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Tech Tools for Accountants
Often unfairly referred to as “bean counters,” accountants in today’s technology-driven world are no longer confined to the task-oriented chores involved in adding numbers, entering ledgers, and maintaining financial records by hand. Those days are long gone.
Modern technology has not only changed how accountants do their work, but also the work they do.
Technology and the Evolution of Accounting
The technology revolution in accounting started in 1979 with the introduction of VisiCalc, the first commercial electronic spreadsheet.
Rudimentary by today’s standards, VisiCalc was a groundbreaking advance in the world of accounting. This was just the beginning, but as with so many other industries, computing power was starting to change the status quo.
At first, this disruption was met with unease from accountants. They feared this new technology would eliminate jobs, making it possible to accomplish in seconds what once took many painstaking hours to accomplish. Those fears were misplaced. In fact, more accountant jobs were created after the introduction of VisiCalc.
The technological marvel spawned by VisiCalc, Lotus 1-2-3, and the now-ubiquitous Excel, didn’t eliminate accounting jobs, it transformed them.
Today, the role of accounting has shifted. No longer relegated to the pedestrian task of making entries onto paper spreadsheets in a musty, windowless back office, the modern accountant is now that of essential business advisor and analyst. As Planet Money co-host Jacob Goldstein says, accountants no longer just “add up numbers” but think “creatively about business.”
With the right training and access to the latest tech tools, accountants now build financial risk models, use critical judgment, and make strategic business decisions.
Tech Tools for Accountants
The first iterations of the electronic spreadsheet may seem archaic to us today, but at the time, it was revolutionary. This was the first step in creating a whole new business environment, one allowing accountants a role in strategic business planning.
Here is a quick overview of the tools and technological evolution currently reshaping the role of accountants:
Basic automation is the sea of change that the early electronic spreadsheets ushered in, freeing accountants from the manual and mundane tasks that once took most of their time.
With today’s computing power and connectivity, multiple processes and vast sums of data are handled in seconds. At the same time, automation reduces the likelihood of human error with data entry.
There are simple automated accounting tools like QuickBooks to enterprise-level packages such as products available from Oracle, Microsoft, and others. These software tools automate order tracking, time and expense tracking, invoicing, accounts payable, and more, depending on specific needs.
There is little that can’t be automated—except the experience and skilled judgment of a professional accountant.
With automation comes the next big step in tech tools for accountants.
Cloud computing is the next transformative step in accounting technology. When combined with automation, “cloud accounting” is the de facto standard for modern accounting practices. It changes how accountants access data and work with clients.
Among the many benefits of cloud accounting are:
- More flexibly with clients
- Accessing data from anywhere on any cloud-connected device
- Real-time data updates
Working hand-in-glove with automation, cloud accounting tools range from products for small businesses like Zoho or Freshbooks to enterprise financial management suites like Oracle’s NetSuite.
At whatever scale, the cloud is now an essential tool in the modern accountant’s toolkit. The cloud also makes possible the next technological leap.
AI and Big Data
Artificial intelligence (AI) and Big Data tie together the power of automation and the cloud. Most modern tech tools for accountants combine all three of these elements. With AI, the cloud, and automation, accountants can sift through vast troves of data, spot patterns, store and update data in the cloud, and automate the whole process.
In highly complex industries like healthcare, AI is critical for managing risk. It’s even used to predict court decisions. Programs like Tax Foresight use machine learning to model and forecast the likely outcome of tax court cases, purportedly with 90 percent accuracy.
Machine learning and big data are essential tools for a new breed of accountant.
A Career in Accounting
Similar to the days when VisiCalc first came to market, there is a fear that AI, Big Data, and the long reach of automation will eliminate some accounting jobs. That needn’t be the case. As transformative as technology has been in the industry, it can’t replace the human brain.
What these new tech tools for accountants demonstrate is not a diminished role, but an elevated one. Successful accountants possess the training, technological competence, and critical thinking skills necessary to work as strategic partners in business.