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John Parker

John Parker

National Practice Leader Cloud Accounting Services,
Grant Thornton LLP

Ashu Avasthi

Ashu Avasthi

Head of Digital Transformation,
Grant Thornton LLP

In Canada and around the world, consumer applications of artificial intelligence (AI) are widely used — from Alexa and Google Home to the facial recognition software used on smartphones. Whether or not we realize it, most of us use AI on a daily basis. But while consumers increasingly embrace these tools, businesses have been slower to catch on.

The digital transformation  

Despite Canada having earned a global reputation for AI research and development, few Canadian firms are currently using AI to its full potential.

Whether it’s automating credit card applications, improving sales prospecting, or automating accounting and customer service; handing these manual tasks over to powerful AI allows employers to shift time, energy, resources, and investment dollars to other critical and strategic activities.

Companies may not realize AI’s role in increasing productivity, driving growth, reducing operating costs, and providing a competitive advantage through automation and machine learning. With AI, companies can gather information about their customers, suppliers, and employees, making predictions about buying patterns, analyzing work environment preferences to establish a more productive environment. The potential is extraordinary.

“Many look at AI technology as something only used by tech companies or start ups — but it’s the application within mid sized companies where the greatest opportunities lie,” says Ashu Avasthi, who heads the Digital Transformation team at Grant Thornton LLP, a leading accounting and business advisory firm. 

Fortunately, that’s starting to change. More businesses are venturing on an AI journey. This is great news, because leveraging AI and machine learning technologies can be transformative for all mid-
sized enterprises. 

The first thing is to always seek help and advice in how technology can help business goals or vision.

Ashu Avasthi, Digital Transformation team at Grant Thornton LLP

A natural evolution 

Avasthi believes that adopting AI technology is an evolution, and progression is necessary.

It starts with process automation, which leads to digital change, and then to AI and machine learning applications. He cites an example of a business with a manual accounts payable process that could be automated by adding a machine learning application. Another would be a mid-market company using a chat bot to address visitor queries on its website, gather information to better understand client demand and then implement appropriate solutions.

This type of automation is one of the quickest ways businesses are starting to transform highly manual and repetitive human tasks, such as accounting, on both the front and back ends. 

A gradual approach to implementation 

As well as progressing gradually, the adoption of AI and machine learning processes also shouldn’t be done as an instinctive reaction to increased competition, Avasthi warns. It should start with an assessment noting where a company’s technology currently stands and how it’s impacting business operations.  

“The first thing is to always seek help and advice in how technology can help business goals or vision,” he says.

“Do it in a thoughtful manner, with a plan of action that, with the right guidance, can determine what the best technology is, and then on to execution.”

Companies often purchase technology as “point solutions,” meaning that it can solve one particular issue, but doesn’t factor into the other aspects of the business affected, says Avasthi. This is a reckless approach that results in multiple disparate applications that aren’t otherwise connected. 

“That’s actually very common,” says Avasthi. “It doesn’t come from a bad place. They have this nagging pain point or process in their business, so they go out and purchase the tech thinking that they’re advancing or helping the business, which is a very easy trap to fall into.”

Crunching numbers 

Cloud accounting is a prime example of how AI can efficiently and accurately automate processes that used to be manual.

Such services are often modelled on software-as-a-service (SaaS) programs that can be customized to work with the business’ own practices. The services provide valuable data, and firms like Grant Thornton can play an advisory role in interpreting, analyzing, and utilizing that data. As John Parker, who leads Grant Thornton’s National Cloud Accounting Practice, notes, it isn’t “a 100% machine-based solution” yet, and the best integrations are those that include people to assess the data. Smart data analysis can inform business strategy to propel an organization ahead of competitors and ensure longevity.

Strategic moves

Cloud accounting allows for a new type of strategic accounting that businesses haven’t experienced until now. “You’ve got data that’s being posted and processed on what could effectively be a real-time basis,” says Parker. “You don’t have to wait for the end of the month to see how you’re doing. You’ve got access to more current, accurate data.”

Parker says the key is that mid-sized businesses don’t have to wait for their fiscal year results to figure out their next strategic move, because actionable information will be readily available throughout the year. Pulling the data and analyzing it can help develop strategic action plans sooner, clearing the way for more informed decisions on how to grow the business. 

“We’re seeing outcomes where cloud-based businesses are up to 80% more profitable,” he says. “And if you were to look at 100 start-ups that adopted the cloud five years ago, 80 of them are still conducting business today.”

If you’re a small business converting to the cloud, but your competitors are not, then you’re picking up a lot of competitive advantages right there.

John Parker, National Practice Leader Cloud Accounting Services at Grant Thornton LLP

Capitalizing on employees’ true potential 

The idea of replacing humans with computer-controlled robots sounds daunting — but it’s not as difficult as it sounds, and AI doesn’t actually replace humans.

As Avasthi points out, people are still needed. They’re just freed up from the drudgery of manual tasks. This allows employees to operate at a higher, more valuable level. 

“You don’t need people sitting at desks in the office handling transactions because a computer can do that, so employers can redeploy those human resources to be more client-based, where they’re of higher value,” says Parker. 

A unique opportunity 

“The world is becoming more flexible, and people are looking for more flexible work arrangements,” says Parker. “So, if you’re a small business converting to the cloud, but your competitors are not, then you’re picking up a lot of competitive advantages right there.”

There are so many possibilities at our fingertips. Businesses have a unique opportunity to increase efficiencies, improve workforce utilization, scale up, keep up with demand, or create demand. 

Digital transformation and AI adoption don’t happen overnight, but are important pieces of a larger, comprehensive, and ongoing strategy to increase an organization’s value and efficiency.

Canada’s mid-sized business leaders have an incredible opportunity before them to be visionary and to embrace AI. Doing so will allow them to focus more on innovation, strategy, sales, and business development — key ingredients of growth and success — and to build strong companies for the future.  

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