Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Holy cow, the robots are coming!


Back in the day, when I set out on some of my first auditing jobs, I was accompanied by a formidable team of comptometrists. Their fingers were a blur as they entered lines of numbers into their comptometers — for the younger generation who have likely never seen one, this was a huge, key-driven calculator — and added up the trial balances. In those days, the human was the final word in accuracy.

But by the 1990s comptometrists were a thing of the past. We had started trusting computers enough to run the numbers, and what needed double-checking were the systems that governed the computers, not the calculations themselves. And the comptometrists? Well, their role was made obsolete, not in a generation but virtually overnight. They needed to find a new space to apply their existing skills, or, retrain and stay relevant in a changed world. 

Thinking about succession planning today, this story keeps playing through my mind. Except today the changes we are experiencing are far more profound and fundamental, not to mention coming at us at an almost exponential rate. Take automation. Repetitive tasks don’t bore robots, they are faster and more accurate, they don't make mistakes and they don't take breaks; put simply they are just better than we are… at the routine tasks. It also means our clients, including small and medium-sized companies, through the use of technology, have the ability to do a lot more self-service accountancy work. 

In the same way the internal combustion engine drove (pun intended) the horse and cart off the road, robots, in this case software robots, are going to replace humans in your organisation sooner rather than later — on the factory floor as well as in the office. According to a PwC report, 30% of jobs in the UK are at risk of being replaced by robots and artificial intelligence in the next 15 years.

What does this mean for how we think about succession in our organisations? In the past, this meant ensuring the leadership had understudies waiting in the wings for their time to take the reins.  

But today — and I do mean today — succession planning needs to consider what happens to our people when part of their function is taken over by robots. We need to be putting a plan in place for our existing employees, and also hiring people that have the skills to adapt: not only to working with robots, but also to thriving at the functions that robots can’t do. Recruitment policies need to focus on ensuring organisations attract and retain the correct people, not necessarily for the skills they have today but for the ability and potential they have to adapt to the skills they will need tomorrow. 

Take strategic client relations. In an ideal world, with the repetitive work items picked up by robots, accountants will have more time to analyse the data, problem solve creatively and engage with your clients to help them grow their businesses. Suddenly an ability to establish trusted inter-personal relationships becomes essential. So that hard-as-nails accountant, the “human calculator”, who previously did incredible work in from the back office, but never ventured out to client meetings, may well become a square peg in a round hole. 

This is succession planning today. It’s about considering the functions that software will do for you, and then figuring out how to redeploy staff whose functions have fundamentally changed and they no longer fit. And hiring for the skills and talent-sets that you will need humans for.  

It’s in appreciating that some of our holy cows, the things we are the “experts” at, the production of accounts or even, potentially, the double-entry bookkeeping system, might be slain, and choosing to act like Darwin’s finches, adapting to new circumstances and thriving, rather than putting our head in the sand and hoping.

As published in Accountingweb – 22 August 2017



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