Change / transformation | Learning / Education | Personal development

Want to beat the machines? Learn to do what they can’t do

The robots are coming, and they want your job.

We’ve known this for a while now. Oxford University published a study nearly two years ago that tried to gauge the odds that certain professions would be completely automated within 20 years. Tax preparation came in at 98.7 percent. Accounting and auditing was at 93.5 percent.


Then, as if on cue, came word last year that KPMG was beginning to apply the IBM Watson cognitive learning technology — the same machine-learning technology that beat humans in chess and “Jeopardy” — to its suite of professional services, including tax, auditing, and consultative services.

That’s a machine that does what you do … and suddenly, it isn’t science fiction anymore. Suddenly, that Oxford study looks pretty quaint. Twenty years? At this rate, our jobs will be automated in 10.

But it gets better.

An expert at the Wharton School of Business says 47 percent of the jobs in all developed nations will disappear in the next 25 years — that’s blue-collar and white-collar jobs. Moreover, says The Economist, “no government is prepared” for that level of job loss. The implications are huge.

Other studies aren’t quite that alarmist. James Manyika, director of the McKinsey Global Institute, says “more jobs will change than will be automated away in the short to medium term.” Still, that change will be extreme. While only 5 percent of jobs can be completely automated over the next 10 years using current technologies, Manyika says at least 30 percent of the activities in 60 percent of all occupations can be automated over the next decade, from welders to gardeners to CEOs.

One way or another — complete automation or partial — your job is about to change. And if you want to remain relevant to your clients and customers, that means you have to change, too.

We’ve built this profession by counting the beans and crunching the numbers — by accounting for things that happened yesterday. Today, machines can do that stuff faster and more accurately than we ever will.

That doesn’t make us irrelevant, though. Just ask Cathy Engelbert.

Deloitte’s CEO leads a firm that is as technologically cutting-edge as any on the planet. Yet even she is quick to point out the machines’ shortcomings.

“I still believe professional judgment and expertise is not replaceable by machines,” 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.”

There’s our sweet spot — to do the things that machines can’t do. As futurist Peter Sheahan says, “Humans should only do work that only humans can do.”

In 2014, The Sleeter Group released a report titled “What SMBs Want From Their CPAs.” The report found that the most popular reason why clients leave their CPA is because the CPA provides reactive services instead of proactive advice.

In other words, we’re crunching the numbers instead of helping our clients become more future-ready.

Helping our clients become more future-ready means we have to be future-ready, too. That means we can’t rely on the technical training and expertise that have brought us this far. Our future relevancy depends on our ability to learn a new set of skills.

What are those skills? Study after study points to the same critical competencies:

  • Strategic and critical thinking
  • Communication
  • Inspiring and motivating others
  • Collaboration and mobilizing consensus
  • And perhaps most important, anticipation — the ability to spot future trends and position our organizations to take advantage of those trends before our competition.

We can’t stop the machines. Whether we like it or not, they’ll keep getting faster, and smarter, and more accurate.

What we can do is learn how to do the things the machines can’t do. Those things fall on the human side of the equation. We need to spend less time crunching the numbers and more time interpreting them — telling the story behind the numbers and what they mean for our clients.

We can do that. These are all skills we can learn, and that training is available as we speak.

We just need to make a decision: Do we want to learn them? Do we want to remain relevant? Do we want to continue to be our clients’ most trusted business advisors?

I’m assuming the answer is “Yes.” So let’s get started.

Learn the skills you need to be future-ready From strategic and critical thinking to collaboration to anticipation, the Business Learning Institute offers programs that will give you all of the skills you need to become future-ready — and to make your clients future-ready, too. Check out the complete BLI course catalog here.


William D. Sheridan