help make your role more efficient.”

JD: That’s really important, because I think it is like you said, getting that foot in the door. If you didn’t have that qualification, people can’t really relate to you. So, it’s great to hear that it has such an impact.

FB: And actually, Jag, it’s people like you, and many of the auditors that hopefully will be listening to this, that should be thinking, “How could I use AI in my role?” And having a conversation with someone who can help you with that. We need people like Daniel, like myself to help upskill people, but we also need people like you who are doing the work with the clients on the ground to tell us what you need and how this technology can be applied to what you’re doing day to day.

JD: I feel like I’ve got some homework to do. I’d better go get back on the fieldwork and start telling everyone how to use AI. So Fay, you’re working a busy senior role. How do you manage your time against different priorities?

FB: It’s not easy. I’m sure that there’s lots of people listening to this currently studying for their qualification alongside their full-time role. The thing that I try to stick to is I try to always make time for my hobbies. I love to go horse riding, I love to play bridge, the card game. And I find that if I put those hobbies to one side because work’s really busy, then actually it doesn’t do me any good in the long run.

JD: That is a really good piece of advice. Is there anything else that you’d advise to our listeners, any ICAEW students at the moment?

FB: I would say, prioritize what makes you happy. If you’re not enjoying what you’re doing at the moment at work, then start to think about what parts of your work you are enjoying, and speak to your line managers, speak to your peers and your colleagues, and try and pursue opportunities that focus more around what you enjoy doing. I heard a really good phrase once and it’s stuck with me: there’s a triangle, and there’s three points of this triangle – are you earning, learning and having fun? And if you can confidently say that you’ve got at least two of those points of the triangle, then I would say keep doing what you’re doing. If you’ve got less than two, something needs to change. And if you’ve got all three, then you’re a very lucky person. And at the moment, I’m honestly in a really fortunate place where I have all three, but I need to make sure that I make the time for doing those things that I enjoy that make me human. Because as we’ve said, AI is here, it looks like it’s here to stay. I’m really excited about AI and all these technologies and upskilling everyone and all the projects I’ve got going on. There’s so many things whirling around in my head. But I need to take a step back and make sure that I can turn up as the best version of myself to work, and to do that I need to take some time out as well.

JD: That is something I’ll definitely be taking away with me. So, earning, learning, and having fun. Thank you so much Daniel, Fay, for coming into the studio today. It’s been great to have you both.

FB: Thank you.

DC: Great to meet you, too. Cheers.

JD: Technology is a big topic and we’ve only just scratched the surface. You can learn more about the issues discussed today and keep on top of your tech skills by visiting Student Insights. We’re publishing guides on the ABCD of technology, which is covered in the ACA qualification, so you’ll know what to expect from your training and examinations. If you found this podcast useful then make sure to subscribe so you never miss an episode. And let us know what you think by sharing the episode and writing a review on your podcast app. Thanks for joining us on ICAEW Student Insights. Bye for now.

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