insight magazine

Ethics Engaged

Ethics in the Age of AI

Putting your human ethics and creativity to use in critical thinking and complex problem-solving.
Elizabeth Pittelkow, CPA Controller, Litera Microsystems


Each day we hear more about how artificial intelligence (AI), automation, blockchain, and the likes will change the future of accounting and finance. We are told that as accounting and finance professionals, we need to embrace new technology and learn to adapt to stay relevant in the future.

AI will be an increasing larger presence in our world, but it cannot compete with the analytical, emotional, or ethical skills that a human brings to the professional world. Take a look at the World Economic Forum’s “Future of Jobs” report that predicts the top 10 skill sets needed to thrive in 2020:

10skills

Consider just the top three skills alone — complex problem-solving, critical thinking, and creativity — and how they apply to the accounting and finance profession. You can read the skills as a sentence: We will need creativity in critical thinking to help us with complex problem-solving.

In accounting, it can feel like we spend more time gathering data instead of interpreting data. When deadlines are tight, it is easy to embrace the attitude of “good enough” once the data is recorded. We move from project to project, focusing more on quantity and quickness instead of quality and questioning how the data can make business better for our companies and clients.

As AI and automation help us work through projects faster, we should refocus our time on critically thinking through data in creative ways to help solve problems and make processes better. For example, if you are stressed closing the books every month, you could be setting aside data analysis that would help you understand the reasons why the financials are the way they are instead of just what they are.

How do our ethics play into creativity, critical thinking, and complex problem-solving? You should always approach these activities with a solid ethical framework:

1. Determine your values. What do you care about (e.g. people, innovation, quality, etc.) and how does it align with the missions of your organization and clients? Ask why you are doing something.

2. Define your objectives.
Ask what it is you are trying to achieve.

3. Develop your plan. Ask how you can achieve your objectives. This step is where creative critical thinking for complex problem-solving comes in.

4. Direct your plan. Ask who can help you carry out your plan in the right way.

5. Debrief. Ask what happened because of your plan. This step is commonly skipped because it involves analyzing the outcomes of an action, and many people want to jump to the next project. Reflection is vital to learning what went well and what needs improvement.

Throughout the ethical framework, discuss each step with others. Ethical behavior is strongest when accountability exists. Gathering different perspectives will encourage critical thinking and facilitate more creative solutions.

Again, you must ensure you have enough time to think critically, complete your work, and make decisions. Research suggests that people justify shortcuts to meet deadlines. The next time you have a short amount of time to close the books, finish tax returns, or complete a consulting project, consider the quality of your work. If you are concerned about quality, ask for more time and explain your reasons. Give yourself and your team members more time to act ethically.

Also, understand the environment in which you are making decisions. Ethical priming is the idea that our behaviors are influenced by unconscious clues in our environment. The New York Times article, “Our Inconsistent Ethical Instincts,” states: “Our moods can make misdeeds seem more or less sinful. Ethical violations become less offensive after people watch a humor program like ‘Saturday Night Live.’ But they become more offensive after reading emotional stories like in ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul.’” The point of knowing the environment around you is that it matters, and you shape what the environment is for yourself and others around you.

Finally, with enough time and the right mindset, creativity can follow. As mentioned above, talking to others will help generate more creative solutions, and there are other creativity boosters you can try. Here are three easy ones:

1. Look at something green. “Our brains associate the color green — which is so prevalent in nature — with growth and development. And simply thinking about growth has been shown to spur our desire for self-improvement and mastering tasks,” says Stephanie Lichtenfeld, Ph.D., in a study by the University of Munich.

2. Go for a walk. Our brains need breaks. If you try to force creativity, your brain may get frustrated with the task. Exercise stimulates creativity because our brains are more wired for movement than for language.

3. Keep a journal. Draw, write, or do both. Drawing activates different parts of your brain than when you think or speak, which will help your brain be more receptive to new thoughts and ideas. Writing gets your ideas out of your head, which you can revisit later. Do you think it is easier to write down ethical solutions or unethical ones to revisit? I trust you agree that it is easier to write down ethical thoughts, and in that case, writing gives you some accountability in your critical thinking and problem-solving.

Technical skills will always be important in our profession and we should continue to hone them, but what will continue to separate us from automation and AI — and even other professions — is our ability to complement our technical skills with real, human ethical behaviors and strategic soft skills.