The Business Times

Share of accounting tasks done by machines to surge by 80%: study

Machines will displace humans in two most junior finance roles, while most senior roles will be least impacted by emerging technologies

Angela Tan
Published Tue, Aug 25, 2020 · 09:50 PM


MORE than half of the 11 finance roles picked for a study will be moderately to highly changed by technology in the next three to five years. Those in the two most junior roles will likely be taken over by machines, while the most senior roles will be least affected, a new study showed.

The study, entitled "Redefining the Finance Function with Job Redesign", said the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the pace of digital transformation. Within the next three to five years, there could be a wider adoption of technological enablers such as robotic process automation (RPA), artificial intelligence (AI), advanced analytics/Big Data and blockchain.

This shift will have a pronounced impact on the finance functions of 2025, according to the study, conducted by the Institute of Singapore Chartered Accountants (ISCA), Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities (LKYCIC) at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, and Ernst & Young Advisory Pte Ltd (EY).

"The rise in digitalisation has resulted in machines quickly taking over the tasks traditionally performed by humans, making room for humans to focus on higher-order tasks or new ones which require new skill sets. Accountancy and finance professionals will increasingly require knowledge beyond their main domain of accountancy and finance as well as their industries," said the study.

The next generation of accountancy and finance professionals should understand not just accounting and their industries but also AI, blockchain and advanced analytics/Big Data, as well as how these technologies work together.

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The finance function in the next three to five years will see a rise of at least 80 per cent in share of typical tasks carried out by machines. These tasks may be automated, consolidated or procured as a service through a managed-services provider. As such, financial data will be available on demand through self-service portals and as an output from AI. Traditional tasks such as audit, statutory and regulatory reporting and global business services will be automated and/or procured. This will raise the value-add of job tasks - secured by blockchain and monitored by RPA.

The study - which focused on both large and small companies in Singapore - referenced the Skills Framework for Accountancy, in which a total of 11 common job roles were mapped out for the finance function.

The two most junior roles - accounts executive/accounts assistant in the financial accounting (FA) track, and accounting executive in the management accounting (MA) track - will likely be diminished as much of their work scope involves repetitive, time-consuming and labour-intensive tasks that can be taken over by machines. Junior-level finance tasks are also likely to shift towards providing insights from data analytics, and to provide input to train machines.

The five mid-level roles will be transformed where certain key tasks will be displaced and redesigned as a result of technology adoption. The four most senior-level roles will face incremental changes, where they will continue to deliver outcomes with increased efficiency due to technology

The impact on mid-level roles such as finance manager, financial planning and analysis manager, and treasury manager, will be more measured.

"While digital solutions provide useful outputs, human intervention remains essential, such as in the areas of problem-solving, exercising commercial acumen, identifying strategic insights and conveying them across the organisation.

"Another aspect would be to manage the digital systems, troubleshoot, validate outputs and ensure compliance with internal policies and controls," the study said.

The most senior roles are least impacted by emerging technologies, with change happening more incrementally. Even so, there will be shifts.

The chief financial officer (CFO), for example, will move away from being the custodian of financial reporting to focus on optimising resources for business growth.

"As a case in point, new technologies enable predictive and prescriptive analyses which, when combined with the CFO's established stakeholder management skills, experience and personal influence, can elevate the value-add of the finance function."

Technology adoption often comes with a high price tag, to the detriment of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). SMEs may face challenges such as a lack of clarity regarding the relevant return-on-investment and/or a lack of data for model-building, which weaken their motivation to make the requisite investments.

In line with the impending shifts in job extents, businesses may want to look at outsourcing simple and manual-intensive work processes while retaining higher-value roles locally. This could be an alternative for SMEs who may find it difficult to justify the return-on-investment in technology. Right-shoring is based on establishing competitive advantage and enhancing value to the business by bringing operations closer or back to home base.

It also suggested that the two most junior roles can be upskilled to assume next-level roles. They may converge or look at moving to the internal audit track to take up the senior internal auditor/internal auditor role.

Those holding mid-level jobs should focus on upskilling themselves as "it will become vital for them to know about these digital tools and their usage possibilities relevant to the business".

The research also explores lateral transition pathways outside the accountancy profession.

"One overarching conclusion should be clear - successful job redesign is multi-faceted. It requires a broad upskilling along the full spectrum from soft skills to hard skills, and is best achieved with detailed knowledge of the task profiles of job roles both within and outside of the accountancy profession," it said.

In her keynote address at the Institute of Singapore Chartered Accountants Professional Accountants in Business (PAIB) Conference, Indranee Rajah, Minister at the Prime Minister's Office, has this advice:"Even though the current economic conditions are uncertain, we must use this time to prepare for recovery. Press on with innovation and growth.

Ms Rajah, who is also the Second Minister for Finance and National Development, said accountants should use the crisis to spark transformation and renewal. "Plan well for the future, and position yourselves to seize the opportunities that are already there, and the many more that will come," she added.

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