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More new, easy-to-use software packages and platforms means there may be little or no need to learn coding skills. Ian Pay explores the audit approach to this technology – the benefits, risks and challenges.

When electronic spreadsheets arrived in the 1970s, they became a ‘go-to’ tool for many auditors and other accountants who wanted to quickly and easily store, manipulate, analyse and perform tests on data – particularly if other available software could not meet their needs.

The spreadsheet’s cell structure and formulae empowered accountants to build ‘software applications’ without the assistance of a programmer. Fast forward 50 years and many accountants still reach first for the spreadsheet in many scenarios. But now there are other ways to automate processes without the assistance of a programmer, such as ‘low-code’ and ‘no-code’ tools.

What are low-code and no-code technologies?

While the names may seem relatively self-explanatory, it is worth exploring what we mean by low-code and no-code tools. They are, in essence, software packages and platforms that ‘hide’ the nuts and bolts of the computer code from the end user. These tools are designed in a way that can significantly reduce, or even eradicate, the need to learn coding skills or write scripts to perform both simple and complex data manipulations and routines.

Low-code and no-code development typically works on a ‘drag and drop’, visual design principle. Pre-built functionality and re-usable components that represent particular steps or capabilities can be connected to create workflows, automate processes and can even be used to build complex applications. This can empower accountants and others who are not professional software developers to build business-led software that meets their individual needs – and can easily be scaled and rolled out to the wider organisation.

What’s available?

Some of you may already be familiar with the most popular solutions providers in the world of low-code and no-code technology: Alteryx, Mendix, OutSystems and UI Path, for example, are becoming increasingly well known. All of you will be familiar with the big players in various tech and business software sectors that also offer low-code and no-code platforms and/or tools, to allow users to enhance and extend the functionality and value of their technology stacks and to facilitate integrations between different applications.

Low-code and no-code tools integrated into the SAP Business Technology Platform can, for example, be used to build and extend applications, automate tasks and processes and get more value from the associated data. Another name that auditors will be familiar with is Salesforce. Its workflow solution, Einstein Automate, for example, includes a low-code point-and-click tool for building, managing and running automated processes, which can connect external data sources.

Microsoft (MS) offers various no-code and low-code solutions. They include MS Decisions, MS Power Apps, MS Power Automate and MS Azure Logic Automate, which do different things and require different types and amounts of knowledge from users. Some low-code and no-code tools are more specialised than others. The Google Cloud App Sheet is a no-code app development and automation platform with many potential uses, while its Vertex AI low-code workbench is for developing machine learning applications.

In reality, there are few platforms that are truly no-code. In many instances, the distinction between low-code and no-code is in the implementation and complexity of the solution, as it is impacted by the components and functions that are being used. Put simply, some components and functions require more configuration than others, which is where the ‘low’ part comes into play. You may want to dig deeper and explore a few of the platforms and tools available and what they make possible.

How may the auditor benefit?

You could, for example, build a portal the client can use to share and store information/evidence that has been requested during the audit and to generate automated requests and reminders. Your firm could, for example, support its system of quality management by creating workflows to systematise responses to risks that could threaten the achievement of quality objectives. For auditors, there are many, many possibilities.

The reviewability of low-code and no-code technology is also a major plus point. It is generally far easier to ‘see’ what a low-code or no-code solution is doing, and to understand this, than it is to see and understand what’s being done with more script-based solutions, which inherently require technical expertise to review.

Of course, this is not to say auditors don’t need to be sufficiently skilled in the use of a low-code or no-code solution to be able to review it. And it almost goes without saying that auditors should be sufficiently skilled to build the solution in a robust way. But for the skillsets that are required with low-code and no-code tools, the barriers to entry are typically lower than they are with script-based solutions.

What about risks and challenges?

It is important to acknowledge that low-code and no-code tech is not without problems. First and foremost may be the issue of cost. Software developers have, in many cases, invested a substantial amount of time and effort in developing their low-code or no-code product, or adding low-code or no-code tools to their suite of products and services, and the cost of this invariably has to be passed on. Consequently, there can be a trade-off between the accessibility of a low-code or no-code tool and the licensing cost of adopting it.

However, this is not universally the case; MS Power Apps and MS Power Automate are, for example, bundled with many MS 365 enterprise license agreements, so you may in fact already have access to a low/no-code solution without even realising it. In addition, a number of low-code and no-code development platforms are available free to try before you buy.

As well as cost, another major challenge with low-code and no-code tech can be complexity. Yes, you can do some very powerful things with these tools, and quickly, but turning your proof-of-concept into a fully-functioning application that accommodates all possible scenarios is likely to be trickier. Building a complex solution using a tool such as Python may present more initial hurdles, but it is likely to lead to a better product in the long run, and the skills developed may be more transferable.

Are low-code and no-code solutions the future?

It’s fair to say that the proliferation of low- and no-code solutions over recent years has moved the dial when it comes to application development – for those who are and those who are not software developers. Research by specialists such as IDC and Gartner found increased uptake of low-code and no-code tech over the past few years and both firms predict accelerated and increased uptake over the next few years, so this approach to software development is very much here to stay.

Traditional approaches are powerful and still have their place, of course, and there is an art in identifying the tipping point between these and the ‘quick and easy’ world of low-code and no-code. But for auditors and other accountants, the appeal of low-code and no-code technologies may come down to one word: empowerment.

Common uses and new possibilities

One of the biggest advantages of developing workflows and software applications using low-code and no-code solutions is the immediacy of it. Almost anyone who sees a problem can build a solution to it, and this can easily be done incrementally.
Common uses are those based around automation and simple analytics, such as:

All of these examples could very easily be built using low- or no-code tools. The possibilities for auditors and other accountants are endless and applications can often be delivered without the need to employ expensive developers. Many of the low-code and no-code tools and development platforms out there can be easily picked up with – or even without – a few hours’ training.

About the author
Ian Pay, Head of Data Analytics and Tech, ICAEW

Audit & Beyond

This article was first featured in the October 2022 edition of Audit & Beyond.

Audit & Beyond October 2022