Eli Fathi, CEO, MindBridge Analytics In
Accountancy, like most other verticals in the digital age, is in the jaws of a revolution powered by Artificial Intelligence (AI). Across the board, the application of intelligent systems is redefining the way we work and forcing us to re-programme how we conduct our business. As Eli Fathi, CEO, MindBridge Analytics Inc, explains, it’s an opportunity to be grabbed. Yet the global narrative that often accompanies AI is ominous. According to the doom merchants, we should all be very afraid; ‘the robots are coming’ and they’re poised to take our jobs, our future and what’s left of our self-esteem. The reality is very different. AI is not a futuristic vision for accountancy – in proactive firms it’s already here. And where it’s being deployed, it’s helping to drive efficiency, reduce risk and increase quality. Moreover, its advantages aren’t being realised at the expense of humans but rather in support of them – empowering and liberating accountants to focus on delivering added value for clients whilst leaving the number-crunching to computer-sized brains. The most progressive practices, large and small, are taking a collaborative approach that combines human and artificial intelligence; co-bots not robots. In the process, they’re developing a point of differentiation that marks them out from the crowd. It’s a smart strategy. AI has the potential to transform accountancy, not least in the crucial area of audit. It’s time to do the maths.
Myth and misunderstanding
AI is relatively nascent amongst accounting firms. However, the pace of adoption is accelerating as practices increasingly recognise how intelligent systems can help enhance decision-making, improve accuracy and de-risk processes. Yet despite the great potential of AI, there remains widespread caution in some parts of the market. It’s a caution that’s driven by myth, misunderstanding and misconception. Each is an unnecessary barrier to the progress all companies need to make if they’re to compete in the modern marketplace.
The myth is easily dispelled: robots will not replace humans, the two will co-exist. Why? Because AI systems do not have the higher cognitive capabilities exhibited by humans. In the same way that the human brain cannot compute hundreds of thousands of data points in a split second, a machine cannot understand the subtle dynamics and context of real-world accounting. The value and judgement of the trained accountant is inimitable. In combination, however, an accountant fuelled by AI-powered data analytics is turbo-charged to make faster, smarter and more accurate decisions. Everyone wins.
Many of the perceived complexities of adopting AI are rooted in misunderstanding. It’s hardly a surprise; the vernacular can be intimidating. AI is a broad church that encompasses a wide variety of technology classes such as machine learning, natural language programming, cognitive computing and automation. The danger is that all this terminology becomes conflated and confusion reigns supreme. To progress, we need to demystify the topic and break it down into simple, relatable and understandable terms. Defined simply, AI is a computer system that’s programmed to perform tasks – and exhibit levels of intelligence – commonly associated with humans, at scale and with an unparalleled level of detail. It augments human capability – it doesn’t replace it.
Application in audit
These attributes translate hugely to compliance work. As we know, the responsibility of an auditor is to ensure that the books being audited are an accurate representation of the business and free from material irregularities. Since it’s neither practical nor feasible for humans to examine every transaction, compliance work has traditionally been carried out manually, with auditors reviewing snapshots of transactions and making assumptions based on what they find. It’s a probability-based model that’s inherently flawed; evaluations often don’t find issues, they find an ‘absence of issues’ which auditors consider sufficient to approve full accounts on the balance of probability.
The approach is a hostage to fortune. If the wrong sample is selected or an irregularity is missed, parties on all sides are left exposed. The sector has long-debated the science of sample selection but the harsh reality remains: whatever strategy is adopted, the manual scrutiny of samples of transaction data is inevitably fraught with risk.
That risk is no longer necessary. Effective and accessible solutions now exist that harness the power of AI to remove the reliance on sampling. AI tools can quickly and accurately look at every transaction and focus an auditor’s attention on the areas where potential issues might be. These tools have deep data mining capabilities that allow them to analyse huge data sets at record speed. And the more data they process, the more they learn. By monitoring for anomalous patterns of activity whilst continually learning the norm, AI audit tools can uncover material irregularities in data that result from human error or intent – and flag them for human review. The approach eradicates the risk of random sampling.
The quality and efficiency gains are significant. Firms are now able to identify complex and non-linear patterns in large data sets in real time at scale. Moreover, by removing mundane and onerous tasks from their workload, auditors are freed to focus on providing greater value for clients. By leveraging AI-driven insights, auditors can enhance dialogue with customers through a deeper, shared understanding of their data and its strategic implications. That can only improve quality.
Drivers, barriers and opportunities
The drivers for change are real. The adoption of new EU regulations around mandatory audit firm rotation has stimulated competition in the market, with an increasing number of UK companies putting their audit out to tender. The most proactive practices have identified AI capabilities as an important differentiator.
However, in parts of the market, adoption remains hamstrung by misconceptions that AI tools are costly, complex and difficult to implement. The fears are misplaced. The most effective solutions are affordable and accessible. They’re designed to demystify AI and make them intuitive to use. And they’re supported by ongoing training that removes the perceived headaches of implementation and user adoption. Moreover, as regulators take an increasingly tough stance on audit failures, AI solutions are a long-term investment that can reduce risk, increase efficiencies and improve the quality and accuracy of audit. The associated impact on client engagement and long-term client loyalty is significant. These are huge gains.
AI has the potential to transform and futureproof audit. It’s time to ignore the myths and misconceptions and consider what it could do for your practice. The opportunity is right in front of us. And, like a good set of accounts, everything adds up.
Does your institution have operational resilience? Testing cyber resilience may be a good way to find out
By Callum Roxan, Head of Threat Intelligence, F-Secure
If ever 2020 had a lesson, it was that no organization can possibly prepare for every conceivable outcome. Yet building one particular skill will make any crisis easier to handle: operational resilience.
Many financial institutions have already devoted resources to building operational resilience. Unfortunately, this often takes what Miles Celic, Chief Executive Officer of TheCityUK, calls a “near death” experience for this conversion to occur. “Recent years have seen a number of cases of loss of reputation, reduced enterprise value and senior executive casualties from operational incidents that have been badly handled,” he wrote.
But it need not take a disaster to learn this vital lesson.
“Operational resilience means not only planning around specific, identified risks,” Charlotte Gerken, the executive director of the Bank of England, said in a 2017 speech on operational resilience. “We want firms to plan on the assumption that any part of their infrastructure could be impacted, whatever the reason.” Gerken noted that firms that had successfully achieved a level of resilience that survives a crisis had established the necessary mechanisms to bring the business together to respond where and when risks materialised, no matter why or how.
We’ll talk about the bit we know best here; by testing for cyber resilience, a company can do more than prepare for the worst sort of attacks it may face. This process can help any business get a clearer view of how it operates, and how well it is prepared for all kinds of surprises.
Assumptions and the mechanisms they should produce are the best way to prepare for the unknown. But, as the boxer Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” The aim of cyber resilience is to build an effective security posture that survives that first punch, and the several that are likely to follow. So how can an institution be confident that they’ve achieved genuine operational resilience?
This requires an organization to honestly assess itself through the motto inscribed at the front of the Temple of Delphi: “Know thyself.” And when it comes to cyber security, there is a way for an organization to test just how thoroughly it comprehends its own strengths and weaknesses.
The Bank of England was the first central bank to help develop the framework for institutions to test the integrity of their systems. CBEST is made up of controlled, bespoke, intelligence-led cyber security tests that replicate behaviours of those threat actors, and often have unforeseen or secondary benefits. Gerken notes that the “firms that did best in the testing tended to be those that really understood their organisations. They understood their own needs, strengths and weaknesses, and reflected this in the way they built resilience.”
In short, testing cyber resilience can provide clear insight into an institution’s operational resilience in general.
Gaining that specific knowledge without a “near-death” experience is obviously a significant win for any establishment. And testing for operational resilience throughout the industry can provide some reminders of the steps every organization should take so that testing provides unique insists about their institution, and not just a checklist of cyber defence basics.
The IIF/McKinsey Cyber Resilience Survey of the financial services industry released in March lasy year provided six sets of immediate actions that institutions could take to improve their cyber security posture. The toplines of these recommendations were:
- Do the basics, patch your vulnerabilities.
- Review your cloud architecture and security capabilities.
- Reduce your supply chain risk.
- Practice your incident response and recovery capabilities.
- Set aside a specific cyber security budget and prioritise it
- Build a skilled talent pool and optimize resources through automation.
But let’s be honest: If simply reading a solid list of recommendations created cyber resilience, cyber criminals would be out of business. Unfortunately, cyber crime as a business is booming and threat actors targeting essential financial institutions through cyber attacks are likely earning billions in the trillion dollar industry of financial crime.A list can’t reveal an institution’s unique weaknesses, those security failings and chokepoints that could shudder operations, not just during a successful cyber attack but during various other crises that challenge their operations. And the failings that lead to flaws in an institution’s cyber defence likely reverberate throughout the organization as liabilities that other crises would likely expose.
The best way to get a sense of operational resilience will always be to simulate the worst that attackers can summon. That’s why the time to test yourself is now, before someone else does.
Thomson Reuters to stress AI, machine learning in a post-pandemic world
By Kenneth Li and Nick Zieminski
NEW YORK (Reuters) – Thomson Reuters Corp will streamline technology, close offices and rely more on machines to prepare for a post-pandemic world, the news and information group said on Tuesday, as it reported higher sales and operating profit.
The Toronto-headquartered company will spend $500 million to $600 million over two years to burnish its technology credentials, investing in AI and machine learning to get data faster to professional customers increasingly working from home during the coronavirus crisis.
It will transition from a content provider to a content-driven technology company, and from a holding company to an operational structure.
Thomson Reuters’ New York- and Toronto-listed shares each gained more than 8%.
It aims to cut annual operating expenses by $600 million through eliminating duplicate functions, modernizing and consolidating technology, as well as through attrition and shrinking its real estate footprint. Layoffs are not a focus of the cost cuts and there are no current plans to divest assets as part of this plan, the company said.
“We look at the changing behaviors as a result of COVID … on professionals working from home working remotely being much more reliant on 24-7, digital always-on, sort of real-time always available information, served through software and powered by AI and ML (machine learning),” Chief Executive Steve Hasker said in an interview.
Sales growth is forecast to accelerate in each of the next three years compared with 1.3% reported sales growth for 2020, the company said in its earnings release.
Thomson Reuters, which owns Reuters News, said revenues rose 2% to $1.62 billion, while its operating profit jumped more than 300% to $956 million, reflecting the sale of an investment and other items.
Its three main divisions, Legal Professionals, Tax & Accounting Professionals, and Corporates, all showed higher organic quarterly sales and adjusted profit. As part of the two-year change program, the corporate, legal and tax side will operate more as one customer-facing entity.
Adjusted earnings per share of 54 cents were ahead of the 46 cents expected, based on data from Refinitiv.
The company raised its annual dividend by 10 cents to $1.62 per share.
The Reuters News business showed lower revenue in the fourth quarter. In January, Stephen J. Adler, Reuters’ editor-in-chief for the past decade, said he would retire in April from the world’s largest international news provider.
Thomson Reuters also said its stake in The London Stock Exchange is now worth about $11.2 billion.
The LSE last month completed its $27-billion takeover of data and analytics business Refinitiv, 45%-owned by Thomson Reuters.
(Reporting by Ken Li, writing by Nick Zieminski in New York, editing by Louise Heavens and Jane Merriman)
Putting data protection back on the financial agenda
By Wim Stoop, CDP Customer and Product Director, Cloudera
Despite the wave of changes that Brexit has brought financial organisations, from the end of ‘passporting’ to uncertainty over the longer-term equivalence rules, one thing has remained a constant — data privacy regulations are a core responsibility to protect sensitive data and mitigate data breaches. From PSD2 to GDPR, financial institutions need to ensure they are still processing and transferring data in accordance with the industry’s stringent rules and regulations. If not, they risk fines of up to £17.5 million or 4% of their company’s annual global turnover.
As the stakes get higher, the amount of data which financial enterprises are having to deal with is on the rise too. In fact, research by IDC estimated that businesses created and captured 6.4 zettabytes of new data last year alone. This increase in data production has linked to the pandemic and the move to remote working. Replacing face-to-face interactions with online communications has meant that financial businesses suddenly had to cope with a larger amount of data flowing through their networks. In addition, employees working from home are increasingly doing so on potentially unsecured devices, outside of the corporate network, risking exposure and data breaches according to numerous cybersecurity reports.
With an extensive stock of sensitive customer data and so many regulations to keep on top of, remaining compliant can feel overwhelming for financial organisations. However, this shouldn’t be the case. Today we often see businesses trying to retrofit data protection strategies, or take a reactive approach to external forces. Instead, they should be taking a proactive stance on data management. In doing so, security becomes a natural side-effect and financial companies can operate with the assurance that no matter what new regulations come into play, they are compliant. The question is, how to achieve this?
Taking a proactive approach to data privacy
To remain compliant, financial institutions need to get on top of their data. When data is sat in siloes, on legacy systems, it’s inaccessible to all and it becomes a challenge to identify what is sensitive and what isn’t. Poorly managed data can’t be protected and the risk of data breaches increases. By contrast, when properly controlled and stored, it becomes easy to apply data security rules.
From customer names and contact details to transaction records and PINs, financial organisations hold a lot of personal and financial data on customers. However, the trick is understanding that all data holds varying degrees of sensitivity and thus, needs to be managed accordingly. For instance, a customer’s bank account details are more sensitive, compared to their basic personal data, such as name and address, which are usually publicly accessible. By proactively identifying, prioritising and classifying data by its degree of sensitivity, financial companies can apply any and all data protection rules that are necessary, such as restricting certain users from accessing highly confidential information.
Yet, this identification process is often looked at as a reactive measure by many financial businesses. The challenge in proactive data management lies in an organisation’s ability to eliminate the frictions it has in tracking, identifying and classifying information, as opposed to doing so retrospectively. After all, data classification plays a vital role in ensuring data protection is upheld.
A proactive approach is integral to effective data management and governance. The first step in achieving this approach involves creating a data marketplace, or a curated, secured and governed data repository. Having something like a data marketplace in place means that as soon as data enters an organisation, enterprises can determine its degree of sensitivity, how it should be managed, and which analytics need to be run, to extract the most value out of the data.
Once these steps are taken, compliance and data privacy happen almost naturally and become ingrained in the business. When companies are aware of every single piece of data in their possession, they can know exactly how it’s being protected. Such a robust strategy ensures that institutions meet the high standards of trust that their customers have bestowed upon them in protecting their personal data. And, with this level of control, enterprises can avoid data lockout, reduce friction for employees, and optimise the value they unlock from their data. At the same time, they can have the peace of mind that they are compliant and protected.
A business-ready solution for data protection
With so many rules and regulations to keep track of, data protection shouldn’t be another worry to add to the list. Financial companies can maximise the efficacy of their existing security and governance strategies by applying it to all datasets across the enterprise – whether that be on-premise, in the cloud, or a combination of the two. In particular, as a scalable and low-cost solution, organisations are increasingly turning to the cloud for their data management needs. It’s expected that over half (51%) of business data will be stored in the cloud by 2024.
This is where an enterprise data cloud (EDC) really shows it’s worth, allowing financial companies to keep their data protected, compliant, and successfully governed. Simply put, an EDC is a hybrid and multi-cloud platform that harnesses analytics at every stage of the data lifecycle. It enables organisations to extract the true value of their data while still providing a consistent layer of security.
An EDC gives financial businesses a single source of truth, built on technology that operates on any cloud environment and right through to the edge. Armed with an EDC, companies have complete visibility over their data, no matter where it resides in the enterprise or the data lifecycle, easing the task of managing and protecting data. On top of this, an EDC supports a variety of data functions, including the data marketplace, and works to provide control, visibility and examination over data. With all these aspects working together, financial institutions can ensure that all data which passes through their infrastructure and into the data marketplace is efficiently governed and protected.
Bringing technology, people, and process together
Technological solutions, like an EDC, work at their maximum potential when they are in harmony with people and process. But, the triad has been thrown off balance by the rise of remote working and reduction in staff numbers. While all businesses recognise that sensitive data needs to be encrypted and access should be restricted, this has been a difficult feat as employees work from home and use devices outside of the traditional network security parameters. In fact, nearly half (48%) of employees are less likely to follow safe data practices when working from home. This will exponentially increase the risk of data breaches.
In addition, with almost a fifth (18%) of the UK workforce on furlough and team numbers shrinking, companies don’t have the same amount of manpower to validate both the systems being used, as well as the data being run in these systems, to ensure that they are compliant. Within the office environment, organisations were able to create ‘islands of perfect governance’, with all departments being aware of the applications used to manage data and therefore, guaranteeing higher levels of compliance. However, these safety nets have collapsed during home working and it’s become more difficult to ensure the security and privacy of data within an enterprise.
What’s needed here is an overarching framework that provides a standard for data governance. This is enabled by having the right technology solution, a proactive approach to data management and people within a business supporting it from the bottom up in place — forming a triad that works in perfect harmony. A framework such as this also enables enterprises to assess what they need to do to create data protection rules internally that ensure compliance, and allows employees to self-check their data security protocols eliminating any uncertainty about protecting sensitive data.
It is important to remember that the right technology alone won’t make people compliant – whether they are working in an office or remotely. Rather, as pointed out above, it is technology, people, and process, working in sync, that will ensure that regulations are adhered to and data is managed and protected.
Long-lasting success with data protection
With data volumes growing and remote working creating security vulnerabilities, financial businesses need to get on top of their data from the get-go. By proactively identifying sensitive data, accurately securing it, and delivering trusted data to end-users, the right data can be put into the hands of the right people.
Creating a watertight data privacy strategy requires financial organisations to deliver a uniform approach to data management and protection across departments to ensure compliance. In addition, harnessing technology, such as an EDC, will provide visibility and control over sensitive data, enabling financial institutions to unlock real-time insights from their data while still providing a consistent layer of security. With technology, people and process in harmony, enterprises can operate with the confidence that their data is being managed successfully and they are compliant with both existing and new regulations.
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