While much has been said about the benefits of automation, small-firm practitioners may feel such things are out of their budget. But according to Brian Tankersley, director of strategic relationships at K2 Enterprises, and Wesley Hartman, founder of Automata, even small and midsized firms can automate their practice without going broke.
Speaking at the AICPA Engage Conference on Tuesday, Tankersley noted that, like practitioners everywhere, small and midsized firms deal with a lot of data that needs to be passed from one application to the next. Data from the practice management solution is sent to the new tax software, which then flows into the journal entry program so the books can be updated. The problem is that all this requires a great deal of manual processes and data entry. While firm leaders may see the benefit of automating such routine processes, they may not be aware of all their options for doing so, some of which can be quite affordable.
“The problem with this for small and midsized firms, you probably didn’t think you could do that with modern apps, and you probably have no clue who to talk to to get that done for your firm — and if you do figure it out, does it make economic sense to automate the input of these five numbers on this one return and fire up this bot every time we do this?” he said.
This used to be true. Twenty years ago, said Tankersley, huge enterprises were implementing SAP and Oracle and WorkDay and other software packages, and they did this because they processed enough transactions to justify automating these processes, and had the budget to do so. Some practitioners today might look at their needs and say they’d love to do the same but they don’t have $5 million to drop on a whole new suite of solutions. According to Tankersley, cost is no longer the barrier it once was.
“You have to somehow make it happen with the resources you have. That’s why we talk about these tools. They’re out there, they’re usually fairly inexpensive, and there’s ways to get your tasks done at different levels of complexity and automation,” he said.
He noted that a lot of these tools are now cloud-based subscription services versus whole packages bought at once. Furthermore, many of them don’t even require that one be a coder, as there is a wide variety of low- and no-code tools that allow people to build custom bots for specific purposes, such as integrating all of one’s disparate software applications.
“A lot of these ‘integration platforms as a service’ will [have] pre-built almost Lego blocks of code. You can drag and drop and reuse someone else’s code they wrote in the [platform] and write it into another application,” he said.
This means, he said, people can build a new program that says, for example, when a bill comes into the application to first do X and then route the result to Y and then, depending on the data, do A, B or C. While the ability to do this isn’t new, he said that many smaller practitioners who don’t regularly deal with large enterprises may not be aware they can do it too. He himself built a custom bot that checks the weather in his hometown and texts the report to everyone in his family. This can be done through platforms like Zapier, Power Automate, Webgility or OnceAccounting.
“One example of some of the things you can do: Potentially you can go in and, if you have an application like you made on Power Automate, you can pull out eFile status acknowledgements and have them texted to yourself or the person working on them,” he said, acknowledging that it’s not exactly trivial to build something like this “but it’s something you could do.”
Part of why it is not trivial is that automating a process can require people to rethink everything they took for granted about it. Hartman, the Automatica founder, demonstrated this by asking someone to guide Tankersley through making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, the components of which were on the table in front of him.
An audience member said to get the bread, but never specified to open the bag first, so the bread could not be removed. After some revision, the bag was opened and the bread was taken out. The audience member said to spread the peanut butter, but never specified to open the jar first. The audience member revised to say open the jar and put the peanut butter on the bread. But since he didn’t say how, Tankersley moved to use his fingers. Revising again, the audience member said to open the jar, insert a knife, remove it, then put the peanut butter on the bread. It came out in one big clump. Revising again, he was instructed to spread the peanut butter instead. All of it? A quantity was never mentioned.
And all this was before they even got to the jelly.
“When doing RPA,” said Hartman, “You answer all these questions you never thought about, like how do you open the bag of bread and how do I put the peanut butter on there? Things we take for granted, the computer has no idea how to do.”