How much of a finance professional’s work will be done by AI and automation?

There is no shortage of people telling us that artificial intelligence will change the working world forever. 

But for all the talk about the profound differences AI will make, you might be left wondering: what will it actually do? 

A recent iplicit webinar heard some thoughts on what practical impact AI – and automation more generally – might have on the work of finance and accountancy teams. 


AI will be your helpful assistant  

iplicit’s webinar was called Building the Finance Function of the Future.

Paul Sparkes, Commercial Director at iplicit, was joined by two people deeply involved with software and automation: Kenny Galloway, Head of Strategic Partnerships at the accounts payable (AP) automation business Lightyear, and Lauren McIlroy, partner and Head of Virtual Finance Function at accountancy practice AAB. 

Kenny provided a handy working definition of artificial intelligence. 

“AI is an umbrella term for a range of algorithm-based technologies that solve complex tasks, carrying out functions that previously required human thinking,” he said. 

“AI is really here to assist us to do our jobs and is here to provide relief from mundane tasks,” he added. 

“AI is much more than just a piece of technology. It’s actually an assistant. It’s a way of enabling businesses to think and act quicker and smarter.” 

He acknowledged that the technology was changing at a pace that could be “quite scary”, which made it very difficult to imagine how different the world would be in 20 years. 

“I feel it’s going to be completely ingrained into the fibre of our society,” he added.  

“We’re in a period of time where we’re still trying to define what AI actually is and how it’s going to be of value to businesses.” 

Starting with the mundane  

AI already powers the automations that many people in finance teams use every day. 

“We’re probably using elements of automated process which may or may not be done by AI or bots,” said Lauren McIlroy. 

“It may just be in the background of your finance systems and you don’t actually know.” 

Kenny Galloway said AI was part of his business’s efforts to help customers become more efficient with their accounts payable processing. 

“It helps us to provide an innovative solution to help our customers do their jobs quicker and more accurately, while saving time and money – so as a business we see it as a way in which we can help our customers be more innovative themselves,” he said. 

“It’s an ongoing investment that we continue to make within our product. In fact, you’ll find it in most of the platforms today.  

“AI really is here and it’s being used in a variety of products already. And as a business we continue to make investment in our product,” he said.  

It could be that AI will soon be able to predict which cost centre an incoming invoice should be coded to, he said. 

Analysis of customer behaviour and prevention of fraud could also be uses of AI in the near future, 

Lauren McIlroy recalled her own experience of being a financial controller in industry – and said AI could take a lot of the mundane work out of the job.

“I think automation can just cut out all the bottom-end processes. It can cut out AP, it can cut out a lot of the credit control,” she said. 

“If you think about the times when you have a person phoning up from credit control and the person on the other end says ‘I didn’t get that email’, automation cuts all of that out. 

“So if you’re tightly controlling cash flow, if you’re tightly reporting to your private equity, all of that can be helped from a very simple automated credit control. Those types of things seem easy and simple but actually they make a massive difference.” 

AI could help you analyse data 

AI might have its biggest potential when it comes to analysing data. 

Kenny Galloway said his business works to get data into the system automatically so that other people can use and analyse it – a task which could increasingly be aided by AI. 

“You can identify patterns in large data sets. Are we spending too much money here? Is this a lump sum that’s come out that shouldn’t have come out?” he said. 

“For me, it’s about how AI can take datasets. If I need to query the data, how quickly can I do that?” he said. 

“I feel AI is going to be more of an assistant to manage your data, take the datasets and present the data to you in a much quicker fashion rather than having someone who’s constantly doing that. 

“Managing data is where I see the future of AI in the finance field – getting that data quicker so you can make better business decisions quicker.” 

Where do you start in implementing automation and AI? 

We’re all going to need to know something about AI and automation – but when it comes to implementing it, where do you start?  

“I would say start small,” advises Lauren McIlroy. 

“Have a look at your processes, have a look at where people are spending their time on tasks that are half done by automation, half done by people.  

“For example, sales invoicing. Is that done manually? Is there a bit done by the system and some by hand? You might be able to integrate those two bits to successfully have it done without human interaction. 

“Those are the easier wins. I think part of the reason people are reluctant is because if you look at everything at once, it becomes overwhelming. So look at the small wins.” 

That could mean releasing people to do higher-value work, she says. 

“Perhaps you have a sales ledger person in your team. They spend a lot of time with the sales invoicing, but they could spend a lot of time with the commercial head, having a look to say ‘Okay, what does this look like from a commercial finance perspective?’ as opposed to just doing the data in the background.  

“For me, that’s a really key place to start.”