The floodgates of technological innovation opened up in 2023 with generative artificial intelligence (GenAI), ChatGPT, Bard, Claude, and other tools reinvigorating thoughts of “what could be” within virtually every business sector. For accountants, “best of breed” applications highlighted how processes within organizations could be effectively automated, and how digital integration of firm and client data in a “secure and connected” cloud is the future of the technology stack in a modern accounting firm.
These technologies teed up 2024 to be one of even more innovations, delivered to us at an increasingly faster pace of change. Where will technology have the most impact on the accounting profession? Keep your eyes open and your ears peeled for when the opportunities arise to incorporate these technologies into your future strategic thinking.
Generative AI everywhere
It’s no secret that generative AI, and in particular ChatGPT, was a top technology story of 2023, but where does AI fit into 2024? Several accounting vendors are announcing how they are incorporating AI into their applications, but the key will be providing solutions that work reliably and provide verifiable answers. These products should have privacy and confidentiality guardrails built into the model to instill trust in the accounting community. New GenAI-powered offerings that are integrated in accounting platforms, such as Intuit Assist for QuickBooks and Rightworks Spark, demonstrate an easier way for accountants to learn and use AI confidently, while at the same time improving individual productivity in a firm.
Microsoft AI Copilot
For most us who use Microsoft Windows and Office applications in our practices, Microsoft remains one of the AI vendors to monitor in 2024. With integration into their Bing Chat search tool, rebranded as Copilot, and the integration of Copilot AI into Microsoft Office 365 applications, now rebranded as Microsoft 365 Copilot, we will slowly be assimilated into using AI on a regular basis over the next few years.
Due to the cost, only the largest organizations will initially be able to buy and use Microsoft 365 Copilot with Excel, Word, Teams, and other programs. However, the gains in efficiency from using these virtual assistants will be proven, and drive interest and training into smaller firms when it becomes universally available in another year or two. Microsoft even announced the addition of a dedicated Copilot key on the keyboard—similar to the Windows button added back in 1994—that will immediately launch the AI solution.
Generative AI cautions
Like all things touted as game changing, there can be a dark side. For example, highly convincing data and images can be created and presented to accountants in a very confident manner that are factually incorrect, aka "AI hallucinations." Unscrupulous parties can easily generate information designed to deceive accountants, so we must be extra vigilant when accepting new clients who could be completely fictitious. When our instincts tell us something is off, that’s a red flag.
Expect to see forensic AI audit tools to highlight unusual transactions and anomalies in the accounting data we are processing for our clients, and be on the lookout for training on how to be less susceptible to fake digital information in our business and personal lives. With 2024 being an election year, it has never been more important to identify trusted resources for news and information. Hundreds of AI-generated websites are being created to produce fake news to influence gullible followers.
Datafication in the cloud
One of the key mantras we use in our process optimization consulting with accounting firms is: Do it, … do it right, … do it right now! For this to work, information must be digitally captured at its root source and processed in a controlled, secured environment—essentially having all applications in an integrated workspace in the cloud. This is exactly what the latest generation of productivity applications have done to make it easy for accountants to interact with clients, accept and review their information, and collaborate virtually with those clients and firm employees.
QuickBooks, SafeSend, Suralink, SmartVault, and Microsoft Teams' Power BI, redefine how we work with clients 100% digitally, while integration tools create business advisory tech stacks built around accounting applications. With collaboration increasingly including remote clients and personnel, this datafication has to be on a single, secure platform. By default, they are in the cloud.
Professional grade security is mandatory
Another dark side of generative AI is that it is also being used by cybercriminals to write amazingly effective phishing emails, identify weak and unpatched systems, and develop next generation malware that is more stealthily delivered to their targets. This automation makes data more vulnerable, particularly for firms that manage their own security, or have local providers do it on a part-time or on an as-needed basis.
It’s clear that accountants need professional-grade managed security providers proactively monitoring their firm’s IT infrastructure 7/24/365, updating applications and system activity, and directing training on current security threats such as phishing and social engineering.
A learning culture is essential
With the increased pace of change happening around us, the traditional CPE training mindset will also have to evolve. Instead of only focusing on providing the regulatorily mandated tax, accounting and audit, and ethics courses, accountants will need to create a proactive learning environment to be exposed to, and evaluate, technologies, and then roll them out successfully across the firm with concise training that is available on demand.
Having firm application experts network with peers, or participate in tech groups/accounting associations, will be a critical component of the learning process—and AI will help as well. Organizations are already turning on the transcription capability during their Zoom or Teams meetings, and having generative AI quickly summarize key points. This, in turn, makes meetings searchable and more readily available to authorized users.
We are living and working in an era of accelerating innovation and constant change, with no slowdown in sight. While maintaining the status quo has historically been a comfortable option, the reality is that we are seeing the recognizable value of these types of practices dwindling at an astonishing rate.
Keep abreast of what works with your firm and be ready to implement proven technologies!