Will Accountants Go the Way of Switchboard Operators and Bowling Alley Pinsetters?

Over the years, many jobs that used to be done by humans are now done by machines and computers. Besides the ones noted above, think film projectionists, elevator operators, and bridge toll collectors.

While there may still be some people doing those jobs, they are a dying breed. I’d be surprised if there were still people doing such jobs in 10 years.

When you look at the those jobs with, perfect hindsight, you may not be surprised of such a development. You may think of the jobs of being low skilled, and easily automated.

But are there any jobs that are immune from the relentless march of technology?

Your first thought might be that white-collar jobs are safer than most, and what’s more white collar than an accountant?

Well the Wall Street Journal had a story today about how some firms are beginning to use robots for some of the more mundane, repetitive type tasks that are performed by finance professionals. Here are some of the highlights:

  • One of Statoil AS STO A’s newest employees, Roberta, spends her days in the energy firm’s treasury department searching for missing payment information and sending out reminders. Roberta doesn’t have a last name, a face, or arms. She is the first piece of robotic software to work in the Norwegian company’s treasury department.
  • Two thirds of large global companies expect to automate some or most of their finance-department tasks over the next two to three years.
  • These new technologies are designed to cut costs, liberate workers from time-consuming, repetitive tasks, and in many cases reduce finance- and treasury-department employee numbers.
  • Forecasting business performance is one area where humans can be replaced by an algorithm, according to Nokia’s CFO Kristian Pullola. Nokia also plans to use robotics to automate tasks related to its financial-reporting process.
  • Finance executives aren’t turning to robots just for savings; automation can cut error rates by up to 66%,
  • Atos SE is planning to hand over its reporting tasks—for example, collecting and assembling data for monthly and quarterly reports, as well as calculating results—to robots.

The plan, according to these companies, and others, is to use robots to do the repetitive, mundane tasks, and allow people to focus on the “higher-order”, more analytical type work.

I remember hearing that same argument 25 years ago; that computers were going to take over all of the routine, mechanized tasks that accountants do, and accountants could then just focus on more analytical work.

So did that not happen? Why are accountants still ding such tasks? Or are they doing higher order tasks, but now robots have learned to do those as well? If that’s the case, the trend does not bode well for the accounting profession.

Will we again be reading stories in ten years about how robots are replacing the routine tasks being performed by accountants? Shouldn’t such routine tasks have been fully automated by then, especially that was supposed to have been done 25 years ago?

So if accountants aren’t safe from advances in robotics, who is?

I’m not sure what the answer to that question is, but I’m thinking it doesn’t look too good for those who teach accounting.

Maybe it’s time to brush up on my juggling skills…

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Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

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