Accounting firms are betting big on artificial intelligence (AI) to help them keep up with trends, improve their services and increase efficiency – for themselves and their clients.
The recent Intuit QuickBooks A Tech-Forward Future: Accounting in Canada 2023 report showed that more than half (52 per cent) of accounting businesses in the country are planning investments in AI, and around 46 per cent have planned investments in automation tools and cloud accounting software.
In addition, 89 per cent of accounting professionals think AI can have a positive effect in their industry.
“Accounting professionals say that they are looking forward to automation and AI to boost efficiency, with most believing that increased workflow efficiency is AI’s top benefit,” noted the report.
Major accounting and consulting firms in Canada told BIV that they have seen a large amount of interest and activity in investing in AI among their clients and across the accounting services industry itself.
“It is one of our fastest-growing sectors,” said Jas Jaaj, managing partner of AI at Deloitte Canada.
“In the past six months, even though we are in a generally recessionary environment, what we are observing is that the investment that is going into AI and AI-related areas within enterprises is growing rapidly.”
He added that accounting firms are generally looking to apply AI to three key areas of focus: How to enhance and improve their internal operations; how to infuse AI into their products and services to help the clients “generate incremental value;” and how to arm workers with AI-enabled tools.
In addition to AI, cloud transformation and data management are other major trends that are changing the way in which organizations consume and produce information.
“[Cloud transformation] enhances innovation by moving those workloads from the enterprise to the cloud, because from the cloud, you can access features like AI more effectively and infuse them into the applications that you will be using,” he said.
Learning about generative AI
For the accounting industry, AI technologies – especially the supervised machine-learning element – have been used for around a decade to increase the efficiency of processes that require a significant amount of leg work.
But with the recent attention to generative AI by ChatGPT, accounting firms are looking at ways to take advantage of available tools.
“We are heavily involved in working with clients and within our own internal processes to identify use cases that are applicable for that technique of AI,” said Annie Veillet, national data, analytics and AI lead at PwC Canada.
PwC Canada announced earlier this summer that it is investing $200 million to expand the firm’s AI capabilities. This includes training workers on how to use generative AI.
“We’re trying to continue to train everybody at PwC to have a multitude of tools in their toolkit, and then they can decide, with some frameworks that we provide, when is it appropriate to use generative AI and different tactics,” she said.
The company will also occasionally invest in pilots with their clients to test out new AI techniques and tools to see whether and how they might create value.
Veillet said the accounting industry has been facing high rates of attrition, and that young would-be accountants looking to join the profession can be dissuaded from doing so by the tedious legwork that comes with the job. This is one area where AI is expected to help.
“We start transforming those jobs into much more advisory roles, and really bringing the knowledge from accounting, rather than sampling and everything that comes with the more classic audit activities that they have existed in,” she said.
Waiting is no longer an option
Simon Lindley, a data analytics trainer and consultant focused on accounting institutes, said accounting firms need to invest time to “chase AI” now in order to be able to save time by using it in the future.
“Even if some of your effort is wasted because the tools aren’t mature, you should be starting on a learning journey, because if you wait until it’s mature and everybody else is doing it, you’ll be away,” said Lindley.
Lindley believes although AI is expected to replace some roles for accountants and bookkeepers, there will be demand for people who understand both AI technology and accounting and know how to use AI in the industry.
“People need to be wary of a kind of overconfidence that, ‘This won’t affect me.’ In the same way, balance that against the kind of panic that, ‘AI is some kind of emerging intelligence that may be malevolent to take over the world,’” he said.
As companies are navigating how they can adapt AI to their business processes – and vice versa – there is mounting pressure on government to manage information and ensure that people can trust the data used by AI technologies, said Jaaj. He added that Bill C-27 – a bill to enact Canada’s Consumer Privacy Protection Act, the Personal Information and Data Protection Tribunal Act and the Artificial Intelligence and Data Act – is currently being reviewed is expected to shed light on the issue.
“We will be operating in a period of uncertainty, which will bring risks,” said Jaaj.
“So that’s why even though we are strong advocates in terms of using AI as a force multiplier, it has to be used mindfully with the proper risk guardrails in place within enterprises.”
The risks, according to Veillet, are recognized by most organizations that are looking at how to use AI responsibility.
“I think as much as there are risks and we are risk averse organizations, waiting is not really an option anymore,” she said.
Updated July 12 to clarify the full name of the Intuit QuickBooks report