Tom Herbert is AccountingWEB's technology editor, providing unbiased news and analysis from the accounting tech universe. We managed to grab him for a brief chat on the role of AI in accounting, and what he’s looking forward to about FAB.
‘AI is the biggest topic in accounting right now’. How do you feel about that statement?
If 2023 was a year of hype for artificial intelligence in accounting, then 2024 is likely to be when things get real. Last year there was plenty of talk about AI’s potential to transform accountants’ working lives, but few tangible products landed beyond what was publicly available. I expect this to change this year.
Thanks to the compliance logjams of Companies House changes, the ratcheting up of anti-money laundering regulations and the re-emergence of Making Tax Digital, many accountants are struggling with the biggest capacity crunch in a generation. Any vendors that come up with solutions to ease this pressure (in a compliant manner) are likely to be pushing on an open door.
Which of our exhibitors at FAB do you think are using AI are using AI in a really exciting way?
It’s hard to find a vendor that hasn’t announced AI-based plans. Xero’s GenAI solutions are helping its support system and bank reconciliation tools, Intuit is rolling out a new ‘Assist’ financial assistant across its various platforms that will give users personalised recommendations, while Sage’s chief technology officer Aaron Harris told me his ambition was to use AI to “eliminate the monthly close and bring about a world where all data is real-time and reliable”.
One tool that catches the eye is Wolters Kluwer CCH’s intelligent automation system for its personal tax product. This promises to automate the extraction and categorisation of tax data from client documents, even with unstructured data such as emails, and sluice the data into clients’ tax returns ready to be checked.
What skills do you think will be essential for professionals to stay relevant in this AI-driven landscape?
At this stage, keeping up to date with developments and keeping an open mind are probably the most important things for accountants interested in AI. While cutting-edge tech enthusiasts in the profession have gone away and built their own GPTs, it’s more likely that AI will come to the majority of accountants in the form of new features on existing software – Microsoft’s Copilot being a case in point.
A willingness to spend a few minutes testing out new tools or features and examining how they could work for your firm could pay dividends in the long run.
Do you think that, as it is right now, AI will make a bigger difference for large-scale accountancy firms or sole practitioners?
Without wishing to give a classic accountancy answer, it depends. Smaller firms have the flexibility and agility to test new software and roll it out quickly, gaining efficiency advantages over their larger rivals.
For larger firms, it’s more difficult to secure partner or management buy-in to new tools, and more cumbersome rolling them out to large numbers of staff. However, once that hurdle has been overcome and the software snowball is rolling down the hill, there are obvious process efficiencies and economies of scale to be gleaned that their smaller competitors can only dream of.
What’s the thing you look forward to most about live events?
As an accounting technology journalist, there’s nothing I like better than circling the event hall, notepad in hand, looking for new vendor stories, catching up with old friends, or tapping into the tech rumour mill. These days I operate mostly via phone calls, video conferencing or email, but you can’t beat in-person events for unearthing hidden gems or gleaning insights that otherwise would have gone untapped.
How can FAB help the everyday accountant navigate AI?
What I look for in any talk related to the accounting profession is relevance. There’s so much noise in the tech universe it’s perhaps understandable that talks at many events come with a big slice of ‘so what?’
I’m delighted to have worked with the FAB-ulous team running the event to put together sessions that contain practical, boots-on-the-ground advice from accountants who’ve been there, done it and got the accounting AI t-shirt. I hope you’re able to join us in Birmingham to find out more.
Book your tickets now to see Tom live at FAB2024!