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Planning for technology change

The next generation of automation will not be like the last. We asked Mark O'Sullivan and Kabir Dhawan of Grant Thornton to consider some of the implications of automation and how this may affect auditors and other accountants.

How is automation affecting the profession?

Automation, as it is traditionally understood, is the automation of transactional processes. Most finance packages, for example, allow for workflow-based, hands-free invoice processing, where people get involved only when things go wrong. Businesses that don’t do this today are below what  we think the median position should be. New automation is an emerging area, dominated by the field known as robotic process automation (RPA).

RPA spans two broad areas: automation and artificial intelligence (AI). The automation element is largely concerned with replicating human behaviour, often through complex rules-based and learning mechanisms (see box, opposite). A number of small providers of software do this brilliantly. On the AI side, machine learning algorithms are available via Amazon Web Services (AWS).

These are not yet embedded in business tools commonly, but when something becomes available on AWS it’s a strong indicator that demand exists for a service and we can expect to see more of it in the future.

RPA capabilities have been hyped up by parties with vested interests. There is not a defined set of best practices and no clear leaders in the field, but several vendors are seriously focused on it. A lot of use cases still need to be defined, or invented, by finance teams (and the consultants working with them).

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