“It’s a mistake to build barriers to protect traditional ways of practice,” said technology expert Daniel Susskind on the topic of the future of the accountancy profession.
Susskind was speaking at the South African Institute of Professional Accountants (SAIPA) 2020 Accounting iNdaba, which was hosted online on the 4th and 5th of November.
He is a recognised authority on the impact of technology on work and co-author of the book, The Future of Professions.
According to Susskind, the profession faces two possible futures, both of which are driven by the rise in technology.
In the first, accountants use technology to create more efficient versions of the services they already offer. The processes are simply streamlined.
The second future is very different and could see accountants displaced by intelligent processes that are designed and operated by people who do not look like typical professionals.
Susskind predicts that, in the long run, the second future is assured.
Traditionally, he says, people use professionals because nobody knows everything. Professionals offer practised expertise in solving complex problems. In the past, they were implicitly trusted as the gatekeeper of specialised knowledge.
However, in the Internet society, where new ways of sharing knowledge exist, the professions come across as opaque and intentionally obfuscated.
Technology experts are finding faster ways to solve problems by decomposing specialist services into component tasks and activities. They are discovering that many of these discrete tasks and activities are not actually complex and can be readily routinised.
The exponential growth in technology and increasing connectedness of the world has made it possible to automate expertise and rapidly share expert knowledge. A significant development is the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) which has advanced notably in the past few decades.
Susskind said that professionals tend to argue that machines cannot exercise human traits like judgement and creativity.
“This is the wrong question,” he said. “What we need to ask is: to what problem is judgement a solution?” He asserted that judgement is the expertise to deal with uncertainty while creativity is the expertise to deal with originality or novelty. These are problems that a machine can solve better than a human.
However, Susskind also warned against assuming a risk mindset and thinking automation will replace professionals immediately. “Rather, it displaces us from some tasks but makes others more valuable,” he said.
It is important for professionals to adopt technology and not try to preserve their traditional ways of practice. In addition, they should not use technology to simply improve their efficiency in providing the same services as before.
“Instead, they should ask themselves how to achieve their outcomes in a fundamentally different way,” he advised. He suggests they start with a blank sheet.
SAIPA agrees with this assessment, encouraging its members to not do things differently but to do different things. “We cannot continue to offer the same services in the future, only using technology to improve our speed and efficiency importantly digitalisation goes further than simple automating your processes and output; we must acquire the competencies to deliver radically new, value-added services,” said Shahied Daniels, the Institute’s Chief Executive.
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