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Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, RPA and Cloud top the list of profession’s technology hard trends for 2020

Using futurist Daniel Burrus' predictions as a baseline, MACPA/BLI surveys narrow technology's impact on the Accounting/Finance profession’s trends By Daniel Burrus, CEO of Burrus Research, and Tom Hood, CEO of the Maryland Association of CPAs and the Business Learning Institute

Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and Advanced Cloud Computing top the list of the profession’s technology hard trends in the accounting and finance world over the next three years, according to research conducted by the Maryland Association of CPAs, the Business Learning Institute, and world-renowned futurist Daniel Burrus.

This year's list reflects some significant changes as Big Data analytics replaced Artificial Intelligence as the #1 trend. Blockchain moved down the list from sixth place to ninth place reflecting the lack of compelling use cases in accounting to date. Advanced Cloud moved up the list to third along with the other mobile trends (mobile apps, banking and smarter smartphones).

“There has never been a shortage of trends,” said Burrus. “The real problem is figuring out which ones will happen so that you know where to place your strategic bets. I have been publishing a list of top trends since 1983, as well as speaking and writing about their future impact, and if you have read any of my seven books or thousands of articles over the decades, you know they have been highly accurate. The reason for this is the methodology I have developed that separates what I call Hard Trends — the trends that will happen — from Soft Trends, which might happen. Knowing their distinctions can make all the difference.

“I have been writing about each one of these technology trends for many years, but for one to make it on my Top 20 list, it has to be developed enough that you can apply it to exponentially grow your business,” Burrus added. “Each is growing at an increasingly exponential rate. As such, they all will impact our lives, both personally and professionally, in the coming year and beyond. They highlight enormous, game-changing opportunities in a broad array of applications and industries. As you read through them, look for opportunities for you to leverage them and become a positive disruptor.”

"One more word of advice," Hood said. "Don’t stop at the trends impacting your firm or company. Stop and think about how these trends are impacting your clients and customers, both internally and externally. Think about the hard trends facing your industry and your customers’ industries. Read the entire list and think about robotics and 3D printing, augmented and virtual reality, the Internet of Things, location-based services, drones, and wearables."

“These seemingly individual technologies are joining forces to disrupt the accounting and finance profession exponentially. The impact of artificial intelligence is huge, but when it is combined with Blockchain or Robotic Process Automation, for instance, its impact increases tenfold ... at least. This "10x mindset" will be vital going forward”, Hood said. “The key is to use these Hard Trends to develop opportunities for your organization to shape your future and become even more relevant or risk being disrupted by them.”

Using Burrus' annual list as a starting point, Hood asked more than 3,000 CPAs and finance and accounting professionals which of those trends will have the greatest impact on the profession over the next three years. The trends are in rank order from our surveys and research:

1. Big Data and the use of high-speed data analytics “Big Data” is a term that describes the technologies and techniques used to capture and utilize exponentially increasing streams of data. The goal is to bring enterprise-wide visibility and insights that enable making rapid, critical decisions. Using advanced cloud services, high-speed data analytics increasingly will be employed as a complement to existing information management systems and programs to identify actionable insights from a mass of Big Data. Separating good data from bad data also will become a rapidly growing service.

2. Artificial intelligence (A.I.), advanced machine learning and cognitive computing applications Cognitive computing applications grow rapidly. Advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence, such as Google’s DeepMind and IBM’s Watson, coupled with networked intelligent machines and sensors will create a giant leap forward, thanks to exponential advances in computing power, digital storage, and bandwidth. A.I. increasingly will become embedded in our applications and processes. Also, thanks to better sensors, increasing machine intelligence, and Siri-like voice communications, advanced automation and intelligent robotics increasingly will work with humans in new and productive ways. As A.I. is applied to vehicle-to-vehicle communications, we will see acceleration in the use of semi-autonomous and fully autonomous vehicles.

3. Advanced cloud computing services Businesses of all sizes will increasingly embrace new variations on public, private, hybrid, and personal mobile clouds. This represents a major shift in how organizations obtain and maintain software, hardware, and computing capacity to cut costs in IT, human resources, and sales management. Not all clouds are created equal. Some are optimized for IoT applications, while others are designed for different levels of security and speed.

4. RPA - Virtualization and Automation of processes and services (on-demand services) The virtualization of processes and services will increasingly be accessed by companies needing to update and streamline existing services, and to deploy new services rapidly. The rapid growth of Collaboration-as-a-Service, Security-as-a-Service, Networking-as-a-Service, and many more is giving birth to Everything-as-a-Service.

5. Mobile apps for business process innovation As we increasingly transform business processes using mobility, the use of mobile apps for purchasing, supply chain, logistics, distribution, service, sales, and maintenance will grow rapidly. There will be an increasing focus on business app stores within companies, giving the company a competitive advantage and giving users access to the personalized information they need on their mobile devices anytime and anywhere.

6. Adaptive and predictive cybersecurity systems Business, government, and education have moved cybersecurity from an underfunded back-office activity to a major initiative going forward. With the rapid growth of connected technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT) and semi-autonomous as well as fully autonomous vehicles, security systems will move beyond reacting faster to include adaptive security systems using A.I. and other advanced tools, such as behavioral analytics. This will add a level of predict and prevent, allowing us to stop many, but sadly not all, attacks before they start.

7. Mobile banking and payments Mobile banking, or using smartphones as e-wallets, is already being used in an increasing number of countries. Use is finally taking off on a larger scale in the U.S. thanks to an increasing number of phones with secure mobile banking apps, near-field communications (NFC) chips, biometric identification, and the use of tokens with which no credit card or personal information is exchanged.

8. Smarter smartphones and tablets drive mobile process innovation The vast majority of mobile phones sold globally have browsers, making a smartphone our primary computer. This signals a profound shift in global computing, allowing businesses of all sizes to transform the ways in which they market, sell, communicate, collaborate, educate, train, and innovate using mobility. An enterprise mobility strategy that puts mobile first is rapidly becoming mandatory for organizations of all sizes. The next phase is to embed a layer of A.I. in everything.

9. Blockchains and cryptocurrency Introduced as a means of transferring bitcoins, blockchains are fast gaining traction in any number of areas. A system that enables secure, digital, direct transfers, blockchains decentralize transactions by eliminating the middleman, thereby allowing for direct connection among all involved parties. In addition to currency, blockchains can be used to transfer contracts, insurance policies, real estate titles, bonds, votes, and other items of value. They provide increased transparency and, as a result, distributed trust. Given their security and lower cost, blockchains create a platform that will impact limitless products and services, thereby enabling innovation and growth. Look for applications in health care, supply chain, and finance to grow rapidly. In 2017, the average person discovered bitcoin thanks to its meteoric rise in value, as well as other coins such as ethereum (used for initial coin offerings) and litecoin, to name a few. The crypto genie is now out of the bottle, and thanks to bitcoin trading, bitcoin ATMs, and bitcoin mania, we will see blockchains and cryptocurrency increasingly become part of our lives.

10. Virtualization of storage, desktops, applications, and networking The virtualization of hardware and software will see continued acceptance through growth in both large and small businesses as virtualization security improves. Hardware-as-a-Service (HaaS) is increasingly joining Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), creating what some have called “IT as a Service.” In addition to the rapid growth of virtual storage, virtualization of processing power will continue to grow, allowing mobile devices to access supercomputer capabilities and apply them to processes such as purchasing and logistics. These services will help companies cut costs, as they provide access to powerful software programs and the latest technology without the expense of a large IT staff and time-consuming, expensive upgrades.

11. Visual communication for business Visual communication takes video conferencing to a new level thanks to free programs like Skype, FaceTime, Zoom, and others for video communication on phones, tablets, and home televisions. Businesses of all sizes are rapidly embracing this as a primary relationship-building and communications tool.

12. IoT becomes increasingly intelligent Machine-to-machine communications using chips, microsensors, and both wired and wireless networks will join networked sensors to create a rapidly growing IoT, sharing real-time data, performing diagnostics, and making virtual repairs, all without human intervention. By 2020, there will be well over 50 billion “things” talking to each other, performing tasks, and making decisions based on predefined guidelines using A.I. Not all data need to come back to the mothership to create high value. Edge computing will increasingly be used to tame the massive amounts of data IoT will create.

13. Smart virtual e-assistants and voice-enabled devices The use of smart e-assistants is accelerating, offering what is rapidly becoming a mobile electronic concierge available on any smart device, including phones, tablets, televisions, and cars. Stand-alone audio assistants such as Amazon Echo and Google Home will expand rapidly into business and governmental applications. Soon retailers will have a Siri-like sales assistant, and soon many of us will be using an e-personal health assistant that taps into the real-time health data from a smart watch to predict potential problems and offer suggestions.

14. Social business applications “Social” takes on a new level of urgency as organizations shift from an Information Age “informing” model to a Communication Age “communicating and engagement” model. Social software for business will reach a new level of adoption, with applications to enhance relationships, collaboration, networking, social validation, and more. Augmented reality and virtual reality will increasingly play a role. Marketers and researchers will employ social search and social analytics to measure real-time sentiment of large groups of targeted people.

15. Augmented reality and virtual reality apps and devices Augmented reality (AR) will quickly become more common by adding just-in-time information to our physical world. Simply aim your smartphone camera at a crowded street to find the stores that have the exact products you’re looking for. Better yet, we will soon be using conventional-looking glasses that allow wearers to overlay data on their fields of vision, providing useful information about what they’re looking at. By contrast, virtual reality (VR) — using oversized headsets to provide an immersive, computer-generated, 3D environment with which the wearer can interact — will grow more slowly due to the need for more time-intensive software design and the need to shut out the real world in order to use it. With headsets dropping in price, increasing numbers will want to experience it. Commercial growth in VR will focus on more specific industries. For instance, it’s already being used by architects and designers to show potential clients specific features of buildings prior to actual construction. But that’s just the beginning. AR and VR will soon shift from a single-user to a multi-user social experience.

16. 3D printing (additive manufacturing) of finished goods Personalized manufacturing of finished goods using 3D printing will grow exponentially. 3D printers build things by depositing material, typically plastic or metal, layer by layer, until the product is finished. Originally designed to print prototypes, they are increasingly being used to print final products, such as jewelry, iPhone cases, shoes, car dashboards, parts for jet engines, prosthetic limbs, human jaw bones, blood vessels, organs, and much more. This allows companies to manufacture one-of-a-kind or small runs of items quickly, locally, and with far fewer costs.

17. Wearables and applications Wearables increasingly will be used for both personal and business applications. Apple, with its smartwatch fitted with health sensors and software, joins Google, Samsung, Microsoft, and others in a battle for market share. More complex software and applications will drive further innovation and sales in other wearable technology. One example is a patch that can be attached to the skin for remote disease management, diagnostics, and general health via wireless transfer.

18. Enhanced location awareness for retail Location awareness using in-building systems allows customers with smartphones to navigate stores and quickly find what they are looking for. This, combined with geo-social marketing and AR, will drive the creation of more business-to-consumer apps. In addition, geospatial visualization combines geographic information systems (GIS) with location-aware data, radio-frequency identification (RFID), and other location-aware sensors (including identifying the current location of users from the use of their mobile devices) to create new insights and competitive advantage.

19. Drones reach a new height adding A.I. The number of applications for drones will continue to expand rapidly. Drones have already proven to be of high value for search and rescue, and they are rapidly being applied to many industries. For example, agriculture uses drones to check crops, fences, and cattle; utility companies use them to look for downed power lines; and real estate agents use them for aerial photography. The explosion of hobby drones will drive innovation for both personal and industrial applications. A.I. will be increasingly integrated, expanding capabilities far beyond today’s applications.

20. Energy storage and microgrids Energy storage starts to become a reality as companies such as Tesla begin to sell their smart battery systems (SBS) to businesses and homes that generate some of their own power using solar, wind, or other systems. In addition, as first-generation hybrid vehicles get too old for the marketplace, there will be millions of batteries that will still hold enough of a charge to be repurposed into inexpensive energy storage systems. This will enable a national network of smaller and more secure smart microgrids.

All of these hard technology trends were in existence pre-COVID. They are now accelerating even faster and there are more opportunities than ever for those who can see further than the competition. Accounting and finance professionals can learn how to understand and plan for a faster future by learning the skill of 'anticipation.'

Ready to see the future and plan with greater confidence?

Learn how to see the visible future and anticipate opportunities before your competition does: Anticipatory LeaderⓇ: Accounting and Finance Edition Anticipatory OrganizationⓇ: Accounting and Finance Edition at

Daniel Burrus is considered one of the world's leading technology futurists on global trends and innovation. He is the founder and CEO of Burrus Research, a research and consulting firm that monitors global advancements in technology-driven trends to help clients understand how technological, social, and business forces are converging to create enormous untapped opportunities. He is the author of seven books, including the newest, The Anticipatory Organization: Turn Disruption and Change Into Opportunity and Advantage. Burrus also is the creator of The Anticipatory OrganizationⓇ Learning System –named a Top 10 Learning Product of 2016 by Accounting Today.

Tom Hood, CPA, CITP, CGMA, is considered one of the most influential thinkers in the CPA profession. He was named the second most influential person in accounting by Accounting Today Magazine for the past eight  years. He is a member of the Forbes Finance Council and was named to the Accounting Hall of Fame by CPA Practice Advisor. He is the CEO of the Maryland Association of CPAs (MACPA) and the Business Learning Institute, the innovation, strategy, and learning affiliate of the MACPA, a leading strategic planning and talent development organization for CPAs, finance and accounting professionals in the world.


Thomas Hood