“Artificial intelligence” has been oversold and Australia is more advanced down the path to digitisation than many believe, says one prominent small-business leader.
Matthew Addison, who is chair of the Council of Small Business Organisations of Australia and executive director of the Institute of Certified Bookkeepers, said “artificial intelligence” is a misnomer and businesses will still need accountants regardless of how good it gets.
“The term ‘artificial intelligence’ to me is one that has been undelivered or under-delivered,” said Mr Addison, speaking on the latest Accountants Daily podcast. “I don’t see real AI disrupting how business operates, or how advisers do their thing.
“The term I use is ‘augmented intelligence’. Augmented, where a human is involved in using best-of-breed software to achieve an outcome more efficiently.”
He said it was a trend that began 30 years ago with bank feeds and as technology had developed, it was helping increase efficiency and improve analysis.
“The professional bookkeeper, professional accountant, is using that software in a way that is far quicker, far more efficient, to process data, to create data, to then be able to report on it,” said Mr Addison.
“So we are in a world of that augmented intelligence using the best tools.”
But businesses would still need accountants and the advisory role – often touted as the default alternative once digital technology takes hold – was already central, he said.
“I don’t see the role of the bookkeeper or the role of the accountant diminishing at all. I do see them going from data creation to data management, and using the best analytic software, using the best anomaly detection software,” said Mr Addison.
“The best advisory services I see from the intermediary space at the moment is them helping improve the natural business system, use the digital techniques. We’re actually giving that advice, we’re improving business now… it’s happening naturally.”
Mr Addison welcomed initiatives in the recent budget to offer 120 per cent deductibility for small-business spending on digital uptake and training, but rejected the idea that Australia was the poor relation in the region when it came to embracing technology, especially in accounting.
“I challenge the concept that Australia lags in some of the digital adoption and digital techniques inside natural business,” said Mr Addison.
“Australia is really quite well developed and well advanced. When I’ve done a bit of a comparison back to either the US or the UK, I still see Australia adopting digital in a really good way.
“We’ve got a long way to go, so I really like the incentive to business to review what they’re doing digitally, to adopt digital payment gateways, for instance.”
He said some government initiatives to digitise forms and processes were helping hasten adoption, but accountants and bookkeepers would be essential to implementing the procedures.
“There’s a lot of good projects and we have a complex system in Australia – tax is complex, industrial relations is complex. It’s not going to be an instant for a small business person with limited capacity, limited resources,” said Mr Addison.
“How do they engage with a really complex income tax system or GST system or payroll system?
“The best avenue is to engage with an expert, the professional bookkeeper, the professional accountant who spends their life understanding what government wants. They’re doing it for multiple businesses, and they interpret it for each individual business.”
Another positive from digitisation was streamlining of regulations and compliance tasks, with some good initiatives from the deregulation taskforce.
“That taskforce has looked at sensible ways to streamline – yes, regulation – but also to streamline processes within existing regulation. There are some good initiatives,” said Mr Addison.
One involved an extension of single touch payroll to take the states’ payroll tax requirements.
“Right now you’ve got businesses having to do payroll, comply with tax office, comply with Fair Work, comply with Services Australia, and then sit sideways and comply with their state payroll tax office,” said Mr Addison.
“Now, we’ll just process payroll – off it goes to the tax office, off it goes to Services Australia and hopefully, off it goes to my state’s payroll tax office … pre-fills that return, I sign it off, and off it goes.”
Another example involved the Australian Bureau of Statistics quarterly business surveys.
“Anytime I talk about the quarterly business surveys to businesses, they all groan, they all go, ‘Please don’t get me on that list!’” said Mr Addison.
“There’s a project now – that has been tabled and funded in the last budget – of integrating the quarterly business survey with our natural accounting system, with our software.
“So from within our software, we will be able to submit it at the push of a button.”
Naturally there would be some set-up work, but also payback.
“If I’ve subscribed, I’m digitally providing the statistics thereafter. I’ll then get back – say I’m running a cafe in North Sydney – I’ll get back what are other cafes in North Sydney doing,” said Mr Addison.
“So I’ve instantly got some benchmarking or some sense of what else is going on in my environment. I really like that digital journey as well.”