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Accountants’ future: more than tick boxes

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The accounting world, which is sometimes perceived as mundane is about to be dramatically changed by artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things and the blockchain, says ANTON VAN HEERDEN, MD and Executive Vice-President, Africa & Middle East at Sage.

If you think that tech is done with transforming the way accountants work (and every sector for that matter), you’re in for a surprise. As an accountant by qualification, I see a very bright and exciting future.

The accounting world, which is sometimes perceived as mundane is about to be dramatically changed by artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things and the blockchain. Yes, recently these technologies have been spoken about at a large scale, but the job of an accountant will change as much as the first computerised accounting packages did or the arrival of mobile and cloud computing.

Invisible accounting will be built on the back of these three powerful emerging technologies, as illustrated in Leading the Invisible Accounting Revolution, a new whitepaper from Sage and Ovum.

The exciting news is that these technologies will allow for us to focus on the things we care about most, such as working with clients or the business’s leadership on strategic financial plans. What each of these technologies will do is free us from more routine admin work, while ensuring that we can work more accurately and efficiently. They will also give us more real-time visibility into our financial performance.

Smart assistance on the go

We’re all becoming rather used to speaking to machines, for example, asking Siri on our iPhones for directions or Bixby on the new Samsung devices to seek out an answer to a trivia question.  The interfaces to technology are becoming more natural and conversational as we use voice, gesture or touch to interact with computers rather than a mouse and keyboard.

In the background, AI technology crunches massive datasets to help us complete our personal tasks or our work. This technology doesn’t simply follow a set of programmed rules; it can also learn from our responses and its databases to improve its functionality and its usefulness over time. For now, consumers are the biggest users of such technology, but it is rapidly moving into the business world, too.

At Sage, we recently launched our conversational bot Pegg, which works with collaboration tools like Skype, Facebook Messenger and Slack. Rather than needing to navigate a bunch of fields on your accounting software, you can simply ask Pegg questions such as: “How much money did we make this month?” or “Does anyone owe me money?”

Imagine how useful that might be if one of your customers phone you for an invoice when you’re out-and-about, and you don’t have easy access to your computer. You can also note expenses, so you don’t forget to file the receipt for your parking when you’re out on a business visit. This sort of technology is going to rapidly evolve so that you will be able to ask your virtual accounting assistant a wide range of business questions, without needing to dive into tables and fields in an accounting package to get an answer.

Effortless tasks

As an accountant, I’m always excited to find a technology or process that reduces the ‘friction’ of administration. By friction, I mean the time and effort it takes to record transactions or complete tasks.

The Internet of Things – the many smart and connected devices in the workplace – will do a great deal to reduce friction. It can give us real-time information about assets and transactions so that we don’t need to record it after the fact. For example, a telematics device or GPS in a company car could automatically capture mileage information and upload it to the accounting solution, so drivers don’t need to report it in with their logbooks. Or we can track items as they move through the supply chain for an up-to-the-second view of sales and inventory on hand.

Blockchain with a touch of human

Further into the future, the blockchain has some exciting potential for accountants. The blockchain is a type of distributed ledger or decentralised database that keeps records of digital transactions. All participants have an identical copy of the transaction that can be accessed and viewed in the present, and all parties need to verify the authenticity of a set of transactions (a block) before a new block can be added to the existing chain.

Blockchain records cannot be altered, and every transaction is recorded and verified. As such, blockchain brings new levels of trust and transparency to transactions. When we bring blockchain and smart contacts together, we can automate many processes where we have used an independent third party (like an exchange, lawyer or clearing house) to verify transactions.

In future, companies big and small could use blockchain for invoicing, documentation, contracts, and payment processing, all done with high levels of automation and low levels of friction. We’ll spend less time on ledger entry and reconciliation in the book-keeping process. However, there will still be a need for a human touch as accountants and auditors need to ensure that local tax and other regulations are applied.

Seamless processes

Going beyond cloud computing, which is now a given starting point for many organisations, the use of AI and other innovations will lead to Sage’s vision of invisible accounting by 2020. It is a seamless and automated accounting process that will enable us to think about business growth and strategy rather than recording invoices and doing bank recons.

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Smart home arrives in SA

The smart home is no longer a distant vision confined to advanced economies, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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The smart home is a wonderful vision for controlling every aspect of one’s living environment via remote control, apps and sensors. But, because it is both complex and expensive, there has been little appetite for it in South Africa.

The two main routes for smart home installation are both fraught with peril – financial and technical.

The first is to call on a specialist installation company. Surprisingly, there are many in South Africa. Google “smart home” +”South Africa”, and thousands of results appear. The problem is that, because the industry is so new, few have built up solid track records and reputations. Costs vary wildly, few standards exist, and the cost of after-sales service will turn out to be more important than the upfront price.

The second route is to assemble the components of a smart home, and attempt self-installation. For the non-technical, this is often a non-starter. Not only does one need a fairly good knowledge of Wi-Fi configuration, but also a broad understanding of the Internet of Things (IoT) – the ability for devices to sense their environment, connect to each other, and share information.

The good news, though, is that it is getting easier and more cost effective all the time.

My first efforts in this direction started a few years ago with finding smart plugs on Amazon.com. These are power adaptors that turn regular sockets into “smart sockets” by adding Wi-Fi and an on-off switch, among other. A smart lightbulb was sourced from Gearbest in China. At the time, these were the cheapest and most basic elements for a starter smart home environment.

Via a smartphone app, the light could be switched on from the other side of the world. It sounds trivial and silly, but on such basic functions the future is slowly built.

Fast forward a year or two, and these components are available from hundreds of outlets, they have plummeted in cost, and the range of options is bewildering. That, of course, makes the quest even more bewildering. Who can be trusted for quality, fulfilment and after-sales support? Which products will be obsolete in the next year or two as technology advances even more rapidly?

These are some of the challenges that a leading South African technology distributor, Syntech, decided to address in adding smart home products to its portfolio. It selected LifeSmart, a global brand with proven expertise in both IoT and smart home products.

Equally significantly, LifeSmart combines IoT with artificial intelligence and machine learning, meaning that the devices “learn” the best ways of connecting, sharing and integrating new elements. Because they all fall under the same brand, they are designed to integrate with the LifeSmart app, which is available for Android and iOS phones, as well as Android TV.

Click here to read about how LifeSmart makes installing smart home devices easier.

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Matrics must prepare for AI

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students writing a test

By Vian Chinner, CEO and founder of Xineoh.

Many in the matric class of 2018 are currently weighing up their options for the future. With the country’s high unemployment rate casting a shadow on their opportunities, these future jobseekers have been encouraged to look into which skills are required by the market, tailoring their occupational training to align with demand and thereby improving their chances of finding a job, writes Vian Chinner – a South African innovator, data scientist and CEO of the machine learning company specialising in consumer behaviour prediction, Xineoh.

With rapid innovation and development in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), all careers – including high-demand professions like engineers, teachers and electricians – will look significantly different in the years to come.

Notably, the third wave of internet connectivity, whereby our physical world begins to merge with that of the internet, is upon us. This is evident in how widespread AI is being implemented across industries as well as in our homes with the use of automation solutions and bots like Siri, Google Assistant, Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana. So much data is collected from the physical world every day and AI makes sense of it all.

Not only do new industries related to technology like AI open new career paths, such as those specialising in data science, but it will also modify those which already exist. 

So, what should matriculants be considering when deciding what route to take?

For highly academic individuals, who are exceptionally strong in mathematics, data science is definitely the way to go. There is, and will continue to be, massive demand internationally as well as locally, with Element-AI noting that there are only between 0 and 100 data scientists in South Africa, with the true number being closer to 0.

In terms of getting a foot in the door to become a successful data scientist, practical experience, working with an AI-focused business, is essential. Students should consider getting an internship while they are studying or going straight into an internship, learning on the job and taking specialist online courses from institutions like Stanford University and MIT as they go.

This career path is, however, limited to the highly academic and mathematically gifted, but the technology is inevitably going to overlap with all other professions and so, those who are looking to begin their careers should take note of which skills will be in demand in future, versus which will be made redundant by AI.

In the next few years, technicians who are able to install and maintain new technology will be highly sought after. On the other hand, many entry level jobs will likely be taken care of by AI – from the slicing and dicing currently done by assistant chefs, to the laying of bricks by labourers in the building sector.

As a rule, students should be looking at the skills required for the job one step up from an entry level position and working towards developing these. Those training to be journalists, for instance, should work towards the skill level of an editor and a bookkeeping trainee, the role of financial consultant.

This also means that new workforce entrants should be prepared to walk into a more demanding role, with more responsibility, than perhaps previously anticipated and that the country’s education and training system should adapt to the shift in required skills.

The matric classes of 2018 have completed their schooling in the information age and we should be equipping them, and future generations, for the future market – AI is central to this.

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