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Tuesday 20 August 2019
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The power of digital

The digital revolution and information age are providing great opportunities and changing the way we communicate, live, and work around the world. Accountants and financial professionals are poised to grab the tremendous opportunities created by demonstrating their emotional intelligence and ethical guidance capabilities.

This year is the 30th anniversary of the worldwide web, and we are entering the fifth generation of mobile technology. Digital is arguably the biggest factor shaping the future of the profession and the future roles that ACCA students and members will perform. There are many different technologies impacting the profession today such as machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI).

Our research has identified digital — the awareness and application of existing and emerging digital technologies, capabilities, practices and strategies — as one of our seven professional quotients for success. Because it’s such a significant area of interest, ACCA has an established digital and technology research programme which now includes our latest research on machine learning. This report cuts through the hype to explain the tremendous opportunities this area has for our profession, and why emotional intelligence and ethical judgement remain vital.

So, what is AI? What is machine learning?

AI has been in the public’s consciousness for a long time since 1956. AI itself is an encompassing term that embraces a number of technological advances. There are various terms that are sometimes used to describe AI and advanced computing capabilities – things such as machine learning, deep learning, natural language processing, AI, data analytics and robotic process automation. Some, but not all of these may qualify as being artificial intelligence. One way to describe AI is the ability of machines to exhibit human-like capabilities – thinking, understanding, reasoning, or perception.

Machine learning is a subset of AI that’s generally understood as the ability of the system to make predictions or decisions based on the analysis of a large historical dataset.

What can technology do for the accounting profession?

Embracing the capabilities of machine learning may not just be about competitive advantage; it could be about necessity.

And this matters, because AI and machine learning can add value to the work accountants do. It can help generate valuable insights to help with business decision-making, it can detect fraud, assess risks, understand complexities in taxation and create more effective non-financial reporting.

The capabilities that machine learning offers could assist the work of professional accountants in various ways – especially with interpreting and communicating data.

The profession needs to understand how AI and machine learning works, as it also influences the trust we have in the decisions of these systems and the contexts within which they operate.

It also matters to the profession because with machine learning, ethical considerations are never far away.

Professional accountants need to consider and manage the potential risks that come from making decisions by algorithm.

With machine learning there is a risk of unintended consequences. But there are also opportunities ahead when professional accountants develop a core understanding of these types of emerging technologies, for example the profession can truly benefit from the ability of machine learning to support them with intelligent analysis of vast amounts of data.

Technical and ethical skills will always matter for the accountancy profession. But now there are prospects for the profession use their strategic advice and guidance alongside technology to truly leverage the power of digital. Accountants have many tools at hand to do this – AI, accounting software, automation and robotics, and big data. Even sophisticated tech like AI cannot replicate the full understanding and integrated thinking of which people are capable. Tech can’t build client relationships or lead successful teams. Tech doesn’t have emotional intelligence or ethical judgement.

Ethics in the digital age.

Accountants and financial professionals have the opportunity to shine in the digital age, showcasing their human skills and their capacity to make ethical decisions. There are ethical dilemmas that society faces with the advent of technology and its role in the accounting and finance. Questions like “Who is accountable?” will require the profession to face technology and embrace the role of the accountant in ensuring that algorithms and machine learning are not subject to bias or confusing causation with correlation. Accountants will be needed to ensure that good, sound decisions are being made and that there is a strategic method of managing data so that an organisation can use it in a sustainable way.

How do we prepare for this future?

Through education, skills, and training. Accountants and financial professionals need to continuously develop and nurture their skills. And professional accountants need knowledge of how machine learning will impact their careers so that they can be prepared for the next phase of their careers.

A few years ago, ACCA undertook a major research project called Professional Accountants - the future. This defined the four key drivers of change ahead – increased regulation and stronger governance; continued globalisation; higher expectations of business value and yes, advances in digital technology.

It’s these four things that are creating significant changes over the next decade and beyond for the profession.

My view is that if there is one profession that can get this balance right, and really embrace the true power of digital, it’s accountancy. Our accountants and financial professionals are prepared. They are aware of the power of digital.

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