When it comes to tech adoption, accountants have long been in (primarily) two camps: Those who dive in and those who wait to see how many have done so before they do. Even then, there’s toe-dippers.
The views on AI in accounting are no different and as over 1,000 attendees roamed the vendor halls and learning sessions at this year’s Scaling New Heights event, one key thought was where exactly AI will fit in with the accounting world.
Accountants tend to view modern technology as a vast ocean and AI, in particular, is seen either as a shark or just another fish to swim with. After interviewing attendees and thought leaders at SNH, the one consensus was that it is still too early to really tell what role AI will ultimately play in accounting as most are just getting used it its presence.
Some Are Anxious to Embrace…
For those who are looking forward to where AI will apply in accounting work or have already begun to embrace its presence, the tone around AI at this year’s Scaling New Heights ranged from straight-up curiosity to nervous excitement, with some already “playing around” with tools like ChatGPT. This group saw AI as no different from any other automation tool, an assistant for tasks rather than something that will ultimately replace the valuable work they do.
“My initial thoughts on AI is that it's super exciting because it is going to be able to allow us to focus on the analysis of the information. So, I'm not scared of artificial intelligence,” said attendee Nancy Gordon director of implementation at Accountingdepartment.com. “I'm super excited about it. At the same time, I want to be careful about the security end of that and what those impacts are trying to see around the corners that are really pretty well impossible to see right now.”
Lean into AI
One of the biggest proponents of AI use has been CPA and SNH speaker Jason Staats, who has regularly shared a variety of functions and possibilities for AI’s use in accounting and business. His view, quite simply, is for the profession to lean in.
“There's never been a better time to be agile than now because stuff's changing, and [we know] change is hard, but it will ultimately reward the firms that are leaning into change,” said Jason. “And being in an agile spot, which is the best part of running a small practice, is the agility. And that's not the big machine.
First-time attendee Mary Ann Mitchell, a bookkeeper with Just Books bookkeeping services, was also excited about where AI could bring bookkeeping and the accounting profession as a while…albeit with some trepidation. She explained how a lot of her clients are in the oil, gas and electric industry and some of the billing can get complicated. To that end, she’s looking forward to see where AI can apply to her business.
“We know anything new or unproven is a concern, but we’re learning about what AI can every day and I’m excited to learn what it can do for our us, it’s exciting,” she said.
…While Others Approach With Caution
As with anything new or unproven, there is of course, a strong element of fear swirling around the profession and conference attendees in particular. This is to be expected as there is still so much to learn about the technology itself, let alone implications for accountants.
“I'm just gonna say that it is scary for everybody because we don't know what's coming. We don't know what is available out there. Every time you turn around, there's something new,” said attendee Joy Osuch, a technology integration specialist with AccountingDepartment.com. “[It seems that] as soon as you set something in place, you find something new that is going to change exactly what you just implemented. And so right now, the question is how far down the rabbit hole do you go?”
Despite initial feelings of fear, some attendees had cautious curiosity in some cases mixed in with their concerns about the rapid adoption of AI.
“I would say there, there are some concerns [about AI in accounting] for sure, [but] I am really excited about the innovation that is going on with AI and have been for many years, and I'm so excited to the new evolution with ChatGPT,” said attendee Ingrid Edstrom, co-founder of the Accounting Alchemy Network. “We are starting a relationship with this technology that is something that we hadn't previously imagined. [We are] figuring out new fields of what is possible, which I think stems right into the theme for next year, scaling New Heights Go Boldly.”
Education needed about the sharing of Data Via AI
For attendee Stephanie Mack, who runs Account Mobility, a full-service bookkeeping, tax, and tax advisory firm, she wants more education around the sharing of data via AI.
“I think AI is really cool, but some of the worries out there are the things I need to safeguard my clients from, and it is really apparent when you can upload financial data,” said attendee Stephanie Mack, who runs Account Mobility a full-service bookkeeping, tax and tax advisory firm. “My concern is there's no holdback on where that [financial] data might get spewed out somewhere down the road. Your clients don't think about that so educating all my clients on that concept on not to be doing it in any way, shape or form.”
Clearly, the book on Artificial Intelligence’s role in accounting is unwritten, and those willing to experiment, look for new applications, or even examine daily tasks that can be improved and do so with, at the very least, cautious optimism will be the ones to move the needle. Technology adoption has historically been a measured process, at best, with accountants, but putting it on the stage [in some cases literally] at Scaling New Heights may be a way to ease some of the tensions and foster more excitement about how accountants can ultimately have a say in where AI works for them.
Seth Fineberg is a veteran business journalist and consultant specializing in the accounting profession. With nearly 30 years of experience, Seth offers insightful content strategy, editorial services, and public speaking engagements. Passionate about sharing knowledge that elevates the industry, he serves as a trusted bridge between vendors, service providers, and accounting professionals. Learn more at sethfineberg.com.