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Rise of the machines

Do CIMA PQs feel under threat from new technology? A CIMA survey found out, writes Tony Manwaring

November 2016

Ever since the printing press put scribes out of work, it has been argued that automation steals jobs. With new developments in computers and artificial intelligence, the challenge has only intensified: in a 2013 study, Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne estimated that 47% of US workers were at high risk of losing their jobs to machines and programs.
So where does this leave management accountants? Is the discipline irreplaceable, or will all future management information-gathering and decision-making support be provided by a laptop?
We wanted to find out what the next generation of management accountants, those at the heart of creating and preserving value in the future, think about the rise of machines and asked 3,029 people studying the CIMA qualification.
We found that the next generation of management accountants have an optimistic view. Some 71% of respondents support the idea of more automation in their businesses if it saves time, money and helps with indecision. When asked about the future effects of automation, 58% of polled students were of the opinion that this would lead to more efficient companies.
What is very important in this context is that our students nevertheless have a healthy distrust, as almost half of the participants see a dangerous over-dependence on technology as a likely scenario. This is not surprising as a quarter of polled students stated that they have experienced a negative impact due to wrong decisions based on automation and technology in the past five years.
While 42% regard a general up-skilling of the workforce because of the need for more advanced computer skills as a possible scenario, 40% also think that we might expect a better work/life balance. After all, computers could take over jobs while humans continue to reap the profit. Nevertheless, 38% also think that there might be a loss of jobs leading to greater inequality in society.

Changes for management accountants
It is clear that technology will change the profession. But how?
Some 78% of our polled students believe that the human gathering of management information will become redundant, while 58% believe that data interpretation will become steadily automated. Interestingly, both these analytical tasks were judged as more likely victims of automation than auditing (46%). Only five per cent of respondents were of the opinion that no aspects of their profession will be automated in the future.
However, our students think that robots and artificial intelligence cannot replace everything – especially not the key management accountant job of ensuring value creation. ‘Value’ is an essential but nonetheless intangible concept, and robots are perceived to fare badly at it: 38% of respondents were of the opinion that new technologies will never be able to understand and drive value to the same extent that humans do. Some 41% also think that the human factor should always be included for a company – or a finance function – to drive value.

How to stay relevant
We would advise treating advances in technology as an opportunity rather than a threat. Regard these developments as a roadmap for your continuous professional development – areas you need to study to ensure you can exploit new technology rather than being sidelined by it.
We are convinced that there will always be the need for the human factor management accountants bring.
Companies need a firm grasp of both tangibles and intangibles to make sure that decision making is measured, rational and guided by a focus on value. In doing so, they help their businesses take advantage of the opportunities ahead and further drive success.
For now and for the foreseeable future, and for a long time to come, it is people that unlock this value, be it tangible or intangible.
• Tony Manwaring is Executive Vice President – External Affairs at CIMA

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