Robotic process automation (RPA) is an emerging technology that automates tasks traditionally performed by humans, resulting in cost savings, efficiency gains, and increased accuracy. A recent survey conducted by Information Services Group (ISG) reveals that RPA technology skills were the second-most in-demand automation skill set in 2019.1 RPA is driving innovation in accounting and auditing applications, from bank reconciliations to detail testing during audits. Given the increasing use of RPA in accounting, it is important to expose students to this technology so that they can develop the in-demand skills of the digital economy. This column provides an overview of how RPA is being used and offers strategies for introducing RPA content into the accounting curriculum.
What Is RPA?
Gartner Inc., a technology research and advisory firm, defines RPA software as tools “designed to mimic the same ‘manual’ paths taken by humans by using a combination of user interface interaction or descriptor technologies.”2 Rutgers University professors Kevin Moffitt, Andrea Rozario, and Miklos Vasarhelyi note that RPA robots (bots) can be used to open emails and attachments, identify relevant information, enter data into ERP systems, and compose and send emails to specified parties.3 Moffitt and his colleagues compare RPA robots to recording macros in Excel: “The primary difference between the two is that RPA ‘macros’ can be recorded to work with virtually any existing desktop or server software.”4 For example, bots can perform the steps a CPA would complete during a bank reconciliation process: log into multiple bank accounts, download bank statements and transactions, log into the ERP system, extract the appropriate general ledgers, cross-reference balances from the bank statement to the general ledger, and then prepare the bank reconciliation statement.5
Industry Applications of RPA
EY anticipates there will be quite a few areas of RPA application in the accounting space, including the following:6
- Bank reconciliations
- Sales ordering and invoicing
- Fixed asset management
- Financial reporting
- Inventory management
- Receivables/payables management
- Financial statement closing
- Tax planning
From an auditing perspective, RPA tools can be applied to tasks that are repetitive in nature, such as importing and exporting data, detail testing through attribute matching, and compilation of audit test results. Routine tasks that can be automated through RPA tools will be performed by bots instead of entry-level workers, allowing CPAs to spend more time on assignments that require analytical thinking and problem-solving skills.
The Big 4 accounting firms have formed partnerships with some leading RPA vendors, including Blue Prism, UiPath, and Automation Anywhere. PwC has a direct partnership with UiPath and other RPA vendors, enabling service professionals to automate routine processes and increase productivity.7 Deloitte recently formed an alliance with UiPath to jointly develop and deliver RPA solutions to more than 100 clients globally.8
RPA in the Curriculum
Exposure to RPA could occur in a variety of undergraduate and graduate accounting classes, including financial accounting, auditing, tax, accounting information systems, and capstone courses or special topics. One option is to incorporate RPA content into an existing course by dedicating one class session (or up to one week). Another option is to develop a 1.5 or 3 credit special topics course or seminar course at the undergraduate or graduate level that focuses entirely on RPA concepts and applications.
The EY Academic Resource Center (EYARC) has a comprehensive RPA curriculum that is free of charge to faculty. The EYARC site includes slide decks to provide exposure to RPA concepts and applications, overview cases to foster an understanding of how RPA is used in business, and hands-on cases that use RPA software and data files to automate workflow processes.
UiPath established the Academic Alliance program, which offers training courses and dedicated UiPath software for classroom and personal use at no charge to faculty and students.9 The courses are designed for both technical and business students, and range from a simple introduction video to a comprehensive semester-long course suitable for college credit. Students gain access to RPA technologies and develop a skill set that is in demand. Educators benefit from a comprehensive curriculum that includes hands-on labs, courses that can be integrated into degree programs, and access to promotional kits to attract students to RPA classes.
Still another source for faculty to consider is the Automation Anywhere University (AAU) Academic Alliance program, which offers 80 hours of formal training, access to the Automation Anywhere Enterprise RPA Platform, RPA professional certification, instructor kits, and connection with a community of educators enrolled in the program.
The PICPA also offers a certificate program in conjunction with the AICPA titled “Robotic Process Automation Fundamentals for Accounting and Finance Professionals.” This 16-hour course provides an overview of how RPA is affecting the accounting profession and how to develop and implement an RPA strategy.10
Introducing RPA into the accounting curriculum will help ensure that students are exposed to the latest technologies and applications that are reshaping the business world. Students who develop RPA skills will likely have a competitive advantage when interviewing for internships and full-time jobs.
1 Ron Exler, “Enterprises Need AI Skills to Get the Most Out of Automation,” ISG. https://isg-one.com/research/articles/enterprises-need-ai-skills-to-get-the-most-out-of-automation
2 Cathy Tornbohm, “Robotic Process Automation: Eight Guidelines for Effective Results,” Gartner Inc. (2018).
3 Kevin Moffitt, Andrea Rozario, and Miklos Vasarhelyi, “Robotic Process Automation for Auditing,” Journal of Emerging Technologies in Accounting, vol. 15, no. 1 (2018).
5 The Dawn of a New Partnership: A Robotics-Led Finance Function, EY (2017). www.ey.com/Publication/vwLUAssets/ey-faas-finance-function-automation/$FILE/ey-faas-finance-function-automation.pdf
7 “What Is Robotic Process Automation?” PwC. www.pwc.com/lt/en/svcs/pwc-academy/rpa.html
8 “Deloitte and UiPath Form Alliance to Help Advance Digital Transformation of Enterprise Clients,” Bloomberg (2019). www.bloomberg.com/press-releases/2019-07-30/deloitte-and-uipath-form-alliance-to-help-advance-digital-transformation-of-enterprise-clients
9 UiPath www.uipath.com/rpa/academic-alliance
Cory Ng, CPA, DBA, CGMA, is an assistant professor of instruction in accounting at the Fox School of Business at Temple University and a member of the Pennsylvania CPA Journal Editorial Board. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.