Automation and machine learning have also changed the way that accountants work. Photo: Pixabay

JOHANNESBURG – The stereotype of accountants as bean counters is outdated. They have a unique insight into a business and can provide unrivalled advice on how it should run.

Technology has taken things even further, in freeing them up to offer valuable advice to help grow the business. By working with cloud accounting software, for example, accountants spend less time on manual processes.

According to Xero’s In Search of Lost Time report, “some 79 percent of non-adopters of cloud technology spend more than one hour a day on data entry – compared to just 43 percent of adopters.”

As accountants aren’t directly involved in day-to-day operations, they can see a bird’s eye view of the numbers. This means they can provide valuable, strategic advice and ultimately save time and resources. A good accountant will have the most in-depth knowledge of how a business is doing and can therefore help with tasks such as applying for capital and scaling.

How technology can help

Added consultancy work used to be time-consuming, but automated cloud technology has changed this. For example, Xero’s In Search of Lost Time research found that  25 percent of accounting and finance professionals said they could work smarter if they spent fewer hours on administrative tasks. Through automation, the cloud could potentially save accountants up to 15 hours a week, an average of 54 hours per month, and 651 hours—or 27 days—each year. This gives advisors more time and energy needed for advising and strategic input.

What’s more, it can provide information from bank feeds, meaning both the accountant and business owner have real-time information to work from, without laborious data gathering processes. Instant access to this information gives accountants the information they need to assist with forecasting decisions while simultaneously keeping business finances in order.

Automation and machine learning have also changed the way that accountants work. Gone are the days of punching numbers into spreadsheets and manually checking inputs and outputs – the tools of the trade have come a long way and removed the need for this manual process. AI can also do some of the most-loathed jobs – such as chasing and reconciling invoices. With these critical administrative tasks taken care of, accountants can focus their time on advising their clients on growth strategies. All accountants need to do now is adopt the tools.

Accounting technology can't replace the human element of accountancy—think advice, coaching and strategy—but they can take away time-consuming and repetitive tasks.

Small businesses need accountants

South Africa's small businesses are the lifeblood of the economy. According to the International Finance Corporation, they employ between 50 percent and 60 percent of South Africa's workforce and contribute around 34 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

While small businesses face many challenges, there is nothing more rewarding than breaking out on your own and starting a business. In particular, entrepreneurs often struggle with where to turn for advice. What they might not know is that they can turn to their most trusted advisor: their accountant. Yes, they look after the books of a business, but they can offer so much more these days, including advice on how to grow a business

South African small business owners can really benefit from the guidance of accountants. They're armed with technology to help SMEs make better business decisions and set their businesses up for the future, making the accountant the most valuable advisors.

Accountants in South Africa can take comfort in the knowledge that business owners plan to continue using their services. According to Xero’s State of Small Business Report, 81 percent of small business owners say they’ll still need accountants over the next 10 years, and this will be especially true as the role of South Africa’s accountants continues to evolve.

Colin Timmis is general country manager at Xero SA and professional accountant.

BUSINESS REPORT