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Not very long ago, the word robot conjured a vision of a human-like mechanical being moving around and completing tasks. Then robots moved into the manufacturing area as arms and tools. Now robots are moving into the office. Organizations can build robots to complete the repetitive tasks frequently found in a typical business office using user-friendly, specialized software.

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) disrupts organizations by working 24 × 7 performing mundane, repetitive tasks frequently performed by knowledge workers, including CPAs. Andrea Rozario and Miklos Vasarhelyi (“How Robotic Process Automation is Transforming Accounting and Auditing,” The CPA Journal, June 2018, pp. 46-49, 2018) describe many of the repetitive accounting tasks that can be automated and explain how RPA scripts work. The influx of automation will require accountants to understand how RPA works and the day-to-day processes prime for conversion. Entry-level accountants will have to learn how RPA works and how to create simple scripts, called bots. More importantly, accountants will need to understand what RPA can and cannot do. To meet employers’ demands, colleges and universities will need to update their curricula to cover this emerging technology.

RPA has the potential to transform many areas of business, in particular, accounting functions. Moffit et al. (Kevin Moffit, Andrea Rozario, and Miklos Vasarhelyi, “Robotic Process Automation for Auditing,” Journal of Emerging Technologies in Accounting, vol. 15, no. 1, p. 1, 2018) call RPA “preconfigured software instances [that] reproduce the work that humans do.” RPA is designed to mimic human actions. Organizations should first consider RPA for processes that are rules-based and easily defined. Organizations wanting to start automated processing typically start with RPA before moving on to more sophisticated methods, such as artificial intelligence or machine learning. Many organizations have processes that are high-value and repetitive. These are the processes most likely to be easily automated using RPA.

To utilize RPA, organizations can purchase one of the commercially available software packages to make the creation of RPA scripts easier. The user enters the steps of the process to be automated into the RPA software. The actions of the process must be precise and complete. For example, any decision points, such as rules for missing data, can be added to the process. Once the process is defined, the user can run the script to verify the results using test data. After the user confirms the output, the RPA script can process data in production.

According to a McKinsey Global Institute report (James Manyika, Michael Chui, Mehdi Miremadi, Jacques Bughin, Katy George, Paul Willmott, and Martin Dewhurst, “Harnessing Automation for a Future that Works,” https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/digital-disruption/harnessing-automation-for-a-future-that-works.2017), existing technology could automate approximately 50% of today’s accounting work, with another 15% with future technologies. Any process that can be well-defined can be automated using RPA (Vasarhelyi and Rozario 2018). Public accounting has significant potential to see decreased costs and improved efficiency in audit practices. CPA firms can provide more value to clients by reducing lower-level tasks and allowing accountants to become more valued partners providing more analysis for better decision-making (Lauren Cooper, D. Kip Holderness, Trevor Sorensen, and David Wood, “Robotic process automation in public accounting,” Accounting Horizons, vol. 33, no.4, pp. 15–35, 2019, https://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3193222). Automating processes across systems for such tasks as receivables confirmations or substantive procedures will streamline audits [Michael Cohen, Andrea Rozario, and Chanyuan Zhang, “Exploring the Use of Robotic Process Automation (RPA) in Substantive Audit Procedures: A Case Study,” The CPA Journal, July 2019, pp. 49–53. 2019)].

With the automation of many entry-level tasks, the skills required by new CPAs will change. In addition to an understanding of financial concepts, users need a high-level of general business acumen. Accountants will be expected to break down a manual process into steps, determine any business rules, and implement them in the software. They will also need to identify which tasks lend themselves to RPA, and, more importantly, which ones do not. Entry-level accountants in the future will need to possess higher critical thinking and analytical skills than accountants of years past.

The Pathways Commission (Bruce Behn, William Ezzell, Leslie Murphy, Judy Rayburn, Melvin Stith, and Jerry Strawser, “The Pathways Commission on Accounting Higher Education: Charting a National Strategy for the Next Generation of Accountants”, Issues in Accounting Education, vol. 27, no. 3, pp. 595–600, 2012) identified a need for a new education model to align with the contemporary environment and evolving demands on accounting professionals. Accordingly, the Institute of Management Accountants and the Management Accounting Section of the American Accounting Association (AAA) formed a Joint Curriculum Task Force to create a comprehensive educational framework that defines the required competencies of accounting and finance professionals working in various organizational settings. This task force recommended that accounting education focuses on curricular requirements for long-term career demands (Raef A. Lawson, Edward J. Blocher, Peter C. Brewer, Gary Cokins, James E. Sorensen, David E. Stout, Gary L. Sundem, Susan K. Wolcott, and Marc J. F. Wouters, “Focusing Accounting Curricula on Students’ Long-Run Careers: Recommendations for an Integrated Competency-based Framework for Accounting Education,” Issues in Accounting Education, pp. 295-317, 2014). The framework also incorporates the competencies identified by the Pathways Commission (2012), including technical knowledge.

Incorporating RPA in accounting education is consistent with calls to create a new accounting education model that is better aligned with accounting professionals’ evolving demands and roles. Indeed, CPAs need to develop a new perspective toward the professional workplace and take advantage of robots’ strengths (Vasarhelyi and Rozario, 2018). As such, accounting education should include competencies related to the role of RPA in the accounting profession.

To what extent is RPA being taught in accounting education today? To answer that question, the authors conducted an online poll of 426 accounting faculty from the AAA faculty directory. Respondents included department chairs (15%) and faculty (85%). Respondents came from institutions that only have undergraduate accounting programs (23%) and both undergraduate and graduate accounting programs (77%). Exhibit 1 depicts the poll results.

While the literature suggests that accounting education should include RPA competencies, the authors’ poll indicates that RPA is not currently being covered in accounting curricula. Consistent with Lawson (2014), accounting curriculum development efforts should focus on developing competencies and the educational needs of accounting students for their long-term careers. Accordingly, the authors reviewed the literature to identify RPA competencies that should be included in accounting education.

While the literature related to RPA in accounting education is sparse, a variety of sources were identified that provide insights related to potential RPA learning objectives and approaches (Cohen, Rozario & Zhang 2019; Cooper et al. 2019; Cooper, Lauren, D., Kip Holderness, Trevor Sorensen, and David Wood, “Perceptions of robotic process automation in public accounting,” SSRN 3445005, 2020; Dodds, Zachary, Lloyd Greenwald, Ayanna Howard, Sheila Tejada, and Jerry Weinberg, “Components, Curriculum, and Community: Robots and Robotics in Undergraduate AI Education,” AI Magazine, Spring 2006, pp. 11-22; Can Tansel Kaya, Mete Turkyilmaz, and Burcu Birol, “Impact of RPA Technologies on Accounting Systems,” The Journal of Accounting and Finance, pp. 235-250, 2019; BriAuna Keys and Yibo Zhang, Introducing RPA in an Undergraduate AIS Course: Three RPA Exercises on Process Automations in Accounting,” Journal of Emerging Technologies in Accounting, 2020, https://doi.org/10.2308/JETA-2020-033; and Alok Manni Tripathi, Learning Robotic Process Automation, Packt Publishing 2018). In addition, training materials from robotic software providers were identified that recommended RPA learning objectives (Automation Anywhere 2020, https://university.automationanywhere.com/; Blue Prism 2020, https://www.blueprism.com/; UiPath 2020, https://www.uipath.com). Based on a review of the literature, the RPA competencies and topics in Exhibit 2 are recommended by the authors.

Identifying RPA competencies is the first step to incorporating RPA into the accounting curriculum. The next step is to determine the best way to integrate the competencies into courses such as financial and managerial accounting, taxation, accounting information systems (AIS), and auditing. One approach is to join theory and practice together. More specifically, this means identifying ways RPA is being used (or will be used) in the profession and mapping those examples to courses. RPA is being used (or will be used) in the accounting profession for the following types of activities:

  • Opening, reading, and sending emails and attachments.
  • Logging into applications and entering or changing information.
  • Moving, changing, or deleting files and folders.
  • Running batches.
  • Extracting and reformatting data into reports.
  • Collecting and processing data from multiple data sources.
  • Making calculations and executing tasks or jobs due to the results of these calculations.
  • Filling in forms.
  • Generating and distributing reports.
  • Generating early warnings.
  • Making auto-corrections.
  • Making automatic journal entries.
  • Auditing, blocking, or correcting transaction duplications.
  • Automated risk analysis and automated execution due to this risk analysis.
  • Automated payment processing.
  • Automatically executing transaction approvals.

Exhibit 3 depicts the functions and processes that utilize RPA and courses that might incorporate the use of RPA in those areas. After the functions and processes that utilize RPA are mapped to courses, the next step is to determine the best way to achieve the competencies. While utilizing textbooks will help students master RPA competencies, it will also be necessary to use technology for students to experience RPA for themselves. Assuming a typical accounting curriculum that includes courses in financial, managerial, tax, auditing, and accounting information systems, the authors recommend the following approach:

  • Introduce RPA theory and technical concepts in accounting information systems.
  • Integrate the application of RPA in financial and managerial accounting, taxation, and auditing.

Because textbooks do not currently include extensive coverage of RPA, accounting professors should take steps to incorporate RPA competencies into financial, managerial accounting, tax, auditing, and AIS courses using a software-specific approach. For example, the UiPath Academic Alliance (https://www.uipath.com/rpa/academic-alliance) program offers training and software for classroom use at no charge to faculty and students. 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. Large public accounting firms also provide resources that could be used to incorporate RPA in the accounting curriculum. For example, The EY Academic Resource Center (https://go.ey.com/3ip0ZsP) has a free comprehensive RPA curriculum for faculty. The EY 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.

Incorporating RPA into the accounting curriculum is necessary to prepare students for the profession they will be entering. Accordingly, accounting educators should take steps to incorporate RPA into their accounting programs.

Martin Coe, DBA, CPA, CMA, CISA, CISM, is a professor and chair of data analytics program at Augustana College, Rock Island, Ill.

Amy Igou, PhD, CMA, is an associate professor–accounting at University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, Ia.

Nadia Schwartz, CPA, is an associate professor–accounting, also at Augustana College.

 

 

 

Exhibit 1

Results of Accounting Faculty Poll

 

Question Results Interpretation
Does your accounting program have an accounting robotics course?
Yes 0.93%
No 97.35%
Not Sure 1.71%
Majority of respondents think their accounting programs do not have an accounting robotics course.
Does your accounting program cover accounting robotics in any of its courses?
Yes 10.59%
No 69.00%
Not Sure 20.40%
Majority of respondents think their accounting programs do not cover accounting robotics in any of their courses.
Does your accounting program plan to modify its curriculum in the next year to cover accounting robotics?
Yes 9.35%
No 54.21%
Not Sure 36.45%
Majority of respondents think their accounting programs do not plan to modify their curriculum in the next year to cover accounting robotics.
Do you think accounting programs should cover accounting robotics?
Yes 31.93%
No 10.12%
Not Sure 57.94%
Majority of respondents are not sure if accounting programs should cover accounting robotics.

 

Please indicate your level of agreement with the following statement: I think accounting robotics will impact the accounting profession.

 

Strongly Agree 20.09%
Agree 35.51%
Neither Agree nor Disagree 41.12%
Disagree 2.34%
Strongly Disagree 0.93%
Majority of respondents think accounting robotics will impact the accounting profession.
Please indicate your level of agreement with the following statement: My students are concerned about the impact that accounting robotics will have on their career.
Strongly Agree 4.05%
Agree 13.40%
Neither Agree nor Disagree 43.15%
Disagree 25.23%
Strongly Disagree 14.17%
Majority of respondents are not sure if their students are concerned about the impact that accounting robotics will have on their career.

 

 

 

 

Exhibit 2

RPA Competencies and Topics

 

# Competency Description Topics
1 RPA Domain Understand what RPA is and why RPA is utilized in accounting disciplines.
  •          Definition
  •          Business Case
  •          Scope and Techniques
2 RPA Technology Understand basic RPA architecture and identify major software providers.
  •          Software Options
  •          RPA Architecture
3 RPA Design Understand how to design robotic processes and bots.
  •          Workflow
  •          Record and Play
  •          Interfaces
  •          Data Manipulation
  •          Testing
4 RPA Operation Understand how to use bots.
  •          Deploying Bots
  •          Controlling Bots
5 RPA Maintenance Understand how to maintain robotic processes and bots.
  •          Revising Processes
  •          Revising Bots

 

 

 

Exhibit 3

Functions and Processes that can Utilize RPA Mapped to Courses

 

Function Process Course
Expenditure Cycle Functions
  •   Purchase order entry and delivery
  •   Vendor verification and setup
  •   Vendor master-data management
  •   Invoice receipt and classification
  •   Invoice data extraction
  •   Invoice data entry and interface
  •   Purchase order/invoice/receipt matching
  •   Vendor statement reconciliation
  •   Accounts payable accrual journal entry
  •   Payment processing
Accounting Information Systems
Revenue Cycle Functions
  •   Sales order entry
  •   Customer data set up
  •   Customer data management
  •   Billing/invoicing
  •   Collection activities
  •   Cash applications
  •   Credit risk management
  •   Dispute verification and resolution
  •   Chargeback management
  •   Credit risk management
Accounting Information Systems
General Accounting
  •   General ledger and subledger reconciliations
  •   Bank reconciliations
  •   Inter-company reconciliations
  •   Manual journal entries
  •   Reclassification journal entries
  •   Fixed asset accounting
  •   Inter-company settlements
  •   Financial close activities
Accounting Information Systems
Financial Planning, Analysis and Reporting
  •   Data aggregation
  •   Report preparation
  •   Report distribution
Accounting Information Systems, Financial Accounting, and Managerial Accounting
Taxation
  •   Data aggregation for tax liability
  •   Convert data to tax basis
  •   Complete tax return workbooks
  •   Prepare tax returns
  •   File tax returns and payments
  •   Tax accounting entries
Taxation
Auditing
  •   Risk assessment
  •   Identify and respond to potential fraud
  •   System configuration review
  •   Audit entire populations rather than the samples
  •   Perform reconciliations
  •   Compliance audits
Auditing