All organizations need to leverage new technologies to stay competitive, and one such technology, business analytics (BA), has been a hot topic among CPAs for more than 10 years. The next wave of business enhancements, however, is using robotic process automation (RPA), also known as software robots, to increase operational efficiency and improve the bottom line. These are not the industrial robots that perform mechanical tasks such as welding or installing parts and have existed in factories for decades. RPA uses computer software to automate rule-based business processes that are routinely performed by office workers. They mimic what human employees do, and can generally be implemented without the need of IT infrastructure upgrades. After installation, these robots can be called upon at any time by an employee, activated with a timer, or triggered by a preselected event.

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In general, each software robot can handle the workload for three to four full-time employees at an annual licensing cost as low as $8,000–$9,000 (“Businesses Turn to Software Robots for Office Work,” Financial Times, Mar. 7, 2018, https://on.ft.com/2JJGTXx). The integration of RPA and artificial intelligence (AI) can further achieve intelligent process automation (IPA), which both mimics tasks performed by humans and also learns to improve performance over time.

The benefits of using software robots include fast deployment (see Exhibit), consistent performance, and lower operational cost. For example, Deloitte staff used to comb through hundreds of thousands of legal documents looking for a change of control provisions during a client’s sale of a business unit, keeping dozens of employees busy for up to half a year. Now, using IPA, a team of six to eight employees can complete the same task in less than a month (Adelyn Zhou, “EY, Deloitte And PwC Embrace Artificial Intelligence For Tax And Accounting,” Forbes, Nov. 14, 2017, http://bit.ly/2DoELUD).

Exhibit

Average Speed of RPA Deployment

Source: https://blog.appliedai.com/rpa-implementation/

As software robots gain popularity in business, RPA vendors have begun to offer services to help their clients improve productivity. Using software robots, accountants can be free from repetitive and time-consuming routines—such as data extraction and compilation—and focus on more complex tasks such as analytics and strategy development. This article will help CPAs understand software robots and offer some suggestions to adapt to the new world.

Prowess of Software Robots

Software robots are computer programs that can routinely perform data extraction, data compilation, and report generation. Although improving productivity through automation is nothing new for CPAs (e.g., Excel macros, ACL scripts, IDEA scripts), software robots are smarter and, like a human employee, can use the needed data beyond a proprietary software platform through screen scraping or an application programing interface (API). Therefore, these robots can perform tasks such as reading email, downloading attachments, extracting and migrating data from or between platforms, performing analytics, and generating reports.

Many rule-based business processes are good candidates for RPA. For example, Zurich Insurance deployed intelligent robots to process personal injury claims and cut the processing time from one hour to just seconds (Brenda Hughes Neghaiwi and John O’Donnell, “Zurich Insurance Starts Using Robots to Decide Personal Injury Claims,” Reuters, May 18, 2017, https://reut.rs/2zyo8l5). Another insurance firm has used robots to reduce excess routine procedures affecting 2,500 high-risk accounts per day, thus freeing up 81% of full-time employees to take on proactive account-management tasks instead (Federico Berruti, Graeme Nixon, Giambattista Taglioni, and Rob Whiteman, “Intelligent Process Automation: The Engine at the Core of the Next-Generation Operating Model,” McKinsey & Company, March 2017, https://mck.co/2D4x3y8). According to Deloitte, the operating cost of software robots is less than that of outsourcing (Peter Lowes, “An Introduction to Robotic Process Automation,” Wall Street Journal, Mar. 13, 2016, http://bit.ly/2D5JM3w).

As software robots gain popularity in business, RPA vendors have begun to offer services to help their clients improve productivity.

One RPA vendor maintains that software robots can improve the efficiency of various tasks, including customer service (reducing execution time by 83%), IT support (reducing three full-time employees per robot), data management (reducing 12 full-time employees), employee collaboration (reducing processing time by 90%), handling parking ticket appeals (saving millions in processing costs), and back office administration (reducing 12 full-time employees and finishing the work 10 times faster) (Robotic Process Automation: 6 Real World Use Cases, Thoughtonomy, http://bit.ly/2SQDquw). Software robots do not, however, have the capacity to deviate from their preprogrammed functions and may provide erroneous results when they encounter unanticipated scenarios. Thus, complex tasks and processes using unstructured data are not suitable for automation. Furthermore, business processes that are performed only occasionally may not be worth the cost/effort for automation.

Despite these limitations, CPAs are facing a new business environment in which software robots will likely emerge as virtual workers. In fact, this is an inevitable change in the work-place: Forrester Research estimates that there will be more than 4 million robots performing office and administrative work, as well as sales and related tasks, by 2021 (Craig Le Clair, The Forrester Wave: Robotic Process Automation, Q2 2018, June 26, 2018, http://bit.ly/2PIsErr).

Robots for Accounting

Many accounting, audit, and tax preparation tasks are rule-based, meaning that accounting professionals are among the top 10% of jobs that researchers consider most likely to be automated (Brian Peccarelli, “The Robo-Accountants Are Coming,” CFO.com, May 9, 2016, http://bit.ly/2yWF05u). For example, once triggered by a completed work order from the factory, software robots can update accounts instantly and keep the “work in process” general ledger balance the same as the sub-ledger balance in real time (Dave Sackett, “Get Ready for Artificial Intelligence,” Accountex Report, June 15, 2017, http://bit.ly/2ST4TLM).

Robots can also be an effective audit tool and contribute to risk management. Specifically, robots not only follow prescribed protocols with precision, but also capture complete audit trails and automate reporting to strengthen the audit process (Audit for Robotics, Deloitte, 2017, http://bit.ly/2qxI9nQ). Working with Microsoft and IBM Watson, KPMG has been developing tools to enhance audit quality by integrating data analytics, artificial intelligence, cognitive technologies, and RPA. Their goal is to deliver high-quality services consistently and drive the audit of the future.

For tax functions, robots can gather relevant data, review trial balances, convert data to a tax basis, prepare returns, record accounting entries for taxes, and address tax inquiries (Spotlight: Robotic Process Automation, Pricewaterhouse Coopers, May 2017, https://pwc.to/2JKXzOm). Ernst & Young has developed approximately 200 robots for its tax practices, resulting in a savings of several hundred thousand hours of process time annually (Nicole Norfleet, “Robotic Software Sweeping Large Accounting Firms and Clients,” Star Tribune, Apr. 28, 2017, http://strib.mn/2F3L3KY).

Creating Software Robots

RPA is new to CPAs; thus, it is important to understand what processes are suitable for automation and develop a roadmap for its implementation (“Robotic Process Automation Methodology,” Deloitte The Netherlands, 2017, http://bit.ly/2OpQgMM). If a firm does not have the in-house expertise to develop and deploy software robots, using RPA consultants is a viable option.

RPA development tools (e.g., Blue Prism, UiPath, Automation Anywhere, WorkFusion) offer “drag-and-drop” functionality, which provides graphical user interfaces (GUI) so that users can simply select an object and drag it to a different location or onto another object to define the required actions or create relevant associations among them. The GUI’s visualization diagrams also make business processes easier to understand. In addition, some RPA tools (e.g., UiPath, Automation Anywhere, WorkFusion) offer a recorder feature, similar to Microsoft Excel, which facilitates the automation of a process by recording a sequence of tasks performed by users (Lowes). Code-savvy RPA developers can also use a programming language (e.g., C++, Java, Python, R) to do the job.

Given the high throughput of a software robot, it is critical to ensure there are no programming or design errors. Thus, RPA developers should create test data and sample cases for a pilot study before any system is deployed. A monitoring process is also needed at the beginning of the deployment in case the pilot study does not cover all possible scenarios.

Adapting to the New Environment

CPAs need to develop a new perspective toward the professional work-place and take advantage of robots’ strengths. While many firms will leverage this technology, robots are not good at developing social skills, being flexible if needed, or using relevant common sense for problem solving. Thus, professionals need not worry that software robots will take over all office tasks and should not use this fear to avoid embracing a new and potentially useful tool. Specifically, accounting professionals can focus on higher value–added tasks such as participating in BA or RPA deployment. BA and RPA must use business data to enhance operations, and accountants have the capacity to collate the needed data for enhancements; thus, accountants can get involved with BA/RPA deployment, including risk management. With a high chance of being replaced by robots in the next two to three decades, “you’re either the one creating automation, or you’re the one being automated” (“Are Data Robots Coming to Replace Auditors?” ACL, http://bit.ly/2yV5PqR).

Given today’s IT tools, it is no longer sufficient for CPAs to learn Microsoft Office software only. Accountants need to know computer programming, because coding requires the knowledge of how to perform tasks in sequence and how to create a clear roadmap for problem solving (“Should Accounting Students Learn to Code?” AICPA.org, July 14, 2015, http://bit.ly/2RyYVyi). There are, however, many programming languages in use, and learning to code is not an easy undertaking, especially for busy accountants. Thus, CPAs who are interested in coding should learn a popular language that has been and will be around for a long time (e.g., Python, Java, C++, R) to maximize the return from the time invested.

Learning to code beyond using macros in Excel is not meant to train all accountants into programmers, but rather to enhance their ability to make computers work for them. Ultimately, knowing how to code will enable accounting professionals to evolve from knowing how to use computers to understanding how to make computers solve problems. Furthermore, the skills acquired through coding can be transferred to using the drag-and-drop development tools for BA/RPA deployment.

The United Kingdom’s national computing curriculum, instituted in 2014, can be considered a wake-up call on the importance of computing literacy for accountants. Specifically, the new curriculum includes coding lessons for children as young as age 5 (Stuart Dredge, “Coding at School: A Parent’s Guide to England’s New Computing Curriculum,” Guardian, Sept. 4, 2014, http://bit.ly/2OtMQZh). By age 5–6, children in the United Kingdom will learn what algorithms are and develop skills to create, organize, store, manipulate, and retrieve digital contents. By ages 7–11, they will create and debug more complicated programs with specific goals to grasp concepts such as variables and sequence of instructions in computer programs. Finally, by ages 11–14, they will use two or more programming languages to create their own computer programs.

Given today’s IT tools, it is no longer sufficient for CPAs to learn Microsoft Office software only.

To the best of this author’s knowledge, coding is not required in accounting undergraduate programs in the United States, and most young accountants do not learn coding while in college. If this trend does not change, American accountants will fall further behind their peers in the United Kingdom on computing literacy. Furthermore, understanding how to code can help CPAs perform better in the emerging technology-driven work environment. Thus, accountants and accounting students are encouraged to take advantage of free online coding courses (e.g., MIT OpenCourseWare, Coursera, Udacity, Codecademy) to learn computer programming with self-paced lessons.

The accounting profession is readily embracing RPA technology (see Miklos Vasarhelyi and Andrea Rozario, “How Robotic Process Automation Is Transforming Accounting and Auditing,” CPA Journal, June 2018, http://bit.ly/2F7t5aE), and CPAs should prepare themselves to integrate this emerging tool into the profession. Doing so will not only improve efficiency, but also enhance career development by helping accountants remain indispensable human workers once software robots have fully entered the accounting workplace.

Paul Lin, PhD is an associate professor of accountancy at the Raj Soin College of Business, Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio.