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Teaching Tech to Partners

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Is there a generation gap in firms when it comes to technology? "Absolutely," says Lisa Dunnigan, principal in charge of IT for Olsen Thielen in St. Paul, Minn. "Today's (young) professionals grew up with this technology. More senior partners have to learn how to use it, but it's not an extension of themselves like it is for the younger staff. They're more afraid of pushing the wrong button, and have learned to work without the technology and don't see why they should change."

"As the development of new technologies continue to change the business landscape, all of us must learn to adapt to these changes," says Alvin Katz, president and CEO of KatzAbosch in Timonium, Md. "It's not so much a matter of a generational issue as it is whether someone is willing to embrace new technology. For those that embrace technology, keeping pace with the burgeoning tools that enable CPAs to do their job more effectively and efficiently has become standard procedure. For those who are apprehensive regarding technology, understanding and utilizing these new tools can be a daunting task. Both generations, however, are fully aware that with progress comes expectations, and these expectations include learning new software, technology, and products in order to better service clients."

To answer the question of a gap "with a blanket 'yes' is unfair," claims Sandrina Devlopoulos, director of operations and marketing for Gettry Marcus Stern & Lehrer, Woodbury, N.Y. "Of course there are generational gaps. It depends on the culture of the firm and the level of involvement in technology that a firm requires from partners versus junior staff. What we have clearly seen is the ease in which junior staff adapt to and use any technology. They also thrive on learning and mastering new applications. Our partners and senior staff use technology, such as BlackBerries, and will learn new applications, but at a different pace."

Differences can also be seen in the way staff at various levels use technology, she adds. "Younger staff make full use of all the features and functions available in a new application, and will use the Windows environment to multi-task between several applications, while older staff will most likely stick with the few critical applications they need, may work strictly with menus, and will probably follow the steps provided in the original training. So the gap lies in the way technology is used."

"There are unquestionably many firms with practitioners, both staff and senior partners, that hinder or totally prevent the use of best practices in their firms," says managing member Charles Tzinberg of Tzinberg & Dowdy in Glen Carbon, Ill. "Many firms continue to miss the benefits, to both the firm and clients, of some of the technological improvements because of their unwillingness to embrace new technology." Examples, he adds, include e-filing of returns and receipt and delivery of data via portals.

Managing partner Larry Gray at Alfermann, Gray & Co., Rolla, Mo., has also noticed this gap among clients. "Many of our older clients need to be walked through such technologies as portals or Web site tools," he says.

"It may take the Boomers just a little bit longer to transition to the new technologies, but at the end of the day I have found that they do embrace them," says James Bourke, partner at Red Bank, N.J.-based WithumSmith+Brown.

Embracing Means Convincing

"Our firm is fortunate to have senior team members that are receptive to new technology or software applications," notes Robert Thell, training director of Blanski Peter Kronlage & Zoch, Golden Valley, Minn. "One of the differences I have observed is how team members evaluate new technology. Senior team members tend to focus on how it will improve current processes. Younger team members are initially interested in new features and capabilities. This may be due to senior team members having a greater understanding of firm operations and striving to improve internal processes."

"Embracing technology must come from the top down," says Dunnigan. "Training on technology has to be made a priority. Without that, you will have a very difficult time convincing partners of the value of training. If you can show them how training will save time by making staff more efficient, and therefore save money and increase revenue/hour for the firm, this helps. You can also show how training staff to get more out of the technology can also leverage the many thousands of dollars invested in technology every year."

OT is discussing expanding the use of social networking with the staff, according to Dunnigan, "things like LinkedIn and Facebook. We did training for the staff on these sites this past summer. We don't encourage texting and instant messaging for business use because it's difficult to capture the communication and include it in the client records." The firm allows staff to use Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, and other sites "on a limited basis" during the day as long as it doesn't interfere with client commitments, she adds.

Paperless and document management technology are two examples of technology that senior staff have encountered and embraced in the past few years. Other technologies await: In 2006, KatzAbosch explored the use of virtual world technology by launching a fully functional presence in Second Life. "In 2008, we offered several internal sessions that investigated and reviewed how we can utilize LinkedIn and other social networking tools," Thell adds. "I was impressed that many of our senior members were interested in using these marketing tools and that several already had LinkedIn profiles."

"As a firm, we've refrained from offering online social networking sites to all our staff," says Devlopoulos. "We'd prefer that our staff communicate with prospects, referral sources, and clients in more personal, traditional ways."

Gray's firm hosts retreats for staff to address process issues and collaborate on resolutions, bringing all staff into the process and getting buy-in up front. When implementing new technology, "We bring everyone into the same room and go over the implementation process step by step, as well as address the reason why the change is being made. We begin to close the tech gap by closing the communication gap," he says, adding that his firm planned to implement a social media program after the April tax deadline, specifically a firm blog, giving the task to twenty-something staffers.

"We bridge generational gaps by fully utilizing our IT department to answer questions, provide training, and offer help-desk support," says Devlopoulos. "In addition, we follow guidelines to ensure that new technology and applications are introduced in the right way. It's vitally important that you have senior management support any new technology, and we find a core group of individuals within the firm that will spearhead the effort." The firm also makes sure to select individuals from both its offices. The firm also regularly communicates with staff on implementation and set up of new technology, and gets feedback from staff to resolve issues quickly.

"By going through this process, resistance to the new technology is diminished and any generational gap issues are minimized because partners and staff understand the importance to the firm and the benefits to themselves," Devlopoulos says.

Other Best Practices

Thell's firm is a member of several professional organizations that review and evaluate technology and its impacts. "Typically, senior team members participate in events sponsored by these organizations," he says, "and we conduct technology-related short training sessions. Our manager/shareholder meetings also include technology topics."

"Often, partners don't want to be the ones asking the 'stupid' questions in front of a group of staff. Take some extra time to train the partners independently," Bourke says. "I have my IT group check in with the partners to make sure they're comfortable with their new technology and, if not, take some extra time to show them some of the specifics about that technology in their office."

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