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Influencing Tomorrow

Here’s how technology and a technologically savvy generation of up-and-comers is defining—and redefining—the American workforce. By Carolyn Kmet | Spring 2016

Influence Tomorrow

Bye-bye cube city. Today’s modern office is all about open floor plans, bustling with people wearing noise-canceling headphones, working at standing desks and on exercise balls, and occasionally wandering over to the state-of-the-art coffee machine for a triple chai soy latte.

Yes, a wave of young pros with a strong identity and even stronger idea of what it wants from employers—coupled with the fast-paced evolution of technology—has spurred dramatic changes in both the workplace and the workforce, shifting company cultures, employer values and employee motivators significantly.

For one thing, the “office” of the future won’t be limited to physical walls and doors. As Leslie Shaffer Chamberlain, associate director of Alumni Career Services at DePaul University, Chicago, points out, technology is driving collaboration and flexibility in the workplace, allowing teams to seamlessly, virtually work together across the country and even around the globe. But there’s a downside to our connected culture: “Many employees are expected to be working at a moment’s notice,” she says. says.

The accounting and finance industry is no exception, and, in fact, technology is not only changing when and how work is done, but also the work itself as job functions move away from data management and race towards data analysis. Here’s what you need to know.

Skip the Number Crunching

“Technology has enabled the finance function to move away from highly time-consuming manual accounting entries, approvals, audits and reconciliations. In exchange, we’ve seen a shift to more unified operational and management systems, rules-driven workflows, automatic reconciliations and highly intelligent smart audits that allow for ’abnormal’ transactions and data to be flagged for review,” says Chicago-based Colin Anderson, vice president of strategy at DayNine Consulting, a global workday consulting and deployment partner. “This shift frees up a tremendous amount of investment time and money for planning, analysis and recommendations, which has spurred tremendous growth within the financial planning and analysis function,” he adds.

This matters because—surprise!—new generations entering the workforce will be the ones asked to solve the technology challenges—challenges such as the belief that technology is still insufficient for gathering and analyzing real-time global and company-wide information, the fact that organizations are often unable to fully understand and utilize the technologies used and the data produced to drive decisions and insights, and the realization that many organizations just don’t have “a seat at the table.” We’ve all seen it; management can sometimes be reluctant to listen and take advice. But Anderson believes a seat will open up as the finance industry moves further towards strategic analysis.

Culture Blending Versus Clashing

For the first time in history, there are four distinct and very different generations working side-by-side: Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Generation X and Generation Y (aka Millennials). “Each group has very different value systems, aspirations, and ways of interacting and learning,” says Chris Williams, managing director at Root Inc., an Ohio-based company with offices in Chicago, specializing in employee engagement. “Organizations that ‘win’ understand how to manage this complex web and strategically engage the entire workforce around a powerful vision.” Therein lies the challenge.

Effectively managing a blended workforce often means encouraging flexibility and recognizing the strengths of each distinct group. “Previous generations followed a more linear path in their careers, but today’s workforce is striving for broader experiences that don’t necessarily fit perfectly into clearly predefined roles,” says Anderson. At DayNine Consulting, for example, employees work with the company to create personalized career roadmaps that guide their professional journeys.

“Gen Xers, Millennials and the upcoming Gen Zers insist on taking control of their careers by moving up or moving on at their own pace, not at the traditional pace of their employers,” says Nancy Ahlrichs, an HR consultant with talent development firm FlashPoint. “The younger generations have no fear of changing jobs, much less entire careers.”

Those careers are driven as much by personal fulfillment and values as they are by ambition. Which is why, says Williams, young professionals tend to identify companies that match up with both their passions and their skills. While not always easy, finding a match is important because it keeps them driven. “Young pros are more willing to give discretionary effort if their personal passions align or compliment what the organization believes in too,” he says.

Skills Are Broadening

Speaking of ambition, Hassan Akmal, adjunct professor and Business Career Services director at Chicago’s Loyola University Quinlan School of Business, warns that making it to the next level isn’t as easy as it once was. “Today’s workplace and workforce is much more cutthroat. Job security is a concern for many, and you need to excel in performance in many cases just to keep your position,” he says.

“Employers are seeking employees who demonstrate the ability to work collaboratively and autonomously; they’re looking for creativity and innovation, and people who can think differently,” says Shaffer Chamberlain. She adds that companies are after technologically savvy employees who bring experiential learning and flexibility, and the drive for continuous improvement.

“Employers want substance and someone who can embrace change,” says Akmal. The ability to collaborate is also critical in today’s workplace. Williams points out that, “Many organizations are highly matrixed; success or failure will depend on the individual’s ability to work across business units, functions, silos and, of course, generations, to better serve the customer.”

Indeed, employers are looking for a variety of skills. Instead of just a specialization, they seek perpetual learners who are interested in new tools and technologies, have a sense of entrepreneurship and can wear many hats.

“We look for collaborative problem-solvers, and open and transparent communicators,” says Anderson. “We want people who aren’t afraid to raise their hand with suggestions on how to innovate and improve when they see an opportunity.”