The Rise of Automation: Making Technology Part of the Team

March 14, 2019
By Thomas van Hellemondt
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Thomas van Hellemondt

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There’s no denying that the world has been rocked on its side by some incredible technological advances that have drastically altered how we live and work. Cell phones have evolved from bulky handsets in carry bags to sleek devices that do practically everything. In manufacturing and business, we’re at a point of unprecedented automation. Machines have taken over a vast number of tasks, including those once thought undoable by machine.

While there is certainly concern about machines taking over man, there are those who agree that technology ought to be seen less as a threat and more as a team member. Indeed, David Norman of the Nielson Norman group writes: “We need to think differently about technology. We need to think about automation that enhances people versus automation that replaces people.” Essentially, developers and users alike need to find ways to incorporate technology in a way that allows people to do what people do best while also allowing computers to do what computers do best

The Rise of Automation

Automation and technology are used to enhance and streamline many processes, including removing the opportunity for human error. However, as systems are continually designed to remove the element of human judgment, are we losing too much of that element in the process?

With the rise of automation—from assembly line machines to ERPs that collect and analyze data—we face a delicate balance. More often than not, technology is designed to do as much as it can while people fill in the gaps. The downside to this approach is that humans are made to conform to the way the machine works, rather than technology augmenting the way people work. When humans inevitably cannot live up to the absolute accuracy and precision of technology, we deem it human error. This is in actuality a design error, a failure to understand the ideal role of technology.

In fact, one of the earliest criticisms of enterprise resource planning (ERP) software was just that: It required people to work within the processes and workflows of the system’s designs, rather than creating software that harmonizes and adapts to the natural human ways of working. Artificial intelligence, robotic process automation, and preset cloud services still battle this challenge.

“We need to think differently about technology. We need to think about automation that enhances people versus automation that replaces people.”David Norman, Nielson Norman Group

Enhance Instead of Replace

Perhaps one of the biggest fears with regard to automation and technology is that an increased use of artificial intelligence will put people out of work. It’s true that some technology and automation has been developed to replace people. This is best served for tasks that have been deemed dirty, dull, or dangerous. For example, rekeying data into a spreadsheet is a dull process at best and runs the risk of human error due to repetition. Thus, some jobs may disappear from human work altogether, while others will be replaced.

The best version of the future, however, includes work tasks that are shared between human and technology and in teams that include technology. It involves using technology to cover the tasks that humans aren’t successful at, allowing technology to augment—rather than completely replace—what humans are capable of.

In finance, computers can take over the more mundane tasks of extracting, organizing, and structuring data. This does not eliminate accountants and auditors, however. Instead, the human teams begin by teaching the computer programs what data to look for and how to organize what it finds. Then once the computer has assembled the data, its human colleagues are able to investigate anomalies. Thus, technology becomes a part of the team not by removing a person from the practice, but by freeing them to do other things.

“You cannot leave the people behind. Any organization that’s trying to do this isn’t going to get very far with AI if they’re not upskilling their people and using people as part of the process to move forward.”Mike Baccala, U.S. Assurance Innovation Leader for PwC

Bringing Technology to Accounting

Technology is growing in prevalence in accounting. So much so that many schools—such as Mississippi State University—are updating their undergraduate and graduate accounting programs to include emphasis on technology, data analytics, and big data. The reason is clear: Those who want to work in the accounting and finance fields in the future will need to have more advanced technology skill sets in order to be successful in the complex, data-centric environments we are creating.

Accountants and auditors will need to update some skill sets in order to work effectively with artificial intelligence technology on their team. In a data-driven world, vital human skills such as skepticism, judgment, analysis, and understanding technical accounting now become far more important, since they are skills a computer cannot duplicate.

Finance Teams need to upgrade certain skills such as:

  • Fundamental data skills: Data strategy and processing, proficiency in statistics, probability, and deductive reasoning
  • Storytelling: Translating data into an accurate story of the business that audiences can understand.
  • Ability to automate: Implement automation—such as report automation in Excel—to reduce costs and improve efficiency.

Technology should be embraced, but not at the expense of people. Machines working together with people have proven to be a much more effective team than either group working alone. Therefore, people, processes, and technology are a three-legged stool essential for success, and if any one leg is removed or cut short, the stool will not be able to support the weight. “You cannot leave the people behind,” remarks Mike Baccala, U.S. assurance innovation leader for PwC. “Any organization that’s trying to do this isn’t going to get very far with AI if they’re not upskilling their people and using people as part of the process to move forward.”

The End Goal

Humans excel at tasks that require creativity, the opportunity to respond to the unexpected, and general attentiveness to the surrounding environment. Technology and machines, on the other hand, are built to process a lot of information quickly without getting bored; technology reliably completes the task it is assigned without deviation. The most powerful approach to adding technology to a team takes the strengths of both humans and technology into account and from that, creates a superior, collaborative system.

It should therefore be the goal of accounting teams to use technology to amplify human judgment, not eliminate it. Collaboration with technology allows teams to blend machine efficiency with human creativity, thus rendering more accuracy and a reduction in liability. Meanwhile, people continue building the very human traits of judgment and decision-making based on the results produced by technology. Both of these traits are extremely powerful and more often than not correct.

Finally, technology alone will not instantly convert teams into leaner, more agile operations. It is essential to prepare for the addition of technology by promoting innovation, autonomy, learning, and idea exchange. Technology is a social, cultural, and economic phenomenon that cannot simply be deployed; it must be integrated into society, in effect also fundamentally changing society.

Future innovation depends on the idea that humans and technology are not competing with each other, but are instead collaborating in ways that free up the human mind for more emotionally meaningful tasks.

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