EY’s Frank O’Dea: ‘The accountant of the future will be assisted by AI’

28 Jun 2019

Frank O’Dea. Image: EY

Frank O’Dea from EY reveals the extent to which accountants are being prepared for the tsunami of AI-powered disruption that is coming their way.

Frank O’Dea is chief innovation officer for EY in Ireland. He joined the company in 2012 to lead the firm’s performance improvement advisory practice in Ireland.

O’Dea specialises in shaping and leading large-scale business transformation programmes, as well as outsourcing and IT projects. He has more than 25 years’ experience across the telecoms, technology, software and IT sectors within the UK and Ireland.

‘The accounting profession is amongst the most likely jobs to be disrupted’

Before joining EY, he was managing director of a network-sharing venture between two major telecoms companies in Ireland, where he led the spin-out and transformation of their mobile networks into a new organisation.

What does the role of chief innovation officer for EY Ireland entail?

There are three elements to that role, really. The first one is, we provide a huge amount of advice to our clients. We have a whole series of services that our clients use to help them apply technology in their business and that is a very important part of our practice. My role is to firstly make sure that is at leading edge and is helping clients, and we use our global capabilities to bring the best here into Ireland.

The second part is to look at our own business, and our services are changing extremely rapidly and so we’re disrupting our own business and using technology more and more. We’ve always used technology … in the accounting part of our practices the tools such as spreadsheets have been used all the time, but now more and more we are seeing the accountant of the future being really assisted by AI.

That’s very mainstream for us today. We use AI and cognitive applications in a huge number of our day-to-day activities and then also a lot of the transactional work is being automated with robotic process automation, and then there are just general trends in terms of visualisation of data.

The accounting profession is amongst the most likely jobs to be disrupted. We see that as a positive thing, by the way, not a negative, and we think that there is a huge opportunity for clients and ourselves in using more and more technology. The old days of an accountant checking invoices and going through manual processes and reading tons of documents, that’s gone. People want to come in and apply their brainpower to helping clients with more meaningful problems and making sure that, from an assurance point of view, we look at the quality of the controls. My other job is to apply a lot of different technologies into that.

And thirdly, we also have a role here in Ireland where we are helping to build the platforms that the global firm uses in its day-to-day activities, and helping clients.

How do you effectively manage change in your organisation and keep control when users themselves are introducing new technologies to the workplace?

It is a great subject because people are very much at the heart of all of the technologies; the technologies are no good without all of the people. The different kinds of people in organisations now are going on different journeys. Some are going in with expectations of being able to apply all the things in their day-to-day world, in their personal world, into the workplace. On one hand that is really good tech savvy. Our graduates are excellent at adapting and quickly learning.

We also have a cohort of people who have been in business a long time who are deeply valuable and who have very deep knowledge that can only be gained over a lot of experience. These are crucial to our client work but they also have to go on a lifelong journey.

On the technical side of things, your stereotypical accountant can use Excel macros but we are making sure they are also aware of AI and that they can use basic programming languages such as Python II to create apps and build small robots. Some people will be really good at that but everybody needs to have a level of knowledge.

How to you ensure a standard level of competence across the organisation?

We have this programme called Badges where we identify different tech areas where people can do badges, going from bronze to platinum.

We are trying to make sure we can look at the entire workforce and understand what level of knowledge they have of the new technologies – there is a huge technology change happening. We need to be able to bring everybody along the journey with us and have everybody embrace that. Culturally, that is very frightening for some people.

We have joined up some of our younger colleagues with experienced people … so that they can help each other along the way. The experienced can help the youth, and the tech savvy of some of the youth can help the experienced people.

The policing of some of the controls is really important; it’s a very complex environment we are moving into in terms of the cloud and all of the cloud applications. The vulnerabilities are very much in the boundary applications that people bring into organisations.

People have to attest to the extent that they have done their training. But we don’t rely on word of mouth, we also follow up and audit people and their laptops. We can’t afford to take risks, and with all of these issues the weakest link is people coming in and out of your organisation in terms of a vulnerability, because it is through them that the cyberattacks can happen by giving the wrong information to the wrong people.

That is a constant thing that we are always vigilant on. But, at the same time, we want to make it convenient to use technology and it is essential that we do.

Want stories like this and more direct to your inbox? Sign up for Tech Trends, Silicon Republic’s weekly digest of need-to-know tech news.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years