Finance in 2019: Trust, Technology, and Ethics

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2019 will be the year of rebuilding the public trust in finance, of recruiting new talents whose skills and roles transform due to digital integration, and of paying attention to the ethical implications of AI innovation.

Last year saw a number of high profile scandals centered on the audit and accountancy industries, the ramifications for which have gone far beyond the sector itself.

There were also a number of start-ups that raced through multiple funding rounds to IPO without ever turning a profit. One could argue that investors are just as concerned with future potential as what is happening now. Ultimately investors may not care about company reports as long as they can turn a quick buck – although of course they should.

Meanwhile, consumers are becoming much more aware of the risks associated with inaccurate reporting and bad audit practices. Often, they are the ones who end up ‘on the hook’ when failings within the sector impact savings, pension funds and other company investments they depend on.

The accounting and auditing industries will need to find a way to rebuild trust, not only with investors or shareholders, but with a broad range of stakeholders who are more exposed than ever to the potential pitfalls of inaccurate reporting.

Organizations are increasingly looking at finance not just as a back office operation, but rather as a function that provides value added services to any business. CFOs are looking for financial insights from their data, but manual processes are still seen as the biggest bottleneck in financial close and accounting operations; when teams are buried in spreadsheets and tightly bound to manually intensive reporting processes, there is little time for value-add activities like forecasting, data analytics, and business advice.

The automation of manual processes will undoubtedly be the biggest trend for financial organisations moving into 2019 and 2020. Automation streamlines the most routine, manual work, and opens the door to a transformation in the way accounting and finance teams work by embedding automation, control, and period-end tasks within daily activities. This gives accountants the visibility they need to provide reporting at any time during the month, and help drive more informed decisions for the organisation.

Another most noteworthy technology is the robotic process automation (RPA) that automates manual tasks, manages workflow, and standardizes the close process across complex organisations and IT landscapes. RPA is in fact going to enable accountants to finally do what they’re meant to be doing: perform analysis, advise the business, and provide impactful financial data to shape their organisations’ future.

The ubiquity of technology is changing the way businesses operate, but closing the gap between a specific sector and the contemporary technology industry can be challenging. Digital transformation will continue to top the agenda for most organisations in 2019, although it must be said that attracting and retaining the right talent – with sector-specific expertise as well as the necessary technical and soft skills - will be critical to this process.

When meaningful accounting activities occur every day, accountants and decision makers always have access to real-time data. This immediate insight, instead of months-old data, enables leadership to pivot quickly to meet customer and stakeholder demands and seize new opportunities before the competition.

Thus, it is widely accepted that automation, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning have the potential to transform the role of the accountant, freeing up time and talent which can be better used for financial forecasting and business analysis. However, as the industry strives to become more IT-centric, we should not overlook the down-stream implications of these innovations.

Today, AI has become a catch-all buzzword encompassing a number of different technologies. But consider for a moment what a truly intelligent, automated system could look like in a finance setting.

What if one day we develop algorithmic processes capable of making independent business decisions using real-time financial data? If that algorithm makes an error, who is at fault? Is it the algorithm, the person who fed the algorithm data sets – the person who designed the software? Or should the CFO ultimately be held accountable?

Clearly these questions will still be hypotheticals for many organisations. Nonetheless, they highlight the potential risk new technology could introduce to a naturally risk-averse sector. 2019 should be the year we start thinking seriously about the rules, legislation and regulation our industry will need to survive such innovation.


About the Author

Terry Smagh is senior vice president, Asia Pacific & Japan, at BlackLine, an accounting automation software provider.