Navigating the AI Wave: Shaping the Future of Outsourced Accounting and Auditing

Like the majority of the professional services sector, 2023 has seen outsourced accountancy finding itself caught up in something of a seismic transformation, complete with a future shrouded in uncertainty”, states Vipul Sheth, MD at AdvanceTrack.

Of course, I’m referring to the rapid evolution of artificial intelligence (AI), which, unless you live under a rock, you will know has been dominating headlines since the advent of openly accessible Generative AI around a year ago.

Like with other sectors, it’s important we strive to address both the opportunities – such as AI’s ability to complement and bolster traditional outsourcing models - and fears – such as whether it possesses the potential to render us obsolete.

As an industry, we are not alone in this regard, but we must ensure we keep up with the evolving technology. Of course, it’s too early for anyone to say with any certainty exactly how it will impact the sector and, for instance, how our profession may look in 10 or 20 years’ time. However, we can comment with certainty on its impact so far, and how we see its evolution in the short-term.

Alison King

Senior Account Director for the NHS & UK Government at CTS

Charles Story

Director, Operations for Corporate Investigative Services, Rehmann

AI vs Traditional Models

The industry’s ongoing debate about the impact of AI on outsourcing models is not just theoretical; it is palpable, echoing in boardrooms and industry conferences alike. Lingering questions revolve around the extent to which AI's capabilities could replace the need for human-centric outsourcing. There's a growing sentiment that AI isn't merely a technological upgrade; it's a formidable competitor with the power to reshape the very foundations of our business models.

As the MD of a tech-first outsourcing business, I not only acknowledge the significance of this debate, but actively engage in it. We fully understand that complacency in the face of technological evolution is not and never has been an option. We recognise that the widespread adoption of AI across practices and accounting platforms will inevitably influence our systems and operations. Positioned as an extension of our practices' businesses, we are preparing for the transformative impact AI will undoubtedly have on our way of doing things. 

Opportunities are vast; ethics are vital

The potential of AI lies in its remarkable ability to transform vast datasets into actionable knowledge. Industry giants like Xero and QuickBooks are poised to integrate intelligence into their offerings, automating micro-decisions that save practitioners invaluable time.

For businesses in our sector, we foresee a future where AI leverages the available extensive information resources to not only improve efficiency but revolutionise the very core of our operations. Whether it’s predictive analytics, improved customer service or general enhanced efficiencies, the opportunities are endless. This must be accompanied by a sense of caution — a recognition of the importance of safeguarding client data security in the age of AI integration.

Yet amid this exciting wave of transformation, we must remember that ethical considerations will always come first. View those considerations as guidance to help you along the way, rather than some ominous, foreboding shadow upon your future plans.

The implications of automated decision-making and data analysis demand a commitment to ensuring that AI algorithms adhere to strict ethical standards, especially when dealing with sensitive financial data. A delicate balance between technological advancement and ethical responsibility must be struck – and becomes a central tenet guiding our journey into this uncharted territory.

Let’s not forget the need to navigate regulatory landscapes either. The integration of AI into accounting and auditing practices means the need for a meticulous examination of compliance with existing regulations. Navigating the evolving regulatory landscape becomes not just a task, but a strategic imperative to ensure that AI-driven processes not only meet industry standards, but also align with legal requirements.

As stewards of financial integrity, adapting to these regulatory shifts isn't just desirable—it's essential for maintaining trust and credibility. 

The human touch

As we embrace AI’s potential efficiencies, the irreplaceable value of human expertise remains evident, and I believe this will always be the case.

Complex decision-making, nuanced understanding of client needs, and the ability to navigate unforeseen challenges are domains where real-life human professionals excel. The integration of AI and human expertise therefore becomes a cornerstone for sustainable growth, where the strengths of each augment the capabilities of the other.

But what about communicating our use of AI to those important people who pay the bills? Comprehensive client education is crucial. Clients must not only grasp the potential benefits but also comprehend the limitations of AI in accounting and auditing. This not only creates transparency but is instrumental in building trust in an evolving service landscape where the human touch is complemented and assisted, never replaced. 

The elephant in the room

It’s also important to acknowledge the elephant in the room. The potential drawback of AI lies not only in its impact on operational efficiency but also in its potential to reduce the need for human resources.

We know a number of outsourcing specialists see AI as a huge competitor to their entire business models. I’m not complacent enough to believe that it definitely won't impact AdvanceTrack. In fact, the opposite. We’re big investors in technology.

But it takes me back to that crucial point about needing that human touch. We’ve seen various technological leaps and iterations over the past 20 years, and we view AI as another leap. Broadly speaking, we will use AI to complement our work.

We are quite far off from concluding how this situation will turn out, but what we do know is that the integration of AI into outsourcing and accounting models presents both a transformative journey and a whole load of opportunities and challenges.

The potential benefits, including predictive analytics, enhanced efficiencies, and improved customer service, are not merely promising but revolutionary. AI may well free up people’s time even further than current levels of automation can do. But the businesses that succeed will be those who ensure their offering evolves in tandem with the way practices operate too. However, as we know, the drawbacks demand meticulous consideration.

We stand at a crossroads, where technological advancements could reshape traditional paradigms, but proactive adaptation becomes the key to ensuring a healthy relationship between AI and outsourcing. This is not just key for survival; it's a commitment to continued growth and innovation for all stakeholders.

The future is unfolding before us, and the synergy between AI and outsourcing holds the key to a new era in accounting and auditing—one where technology and human thought combine to shape the landscape of financial services. And we intend to be right at the front of it. 

Main image: Vipul Sheth, MD, AdvanceTrack