Business Process Solutions

Artificial intelligence shakes up the accounting sector: machines end up doing the easy work, while CFO skillsets are in high demand

Margus Tammeraja,
Gregor Alaküla
Grant Thornton Baltic saade Kasvukursil Äripäeva raadios

The rapid development of artificial intelligence and the arrival of ChatGPT on the scene will not leave accountants on the street, but there will be an increasing need to get in-service training, re-train and think more like a CFO does.

“It’s still very hard to find an accountant,” said the Head of Grant Thornton Baltic’s Business Process Solutions, Gaily Kuusik on the Äripäev business daily’s radio programme ‟Kasvukursil”.

That is because technological advances raise the requirements for accountants. “There’s no more manual keying of invoices; it’s automated now. The easy work is done by machines. The need is for top specialists, people with a chief financial officer’s perspective, who is able to offer other value added to companies,” said Kuusik. “Accountants are expected to have an increasing desire to develop.”

Chairman of the board of the Estonian Association of Accountants Margus Tammeraja noted that today an accountant has to be able to answer questions about IT and the law. “We deal with all sorts of nuances from wall to wall. Since most of the companies in Estonia are micro-enterprises or small businesses who are not able to hire an in-house accountant, they expect their service provider to offer broad-based service. They want their accountant to help interpret amendments to laws, optimize taxes and so on. An accountant is becoming more of a business consultant.”

Grant Thornton Baltic’s Client Experience Manager Terje Liiv brought up the crypto market as an example. “This market is changing quite quickly, new fields keep on cropping up and now there’s a question for accountants who are looking to master these new fields,” she said regarding the constant need for development. “Many years ago, the whole sector seemed hard to grasp, but we realized that we had to train some of our accountants to be conversant in crypto. We brought ourselves up to speed with crypto software, and where to pull the data that conventional accountant and the Tax Board considered important. Only this way can the client be offered high-quality service.”

Kuusik added that the ability to adapt was indispensable here, because the number of queries grew. “The Tax Board and the Estonian government are also trying to constantly regulate this market.”

Tammeraja said: “The market does not have enough accounting capability in this field, and quite a few smaller companies have invested into crypto assets, which makes many old-school accountants anxious.”

But Tammeraja said AI was still a useful tool that helps accountants do their work. ChatGPT can provide reasonable answers on more general topics, such as decisions on tax exceptions, to the point where a tax official probably can’t tell whether the question was answered by a person or an AI.”


Oversight reduces risk of fraud

Besides accountants being able to adjust to new conditions, fraud prevention is still an important topic. Äripäev recently reported that a Kihnu Island senior accountant got their personal and the municipal purse mixed up. “Every year, some such case comes to light,” said Tammeraja.

Liiv said that oversight mechanisms should be put in place to prevent fraud. “If we’re talking about using accounting bureaus’ services, that’s safer than hiring an individual accountant, because offices have failsafes on a completely different level. For one thing, multiple people are always involved in a client’s accounting, and that rules out embezzlement. If the accountant uploads the payment slips, the final decision always belongs to the client. If an accountant is the one who signs off on it as well, fraud is more likely.”

Tammeraja said every company can do a lot to prevent fraud – they should trust but verify when it comes to their accountant. “Every entrepreneur ought to think about what the numbers they’re handed mean. They should perform a basic check, look at the bank balance and whether it matches up with the books. Certainly the accountant should be signed to a contract. Many don’t have one, but if the accountant cooks the books, the company will be in a heap of trouble.”

“Accounting programs are cloud-based in this day and age, so the CFO can always access the data at any time,” Kuusik put in. She also recommended running a background check on both accountancies or individual accountant. “The websites of specific companies should be examined, see who the people are behind it.”


Laws need reform

Besides the topics of AI and changes in accountants’ work and security issues, experts said there was also room for improvement in the field of tax laws. One that is becoming outdated is the law governing fringe benefits.

Äripäev recently reported that companies are asking for invoices from companies who provided catering to Christmas parties, as if they had been renting premises. Kuusik believes the problem has existed for years and it comes from the fact that the aim of the law is being misdirected. “Actually, companies need a way to motivate their employees and team members, to cultivate team bonding and recognize clients.”

Tammeraja said another field where something should be done is legislation on filing of annual reports. “It is obligatory for all legal persons to file reports – and there are 300,000 of them in Estonia. Only half of them do, but the state has not devoted enough attention to the matter.” He added that annual reports have to be filed even if the company did not have any economic activity in the given year. ‟In this case the report should state that.”

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