Does the rise of the robot signify a new frontier for finance?

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Some of us of a certain age will recall the dark days of the 1980s when unemployment surged and workers were laid off from Britain’s heavy manufacturing industries. A lot of those jobs fell victim to new production techniques, which saw workers replaced with machines and robots. Car production lines of 2015 require a fraction of the human input of yesteryear such has been the advance of technology.

Until now, white collar workers, especially those employed in senior finance roles, have sat pretty, confident that their expertise and education, had secured them from the fate of manual workers. But how much longer can they enjoy that security from the march of technology? Might the cousins of the friendly robots depicted in the picture above soon have the capability to move onto the territory of senior finance directors and CFO’s as sophisticated software leads to huge advances in finance automation?

Rohan Silva thinks so. Writing in the Daily Telegraph he explained that the jobs under threat include those in sectors such as accounting and auditing, where employees might eventually be, “replaced by machines that can do the same tasks much more cheaply and effectively than human workers.”

It might be all too tempting to shrug this off as scaremongering or wishful thinking from the perspective of employers. But take a moment to consider the advances of the last 20 years. Hand written ledgers and bookkeeping have given way to calculators, ever more sophisticated spreadsheets, and forecasting programmes. Transactional level finance has already evolved and is now mostly fully automated, improving efficiency and reducing the need for staff. Innovations such as e-invoicing and financial modeling automation are already commonplace in many UK businesses.

Is it a too great a leap to imagine that artificial intelligence could advance beyond simply predicting trends to identifying the underlying needs of businesses and putting into effect the changes that those needs dictate?

If it’s not too great a leap then many in senior finance roles and indeed senior finance recruitment specialists like Cedar should be very aware of the significant impact this would cause.

So can a computer really perform the role of analysing and interpreting data and its impact on the business better than an experienced senior finance person? Can artificial intelligence make the key decisions that matter to the business? Can you really imagine a computer challenging a manager’s budget or forecast? It conjures up the famous scene from Little Britain when David Walliams plays a jobsworth who types questions into a keyboard only to always come back with the same refrain “computer says no!”

Of course a computer programme drawing on the right algorithms could pass or fail a budget but it would never possess the sophistication or the humanity to be able to deliver that determination in a manner that doesn’t crush the life out of a manger who has invested huge amounts of time and effort in producing their forecast. The truth is that there is no substitute for personal interaction and emotional intelligence. The ability to influence, challenge and push back are the key personality traits for successful senior finance leaders and no robot can simulate that.  The computer will never be able to deliver bad news and then take the recipient of that bad news out for drink to demonstrate that there are no hard feelings and inspire them to do better for the company.

So, can the whole finance function be automated? In a word, no. Yes, the transactional and technical side of finance can and have been automated but finance has moved forward and a long way from just bean-counting. Finance is an integral part of the businesses and is the driving force behind all strategic decisions.  Finance is an art, not a science and this bodes well for senior finance staff, CFO’s and Finance Director’s and of course senior finance recruiters such as ourselves.