I always knew that the end was near. I just never thought Jon Hamm would be the one to break the news.
But right now that good looking son of a bitch is on the TV with his sexy Mad Men voice telling everybody that — even though H&R Block employees are the Mark Hamills of the tax prep world¹ — IBM’s Watson is now their R2-D2. And even though H&R Block took Watson into mainstream tax prep, the hipster organization KPMG started using Watson for audit support before it was cool.
We’ve got to get used to the idea that robots are eventually going to make traditional accounting jobs irrelevant. Not convinced? Here are some other traditional jobs that robots are making obsolete:
Professional Driver. Over the next 15 years, self-driving cars and trucks will replace between 2 million and 3 million human drivers.
Manufacturing Labor. U.S. manufacturing output has doubled since the mid-1980s, but 5 million U.S. manufacturing jobs have disappeared since 2000. Why? Robots.
Journalism. Robot journalism is already happening. If you’ve read a recap of a baseball game recently, there’s a reasonable chance it was written by a robot and maybe not even reviewed by a human editor.
Even in our profession, it’s getting pretty easy to see the way robots are increasingly changing traditional accounting roles. In December, I hosted a webinar for Xero. The topic was technology. One of the things we demonstrated was Receipt Bank’s mobile app. Using the app, we took a picture of a receipt I had in my wallet from the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.² Receipt Bank automatically read who the vendor was, how much I spent, and using AI voodoo, even posted it to the most likely expense category. Granted that’s just simple data entry, but be honest; a lot of tax prep (as opposed to tax planning) is simple data entry.
And don’t think tax planning will be spared from the robot takeover. Robo-advisors are already taking over a large portion of the financial investment world, and the stated goal of Watson at H&R Block is tax planning: Watson is supposed to analyze your data to find potential ways to minimize your taxes, ways that neither you nor the ITT flunky sitting behind the desk knew about.
The assurance side of the accounting world is just as susceptible to robo-irrelevance. Third-party, independent, continuous audit software could easily steal the jobs of tens of thousands of staff accountants. And as I mentioned earlier, KPMG is already using Watson to tackle “immense volumes of unstructured [audit] data,” and “transform how this data is understood and how critical decisions are made.”
But here’s the question that keeps nagging me: What jobs are impregnable to the horde of job-marauding unpaid robot CPAs? Fortunately, Jason and I talked to Daniel Susskind, author of The Future of the Professions about it (Thrivecast, Episode 63), and I also scoured Geoff Colvin’s book Human’s Are Underrated for answers. These experts highlighted the following nine strategies to make your career robot-proof.
Industry Niche: Make the robot(s) your sidekick(s). Niche down even harder than you are right now to facilitate problem solving for a specific industry. When you know an industry inside and out, you can guide your clients to the droids they are looking for, and you can train the robots to do the job right. (This is a strong strategy in the near- to mid-term, but eventually the robots won’t need you for this anymore.)
Software Niche: You become the robot’s sidekick. Niche down hard on the implementation of a specific form of automation. When you position yourself as an expert with a specific robot, clients and firms will seek you out to wrangle the robot to make it an effective solution to their specific needs. (Also a near- and mid-term strategy.)
NOTE: Only early adopters can succeed with the two strategies above. Others need not apply. Once the early majority gets comfortable with a certain type of automation, the value of being an expert on that robot will plummet. You must constantly scan the horizon for the next killer robot.
Relationship Building. Humans need relationships with other humans. It’s doubtful that robots could ever fill that relational need, and even if it is possible, we’re a long way off, technologically, from the movie Her. How does one fold relationship building into accounting services? I have no damn clue, but whoever cracks that code will be set.
Empathy. Humans need other humans to join them emotionally in both their joy and sorrow, in their stress and in their relief. As accountants, we tend to devalue (even mock) the time that our clients take to tell us how their problems and their businesses make them feel. An Excel spreadsheet will never make a client feel understood. Psychologists are probably going to be the last ones to be replaced by robots. If we can figure out how to incorporate the empathy of a psychologist into the offerings of an accounting firm, we can stave off the robots.
Storytelling. Since the beginning of our species, humans have craved stories. Curating powerful human stories about business (and personal) success (and failure) will continue to be powerful and valuable. Helping clients understand and refine their financial story is already a valuable service forward-thinking accountants are providing to their clients.
Leadership and Scapegoating. Humans want to be inspired, and can only be inspired by other humans. We need our most important decisions to be made by other humans because humans need to have another human to blame when a turd hits a fan. When a self-driving car gets in an accident, there’s no catharsis in blaming the robot. We need a human to take responsibility. Leadership cannot and will not be something we can delegate to robots.
Persuasion. Google can find facts, but facts by themselves cannot persuade. We’ve all heard the aphorism, “Telling isn’t selling.” Humans can access other humans’ emotions to persuade, influence, and motivate in ways computers cannot.
Problem solving. Robots are fantastic at finding solutions, but robots suck at finding the right problem. Three components of problem solving that will continue to require human involvement: (1) goal identification, (2) problem clarification, and (3) effective resource deployment.
Artist. Robots can be very entertaining. I’m as big a fan of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride as anybody. But I believe that humans performing and creating art for other humans will always be valuable. Again, I can’t envision how this can fold in with accounting services. Regardless, this is a field of employment that won’t be lost to robots anytime soon.
¹Mark Hamill can do the job, but after seeing the final product, there are SO MANY other people you wish did the job instead.
Greg was born in Akron, Ohio, in the shadow of the Firestone tire factory. He began to swim competitively when he was eight, swimming for the Mountlake Terrace Lemmings. He graduated in 1995 from the University of Washington with a math degree. He chose math for the ladies. After serving ten-years as an 8th grade math teacher, he decided it was time for a career change, mainly because he “couldn’t stand those little bastards.” He began his accounting career with a local CPA firm in Orem, Utah, where he consistently failed the QuickBooks ProAdvisor advanced certification exam. Greg currently works as the Controller for the Utah Valley Physicians Plaza. He lives in Utah. He enjoys eating maple bars, drinking Diet Pepsi, and swearing.