Change / transformation Personal development Technology

Robots aren’t stealing our jobs. They’re setting us free.

You know those doomsday reports about how machines are going to put us all out of work?

They’re crap.

Make no mistake: Those machines are redefining our profession. Artificial intelligence and cognitive learning technologies can crunch the numbers faster and more accurately than we can ever hope to — and they don’t have to stop to eat or sleep. That has huge implications for accounting and finance professionals.

But it doesn’t mean we’re suddenly going to be unemployable.

“Let’s get one thing straight: The robots are not destined to take all the jobs,” Thomas Friedman writes in Thank You For Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide for Thriving in the Age of Accelerations. “That only happens if we let them, if we don’t accelerate innovation in the labor / education / start-up realms, if we don’t reimagine the whole conveyor belt from primary education to work to lifelong learning.”

Sure, new technologies create many challenges for data-heads like us, but they create just as many opportunities.

Let’s start with this: Those of us being disrupted by new technologies tend to see machines as job killers without considering the fact that those same technologies are creating many new jobs at the same time — or at least creating the need for new jobs that machines can’t do themselves.

And let’s face it: The stuff that machines can currently do probably isn’t the stuff we want to spend a lot of time doing anyway. “If your job can be automated,” Sage’s Ed Kless said recently, “your job probably sucks.” Letting the robots do those things frees us up to do more important, value-added work.

“I still believe professional judgment and expertise is not replaceable by machines,” Deloitte US CEO Cathy Engelbert says. “I’ve never met a machine with courage and empathy, one that can read body language and adjust what they say. While we’re going to digest larger volumes of data and information, the key is to use artificial intelligence to augment what the human does. … Using these technologies to augment human intelligence and find the insights in the data is more important than ever.”

In short, our job going forward will be to do the things the machines can’t do — to tell the stories behind the numbers, to make human connections with our clients and customers that will reveal their goals, aspirations, and visions for the future of their businesses, and then helping them achieve those goals.

That goes way beyond Accounting 101. To remain relevant in the Age of Automation, accounting and finance pros must be fluent in so-called “soft” skills like strategic and critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and anticipation.

Most important, our future relevancy depends on our ability to learn new skills on the fly — to adapt quickly to new and emerging technologies and position ourselves to do the things for our clients that those new technologies can’t do. Not long ago, we could count on our college degrees and on-the-job experience to carry us for decades and build our careers. Not anymore. By some estimates, half of what college freshmen learn in their first year of school will be obsolete by the time they graduate — and many of them will end up in jobs that didn’t exist when they started college.

In the words of Fast Company Editor Robert Safian, the most important skill we’ll possess going forward is the ability to learn new skills.

“Like everything else in the age of accelerations, securing and holding a job requires dynamic stability — you need to keep pedaling all the time,” Friedman writes. “Today, argues Zach Sims, the founder of CodeAcademy, ‘you have to know more, you have to update what you know more often, and you have to do more creative things with it. … That recursive loop really defines work and learning today.’”

That loop requires us to ask a few key questions: “What can I become quite good at that’s really difficult for a computer to do one day soon?” writes Seth Godin. “How can I become so resilient, so human and such a linchpin that shifts in technology won’t be able to catch up? It was always important, but now it’s urgent.”

The good news is, we’re starting to see more and more resources being developed specifically to deliver these types of skills to accounting and finance pros.

  • One is The Anticipatory Organization: Accounting and Finance Edition. Developed by renowned futurist Daniel Burrus and the Business Learning Institute, the program is designed to teach CPAs how to be anticipatory — how to spot future trends and position themselves and their clients to take advantage of those trends before they arrive.
  • Another is IBM’s Big Data University. It’s an online curriculum designed to help accounting and finance pros learn key skills in artificial intelligence, Big Data, and cognitive computing. These skills will be huge differentiators going forward, and will help CPAs play a bigger role in guiding digital transformation within their organizations.

Automation is going to happen whether you like it or not. The question is, what are you going to do about it?

Start by making sure your job can’t be automated. Outlearn the machines in the stuff that really matters.

Then keep learning.


William D. Sheridan