The Time Travelling Accountant

I feel like I’ve travelled in time this month. No, I haven’t acquired my own personal TARDIS (I wish!). I haven’t even travelled far in space. However, I have leapt from the very basics of accountancy to its exciting future in the space of a few days. Who knew that accountants would lead the way in changing the business world?

To put this into context, the Strategist element of my role is grounded in a solid professional qualification, as a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants. Early in my career, after working with manual ledgers and heavyweight ERP systems, I finally got my hands on a standalone computer which had a clean, simple piece of software on it called Sage Sterling. This was revolutionary! All those ledgers I’d been filling in by hand were there on the screen! No complex interfaces or clunky UX design, just what I needed to do my job. This was a classic example of software that helped us to perform day to day tasks more quickly and efficiently, while not actually changing the nature of the tasks in hand – the so-called ‘Second Wave’ of the internet. Sage software had my back throughout my accounting career, so I was curious to see what insights this April’s Sage Summit UK would deliver.

I wasn’t expecting science fiction to become accounting fact.

Stepping out of the TARDIS

By embracing not only cloud solutions but Artificial Intelligence, Sage has taken accountancy into the third wave of the internet, delivering something that will transform the way we manage our businesses. As a part-time lecturer in Accounting at Teesside University I’m back in the swing of manual workings, revisiting the basics of accounting principles and practice. I tell my students horror stories of ‘brown bag accounting’ – the box of receipts and scraps of notes presented for processing at the end of the year by small traders – and teach them how to account for businesses with incomplete records. This may soon become as obsolete as the abacus in accounting practice, thanks to technology like the Pegg chatbot.

Imagine a world where, instead of having to log into a computer and type information into a system for your accountant to process, you simply talk to the machine – just like searching for a show on Amazon Prime – and it records the transactions for the day? It’s already here. Artificial Intelligence in the form of a Chatbot may be the leap in behaviour that will improve record keeping for once and for all. This is tough for accountants! Some of the bread-and-butter number crunching of sorting out poor record keeping will disappear entirely. However, the stereotypical bean-counter is embracing change – it’s that, or become irrelevant.

Sense and Sensibility

It’s all very well getting excited by the technology, but what checks and balances are being applied? It was great to hear from the technical and legal teams about the ethical, legal and security considerations that are being built into the product from inception. Robin Fewster and Kriti Sharma talked us through the challenges of bot security, in particular the dangers of new frameworks, the variation in interface security, and the ethical concerns around sensitive information.

As bots are a relatively new technology, the software that runs them has not yet met all the challenges that can be thrown at it. There is constant vigilance required to ensure that, in addition to avoiding common pitfalls with authentication, authorisation, infrastructure failure, injection attacks, and logging and monitoring, the interfaces themselves are secure. Bots are accessed through a variety of interfaces including Alexa, Facebook, and Slack: bot builders, particularly in a field as sensitive as finance, have to be sure that the potential for compromise is minimised. Finance itself throws up questions over using a verbal interface for sensitive information; do you really want to ask Pegg if you have enough cash to clear salaries, where employees may overhear? Follow my blog for a deeper dive into the ethics and challenges of Artificial Intelligence.

Thankfully, these leaps to the future are being handled by a competent team. Sage Summit was an exciting showcase for the world that awaits us, and it will be here sooner than we think.