For years, accountants have spent most of their time recording or processing transactions and dealing with compliance issues. It's important work, but much of it is procedural and repetitive.
These qualities make it ideal for automation — computers are good at procedural and repetitive.
Accountancy software companies like MYOB have transformed the profession to the point where they can leave much of that everyday work to computers.
On the plus side of the ledger, this leaves accountants with the time and energy to focus on the areas of their work where they can add the most value.
In the case of small business accountants, that means guiding and advising clients.
To stay relevant in an increasingly competitive market, accountants need to refocus as trusted business advisers.
MYOB chief strategy officer John Moss says there's a clear demand from business managers and owners for advice services.
The company's research found that seven out of 10 unmet needs for small businesses were to do with getting advice.
It also found that four in 10 small businesses see their accountant as their main source of advice.
Other research told MYOB that accountants are keen to shift their businesses towards offering higher value advice and consultancy services.
MYOB found 84 per cent of accountants feel they need to provide advice services to survive.
Accountants face two problems in making the move to becoming advisers.
First, it takes time to gain the deep insights needed to provide advice, especially across a wide range of clients.
Second, they struggle when it comes to opening conversations with clients about offering advice.
Moss says his company developed MYOB Advisor, which launches next week, to solve both issues.
MYOB Advisor is software that allows accountants to delve deeper into a company's financial numbers.
It can reach conclusions, provide powerful insights and offer recommendations.
Most of the time it will identify things accountants can tackle immediately. This gives accountants a starting point to begin discussing a company's situation and how they can help to improve matters.
An MYOB Advisor report might, for example, examine how a client's revenue tracks over each quarter and spot a sudden decline.
From this it might deduce that the client may need to look at its pricing strategy.
Accountants who work with MYOB software have an overview of each client's business from a software dashboard. They can see charts, tables and formal accounting documents.
MYOB Advisor expands this view of a client's business. It uses artificial intelligence to sift through the data and takes seconds to gain the kind of insight that might mean hours of work for an accountant.
MYOB Advisor then uses this data to prepare a written report. Moss says the reports are in natural language: "It reads like it was written by a human. This kind of technology is already used by some people in the wealth management sector to provide customer reports".
It's a classic example of AI augmenting a professional's work. Moss says: "MYOB Advisor is not intended to replace anybody. Looking at numbers can only get you so far; the main problem for accountants is starting those conversations. This gives them the material they need. In this way they can add to their capabilities".
Moss says the first version of MYOB Advisor only scratches the surface of what AI can offer.
He says: "The real smarts in MYOB Advisor are a set of algorithms that transform a company's data into insights. We used machine learning and a number of data sets to derive these rules."
MYOB uses another AI technique known as natural language generation to prepare draft reports.
Moss says the software understands words in context, drawing on a huge dataset.
"We allow accountants to edit the documents to make them more relevant to their clients. But we get to see what is being edited. This means we can train our software to do a better job in future".
Advisor is free to accountants who use the company's software. Moss says it is part of a broader strategy to add value to an accountant's business practice.
He says while the plan is to release it next week and watch how it goes, MYOB is already thinking about how it might develop in future.
He says that at present, MYOB Advisor only looks at data from a single client, but in future it could have access to aggregated data across an industry or region.
This would allow it to help a client benchmark performance against competitors.
But MYOB's main focus is to provide more smart automation so that accountants can reduce the labour component of their businesses and focus on adding value.
This story is sponsored by MYOB