The virtues of automation

in Industry Insights, 09.01.2017

I am a strong believer in technology. Very deeply, I am convinced that innovations and new technologies will bring about an era of abundance.

The concept of abundance is very strong: true abundance is not only about scale. It is not enough to have plenty of the things we consume and use every day. Abundance must also incorporate a dimension of scope, to be complete. That is, abundance must be defined by quantity and by quality, thus filling all our needs, including the ones we cannot foresee today.

How far are we from there?

It is tempting to think that the path is well engaged, and that the challenges we are facing can be overcome. We do see a lot of encouraging signs, from the brilliant successes of AlphaGo and Watson to McDonald’s automated cashiers.

However, we must not forget how hard the path ahead actually is. Conceiving the scale part of abundance is easy: we can all imagine having our fridges full of fresh noodles, veggies and craft beer without us ever needing to order or go buy any of it.

Approaching the scope part of abundance is more difficult. It is just like trying to think today about what the next big innovation will be. No, don’t mention big data or blockchain: those already exist, though they haven’t yet saturated their respective markets, by far. What will be the next big thing, which doesn’t exist today? Tough question.

One way to be ready for such innovations is to be aware that they may come. It is hard to focus solely on them, or to try to anticipate them. But we can easily keep our focus on the easier part of abundance: scale. We can work toward this direction, and it will end up unveiling more than just scale.

This might seem very vague. Actually, it does apply to many industries, among which is the audit industry, one of the core focuses of KPMG.

Automation is not only about speed

We auditors continuously try to make our processes more efficient. We deploy automated data treatment tools. We implement new workflows to streamline the audit process. What would you expect out of this? Getting the auditors to approve your accounts twice as fast as before, right? That would be focusing solely on the scale part of our path to abundance, without looking at the scope side. All the data and analytics that we use in our audits help us do the same job as before twice as fast, no doubt about it—but it also opens opportunities for us to significantly increase the quality of our work, making our audits more useful and relevant for all stakeholders of the firms we audit.

A telling example of this is iNAV, an audit tool developed in-house in KPMG Luxembourg. iNAV allows us to perform various audit tests on investment funds, such as analytical procedures on the performance of the funds, or validation of the pricing of their portfolios. What started mainly as a quantitative improvement of the audit of funds ultimately allowed us to make a great qualitative jump in the way we audit funds: we are able to be more exhaustive, more precise, and more consistent thanks to automated processes. We are also able to communicate better and make the audit more useful for boards and audit committees with the visualisation tools that we have developed. Without the initial automation efforts, we would never have reached this qualitative state of fund auditing.

So ultimately, by working on scale we ended up innovating as well. Thanks to our efforts on automation, we can now provide more meaningful opinions in a timely manner. That is what the path ahead looks like: It looks as if we will be able to deliver our opinions twice as fast in a few years. But we must keep in mind that a significant part of this freed-up time will be used to increase quality. Thus, we will be pushing back further the achievement of a full abundance, whether we approach it by scale or scope. Automation does not only mean more speed, it also means more quality, whether this quality can be anticipated up front or not.

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