Accounting firms are using up-and-coming technologies with the potential to change the business landscape forever. One technology gaining interest is robotic process automation (RPA), a tool that computerizes mundane, repetitive tasks and completes them far faster than humans could do manually.
Greg Fritsky, practice director – intelligent automation solutions at EisnerAmper LLP, spends much of his time evaluating clients’ processes and introducing them to emerging technologies, including RPA, which is already used extensively by his firm. In one case, he said, RPA automated a client’s process that previously took 160 human hours a month to achieve but now takes minutes to complete.
RPA “is something people should be learning and teaching,” said Fritsky, who is based in New Jersey. “Accounting is changing and it is changing fast, and this is a tool worth more than a conversation.”
Accounting faculty have taken notice, and many now believe that students should learn RPA, or at the very least, be familiar with what the technology can do. Students adept at RPA get “special opportunities to work in special groups” within accounting firms, particularly the Big Four, said David Wood, Ph.D., an accounting professor at Brigham Young University (BYU) in Provo, Utah. “Firms want technical skills, and RPA right now is one that is in particular demand.”
BYU’s School of Accountancy advisory board, made up of representatives from large public accounting firms, “encouraged us to put RPA into the curriculum,” he added.
Get to know RPA
By handling boring, repetitive tasks once conducted by people, RPA allows staff to work on tasks that require higher-level critical thinking and analysis. While there’s always the fear that technology will replace humans, RPA frees up time for more challenging work for intelligent professionals, especially new recruits, who are often asked to carry out more humdrum duties.
RPA also eliminates manual errors and offers faster, more accurate outcomes. “RPA is absolutely going to change the role of accountants for the better,” Fritsky said.
RPA tools like UiPath, Blue Prism, and Automation Anywhere also allow CPAs and accounting students with little to no coding knowledge to build bots, using a drag-and-drop process. A “bot,” a set of instructions one can build within an RPA software program, tells a computer system to perform various tasks, usually in response to certain triggers. For instance, bots can be created to reformat data or copy data from one computer system to another, Wood said.
RPA can also help with onboarding by sending automated yet sophisticated replies to job seekers, noted Asher Curtis, Ph.D., associate professor and faculty director of the Master of Professional Accounting Program at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Bots can be programmed to gather tax data from clients and move that data into spreadsheets, said Richard Walstra, CPA (inactive), DBA, assistant professor of accounting at Dominican University in River Forest, Ill.
And, as Fritsky explained, RPA can help with audits by extracting data from client systems and then performing tests on 100% of the population of that data, making it an invaluable, accurate tool.
Walstra, who learned about RPA on YouTube, noted that other data analytics programs, such as Alteryx, Tableau, and Power BI, analyze data, whereas RPA mechanizes a routine task. The term “robotic process automation” may sound futuristic, bringing up visions of robots, he said, but “it’s really just a machine function.”
So far only a handful of software producers sell RPA licenses. These companies, including UiPath and Blue Prism, often provide online tutorials, training, certifications, and free software to universities, making it fairly easy for faculty to get up to speed. EisnerAmper uses UiPath for its easy-to-learn aspect, Fritsky said, and the accounting departments at BYU, the University of Washington, and Dominican University chose UiPath as well for similar reasons.
Fritsky, Curtis, Wood, and Walstra offer the following advice for incorporating RPA into your classes:
Keep it simple. When Fritsky tries to explain RPA to people and goes “too technical,” they lose interest, he said. He advised starting with this clear-cut description: RPA is simply a tool that can eliminate manual activities currently performed by people. “
Students will find it easier to comprehend RPA if they have some foundational knowledge first, he said. “If the students are really good at Excel and have some advanced understanding, they will understand RPA a lot faster,” he said.
Dive in. The best way to get up to speed with RPA is to simply find the time to learn about it. Jump in with both feet,” Wood said. “You’ve got to start somewhere and students will respect you for trying.”
To get started, view tutorials on various vendor sites, or join sites such as UiPath’s Academic Alliance, or watch videos online. Just start to explore some videos, and become familiar with the basic structure and flow of RPA, Walstra advised. This video, for example, offers a clear overview of RPA. Another provides a simple example of RPA. And this one, from KPMG, “shows a quick walk-through of a full business process,” he said.
Learn from more experienced faculty. Many accounting professors, such as Walstra, Curtis, and Wood, are ahead of the curve in teaching students about RPA, so learn from their expertise or the knowledge of other academics who are immersed in this technology. “Don’t re-create the wheel,” Wood said. “Talk with faculty who have done this before, by piggybacking on what they do.”
Divide and conquer. It’s impossible to become proficient in every emerging technology, but across a department, different faculty members can choose to specialize in different ones, giving students access to faculty members with a broad range of knowledge. “Every faculty member does not need to teach RPA,” Wood said. “Others need to teach visualization or computer programming. Others need to teach how to use specialty tools for audit and tax. It’s important that every faculty member is learning something and continuing to update the curriculum in the current world.”
Show enthusiasm. Engage students in RPA by making the topic enjoyable and even competitive. In his course, Curtis asked each student to create a working bot within six weeks, and then brought in outside judges to declare a winner in his “RPA Tournament.”
Wood has created a bot for grading and has found the technology useful for himself, in addition to students. “Have fun” with RPA, he advised.
If you are teaching RPA, do it with zest. “If you are going to teach it, you need to understand it and be passionate about it,” said Fritsky, who has spoken at events about RPA. “It’s that kind of technology.”
—Cheryl Meyer is a freelance writer based in California. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.