Hey FAB Fans! Meet one of our star speakers Billie Mcloughlin, a standout figure in the accounting industry with 13+ years of experience. Currently serving as the Practice Consultant for 2020 Innovation, we talk real-life use cases for AI and the role of live events in the accounting community.
There’s a pretty big statement thrown around a lot right now, that “AI is the biggest topic in accounting”. How do you feel about it?
I am generally very positive about any sort of new change to the industry, so I obviously find it super exciting and I can see sort of what it's doing.
I’m actually finding something slightly frustrating in the fact that AI in itself has been around for a very long time and people were just not particularly aware. A lot of people are put off by thinking it's something new, whereas it's not new at all, it's just developing at a faster rate than it ever has before.
So it's really great that we can now start seeing actual real life use cases in our industry on how it can create efficiency. So for me, I'm 100% for it. I just think we need to kind of ensure that we are doing it properly, taking our time and not rushing into it, so we lose our confidence too early.
In a rapidly evolving landscape where AI is becoming increasingly commonplace, what essential skills do you believe professionals need to acquire in order to remain relevant?
Interestingly, as technology develops and increases its capabilities, the human aspect is actually a skill set that I think accountants are going to need to develop more. So we need to develop our softer skills rather than necessarily our analytical side of things.
So, historically, accountants need to be very numbers focused, they need to be very analytical. We all know what the stereotype is, but I think going forward, what we need is people who have the skills that software and AI technology cannot develop. So empathy, understanding, and being able to communicate.
There's always that example of, If you had to consult a technology system, whether it's artificial intelligence or an existing system, and asked it to run the numbers to determine who to make redundant, it could absolutely tell you financially the best person to choose.
the most financially optimal choice for making someone redundant, it could provide clear guidance on the best person to choose. But it doesn't take into account that extra element that you need to consider as a human being.
So, in terms of skills to be developed, I think the softer skills are really important. I think we also need to develop an element of discipline, because it can be really easy to go down a rabbit hole of like, I want to explore this, I want to try this and not actually get anywhere with it.
Making sure that everything that we do is with intent and incorporates deliberate elements into our work is crucial. Whether it’s in any sort of change management, or even in just the exploratory stage of these systems, we need to make sure that we're not spending too much time on something that's not going to bring a lot of benefit, because at that point people will switch off and they won't progress. So I think that discipline in exploring that is also really important.
And then I think other than that, we already have a great skill set in our profession in terms of keeping up to date with legislation. We have to for our CPD, so I think we already have a really great base for that. So making sure that we're then checking the information that these systems are producing is something that we need to make sure we continue to do.
Even though AI is increasingly making its mark on the field of accounting, discussions often revolve around its future impact, treating the technology like it’s still just around the corner. Shifting the focus to the present state of AI, especially considering your role as the chairperson of the 2020 Tech Talk, what significant changes have you seen it make in the industry today?
Now, this is such a great question, because a massive bugbear of mine is how so many people talk about artificial intelligence and what it's going to do, or they tell people have got to get on the wave and nobody's actually saying anything about “I have seen this practice use it in this way, and this is what it did”. So when we had our recent 2020 Innovation conference in November, I did four use cases on stage, semi-live. I pre-recorded the actual video, because working with artificial intelligence is a little bit like working on TV with children and animals, you don’t always know what's going to happen. There was a caveat that when I asked it a question on tax, I had to redo it four times because there were a couple of incorrect or varying responses.
But back to your question, I can give a couple of examples. So one would be feeding it large PDF documents, potentially, as I said earlier, new legislation or something similar, and asking it to interpret it. And then once it's done, you can then ask it, for example, to please summarise this legislation in layman's terms? That’s something that could help you then explain to your trainees or to your clients in plain English, what is meant by this legislation.
Once it's interpreted, you could then feed it some figures. I copied and pasted an excel spreadsheet of some fixed assets and asked, “based on what you've learned, could you then tell me which of these assets that would be applicable to?” And it identified it, and then I asked it to work out the tax on that. And it did it correctly, which was brilliant.
So, we went over the entire balance sheet. If I were a trainee, I'd probably wonder why none of this is affecting the profit and loss statement. It can provide that explanation for me. Then I told it that it was a VAT registered business, and the response changed. It's fantastic for a trainee to receive that extra clarification.
And then my favourite use case. A colleague of mine, Dave Norris, had spoken to a firm that used AI for audit planning. It would take two spreadsheets, one with all the audits that they had and their deadlines, and the other with all the team members currently working on audits and their availability. So it knew the amount of team capacity, and was used to create an audit schedule for the entire year.
Not only could it produce that in a matter of minutes, if there was ever a change in the team’s circumstances, someone wanting to go down to working three out of five days on audit, then it could quite adjust the schedule easily.
As an accountant, manager, partner, or auditor, thinking about tackling a whole year's worth of audit planning is a bit overwhelming, especially when it doesn't add to the billable hours.
We need to be aware of the tasks we assign to AI. It's about saving time in areas where we can't bill the clients directly. Teaching a trainee double entry or interpreting tax legislation isn't something we can charge clients for. However, if AI can help us cut time on these non-billable chores, it enhances our profit margin. That's where I see some of the best use cases emerging.
What's the thing you look forward to most about live events?
I love attending them because I love getting to speak to other people who have the same interests. I think it's really easy to get into a daily routine, get on with your work and only really hear from others in the profession through LinkedIn, but actually speaking to people face-to-face and feeling the energy and the excitement and the buzz from a room is something you can't replicate on a screen.
I do many virtual meetings and they're great, and it's good to collaborate in that sense. But until you're actually speaking to someone in person, I think you can't really sense the excitement of that.
Plus, it opens the door for more relaxed and free-flowing conversations. It helps build those connections with people you feel like following up with because you're genuinely interested in what they have to say, and maybe even see them at another event as well.
But yeah, it’s just the buzz that you get when you're around like minded people who have that same ambition of sort of developing the accounting profession and the industry as a whole, it's something that can't be replicated on a screen, in my opinion.