27 Jul Debunking the Demise of the CPA Firm
Industry pundits subject us to a nonstop barrage of predictions that CPA firms will cease to exist very shortly. You know how much I love our industry pundits, who have never worked a day in a CPA firm. I dislike the ones who have not worked in CPA firms in the last 20 years only slightly less. Their predictions are total and utter nonsense.
I see two main types of doomsday predictions from our pundit buddies. First, they tell us that artificial intelligence will replace us. Next, if AI doesn’t get us, blockchain will.
About a year ago, I read “The Future of the Professions” by Daniel and Richard Susskind, copyright 2015. The authors made two main predictions for the future of accounting. First, do-it-yourself accounting software will replace our financial reporting business. Second, internet tax research will eliminate our tax business.
I mentioned the copyright date because I had to check the date to make certain I wasn’t reading a book from 1995. Back then, QuickBooks and TurboTax were going to eliminate us. The internet was new and soon all human knowledge would be accessible and free. Who would need tax accountants?
Well, we’re all still around. Has anyone noticed how much QuickBooks improved the quality of our clients’ accounting records? Me neither. Has anyone noticed the great tax research our clients find on the internet? Me neither. They go eight pages deep in a Google search to see what they want to see. Some nut job opines that your dog’s vet expenses are tax-deductible. Oops – that was my blog.
Let’s consider the predictions about artificial intelligence and blockchain separately. Start with the observation that predictions, without dates, have no information content. For instance, if I tell you that someday we will travel to the stars, but I don’t tell you when to buy your ticket, I have provided no useful advice. So, our pundit buddies don’t get off the hook by promising someday in the future. “Tomorrow. Tomorrow. I love you, tomorrow. You’re always a day away.”
One of the major national tax franchises made big news by announcing that IBM’s Watson super-duper supercomputer would provide tax advice for its clients. I heard an unsubstantiated rumor that Watson answered the first client question as follows: “It depends. Consult your CPA for more information.”
Totally unsubstantiated rumor. #fakenews. You can’t believe everything you read on Facebook.
Artificial intelligence won’t replace us anytime soon for one simple reason: People aren’t getting any smarter. In other words, they can’t properly use and interpret the results produced by expert systems.
For example, did WebMD replace doctors? We need more doctors now, not fewer. WebMD didn’t replace doctors, because people can’t effectively use results from WebMD. What are all the possible diagnoses for someone with a runny nose? You could have anything from the common cold to cancer to an STD. Believe it or not, there is a reference on the site to how a runny nose can affect your sex life. Who knew that was my problem? I thought it was my looks and my winning personality.
Expert systems get co-opted by the experts. AI systems enhance experts. They don’t replace experts.
For example, IBM touts the ubiquitous Watson’s expert system for medical diagnosis. But who do they sell the system to? You can’t go to your corner 7-Eleven and use Watson to diagnose that rash on your backside. IBM sells Watson’s solution to hospital systems. Experts co-opt expert systems.
I recently read in the Wall Street Journal that IBM’s division that sells Watson experienced an earnings decline. If Watson is so smart, why didn’t it see this coming? Fortunetellers can do as well. Maybe IBM should use them for SEC filings.
Blockchain technology supposedly will replace us by letting businesses keep their own accounting records. Even if the technology could accomplish this in the near term, it would not replace us.
When did you last change the oil in your car? No, I’m not talking about taking it down to the dealer and paying them to do it. I mean when did YOU buy the oil, flip up the hood, drain the old oil and pour in the fresh stuff? For me, it was … never. For the new car that I just bought, I’m not even certain where you pour the oil in. I pay a dude at the dealership to do that. Manly stuff, like oil changes, just isn’t my core competency.
Why don’t you change your own oil? Is it because you’re too stupid to figure it out? In my case, maybe. I’ll bet you could figure it out. When you Google “how do I change my oil,” you get 177 million results. Clearly the knowledge is out there. So why don’t you change your oil?
Simply because you have better things to do. You freely choose to pay someone to do something you really could figure out for yourself.
So, assuming our clients can do their own financial reporting, they will not do their own for the same reason. They have better ways to spend their time. Some will do their own accounting, as they have done since QuickBooks, but most will choose to do something that is a better use of their time. What’s the hottest trend in accounting right now? Outsourced accounting services. Clients are looking to do less, not more.
Let me give you one last laugh at the expense of industry pundits. These are a lot of the same people who tried to push elder care services on us years ago. You remember elder care, don’t you? Also known as bedpan counting, it was a service without a market, at least not a market that would pay real money.
You got to deal with heirs counting the hours until Aunt Edna stopped breathing and the revocable trust became irrevocable. Sure, they wanted the best for Edna, as long as it didn’t reduce the trust corpus.
Rejoice. AI and blockchain ensure that in the future, clients will need us even more.
I hope that I have motivated you to adopt effective project management and I look forward to meeting you somewhere down the road. At the end of staff meetings, I steal a line from Sergeant Stan Jablonski of “Hill Street Blues,” who said, “Let’s do it to them, before they do it to us.” Make it happen!