By BECKY GILLETTE
Is cloud accounting software going to put a big hurt on CPAs and accountants? There are some predictions that by the end of 2017, more than 90 percent of small and medium-sized businesses will be using cloud accounting software. It’s convenient, it’s inexpensive and user-friendly. But Dr. Shawn Mauldin, CPA, director of the Mississippi State University Adkerson School of Accountancy, said he doesn’t foresee cloud accounting leading to a decline in the job market for CPAs and accountants in tax and other areas.
“Tax preparation is just one thing that accountants and CPAs do,” Mauldin said. “A lot of our graduates are employed in other areas such as auditing and business consulting and, now, cybersecurity. And the way I look at that, a certain segment of the population will use programs like QuickBooks and TurboTax for tax returns. But once you get beyond the individual taxpayer, it gets quite complex for businesses. I can’t imagine businesses would ever want to, or have the expertise to, prepare their own tax returns.”
Mauldin said it is important for businesses to know their tax returns are being prepared correctly and that the businesses are legally paying the least amount of taxes possible.
Mauldin is all in favor of cloud accounting programs or other technology being used for record keeping functions. If some of the minimum level tasks are done with technology assistance, that just relieves the accountant and CPA to find more ways to help clients grow their businesses and become more efficient and profitable.
“We will be training students a little differently in the future to keep up with the pace of technology,” Mauldin said. “The big discussion now is on the impact that disruptive technologies (e.g., machine learning, artificial intelligence) may have on accounting. Advanced automation will have an impact on some of the entry-level tasks performed by students, but I don’t think it will be eliminating jobs.
“In fact, I think it creates tremendous opportunities for students and CPAs. In the Adkerson School of Accountancy, we are working on integrating ‘data analytics and big data technologies’ into our undergraduate and graduate programs to ensure that students have the necessary skill set to meet employer demands. I suspect we will continue to have 100 percent placement of our accounting students.”
Simplification of the U.S. tax code has been under discussion. Mauldin is skeptical.
“In the past, any simplification of the tax code becomes a full employment act for CPAs and tax attorneys,” Mauldin said. “Simplification never seems to happen. So, I think graduates of tax programs are going to be doing things a little differently than in the past because of the technology, but I think the hiring demand is going to continue to be there.”
Norman Moore, CPA, public and middle market partners, HORNE LLP, Jackson, can recall working early in his career with “portable” computers than looked more like sewing machines than today’s ultralight laptops and tablets.
“Today, the technological revolution continues,” Moore said. “Businesses and their advisers are working more closely than ever using cloud-based systems to prepare and share accounting data needed to support informed decision-making. And we hear increasing discussions about applying artificial intelligence, or ‘AI,’ to the accounting function.”
Moore said it is clear from advertisements by tax preparation professionals, and articles in publications like Forbes and Accounting Today, that technology will continue to change the way accountants and clients work together.
Moore said at this point, AI is all about improving the productivity of the accounting function by automating many of the more labor-intensive tasks that businesses and accountants perform. Example he gives include the following:
*Cloud-based general ledger systems give real-time access to updated account information from remote locations.
*Accounting and administrative functions are becoming more automated. For example, AI technology can be programmed to recognize standard forms and to “learn” how to intuit information from non-standard forms.
*AI systems can process huge amounts of data quickly and efficiently to support decision making for a variety of different scenarios. Depending on the system, it may even be able to search databases of different case studies and business strategies to identify what similarly situated businesses have done previously.
But Moore said while AI has automated some bookkeeping functions and greatly improved the process of preparing and presenting information to decision makers, it’s a challenge to get AI to understand the entire landscape surrounding a decision.
“The decision to merge with or acquire another business may involve intangibles that even the most talented programmers can’t explain to the system,” Moore said. “Succession planning at a closely held business should certainly involve financial analysis, but final decisions are often driven as much or more by the personalities and skills of the people involved.”
Moore said taking into consideration that AI’s influence in the business world is expanding rapidly, business owners should think about how to position their business to take full advantage of new technology.
“Think in terms of shifting resources from processing documents to reviewing and analyzing results,” Moore said. “Challenge your team to do the kind of thinking computers can’t. Focus on developing future-focused skills that add value and make us distinctive.”
Moore said skills that help a business adapt more quickly to AI include:
*Technology/IT IQ. You need enthusiasm for these advancements throughout the organization, not just in your IT department. Your accounting team needs to be comfortable with change and enjoy the idea of being early adopters.
*Data management and security. The more accessible your data is from remote locations, the more vulnerable it can be to cyber-attack.
*Data mining. One downside to AI technology that can access an infinite universe of business information is that it can return an infinite amount of useless information. Your team needs to know how to use the system to get relevant information.
“I enjoy the challenge of integrating new technology into our practice here at HORNE,” Moore said. “We know that the pace of change will continue to accelerate and the future will present a host of new opportunities to improve business efficiency and productivity for those who embrace it. But there’s no doubt that the strategic and anticipatory insights that executives count on from their advisers to make informed and agile decisions will continue to be at a premium.”