NextGen Conference Speaker Says Adaptation Is Essential in New Age of Tech Disruption

Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
May 3, 2019
Rebekah Brown

Rebekah Brown, director of development at the Maryland Association of CPAs and a keynote speaker at the Foundation for Accounting Education’s NextGen Conference on May 3, said that the rate of technological change is growing enormously, and that CPAs must learn to anticipate and adapt to it if they want to thrive in this new era of disruptive innovation.

“We’re at this point where change isn’t being experienced as being manageable, but as disruptive. And we’ve seen it, right? Toys “R” Us, Sears, Blockbuster—disruption in industries and in companies that we thought would be around forever,” she said.

Surveys conducted by her own organization found that even CPA firms are feeling this disruption. She said that, last year, 71 percent of Maryland professionals said they or their clients were experiencing moderate to severe disruption in their industry; this year, that number has risen to 83 percent. But while such developments could easily be seen as a cause for fear, Brown suggested, instead, that they could be seen as creating an opportunity.

“While this can seem scary, the opportunities are immense,” she said. “That’s why it’s really exciting to be a young CPA right now. There’s so much opportunity, so many different career paths and things you can experience and do because of the age we’re in and because of technology.”

Not that it will necessarily be easy, though. She pointed out that CPAs are extremely busy people, which, she said, is the number one challenge when anticipating and adapting to these kinds of changes.

“I think sometimes, especially at the beginning of our career, we’re so focused on the day-to-day just trying to survive—let’s be honest—that we’re not able to pick up our head and look toward the horizon and see what’s coming next,” she said. She added that she recommends that CPAs take some time out of each day to think about the sorts of trends they and their clients are facing.

Brown said that the current age will be marked by technology such as blockchain, artificial intelligence, cognitive computing and robotic process automation. With tools like these, she said, the industry has an unprecedented opportunity not just to make incremental changes but to fully transform into “a better, more preferred profession for ourselves.”

Beyond being aware of the trends, being an adaptable CPA also means understanding what those trends mean. For example, she said, new technologies tend to eventually spark the creation of new regulations and standards concerning them. The General Data Protection Regulation, for example, developed in response to the explosive growth of data mining and analytics.

Brown also said that CPAs should be aware of demographic trends. Every day, 10,000 baby boomers reach retirement age. At the same time, millennials have become the largest generation in the workforce today and, by 2025, will make up 75 percent of it. Meanwhile, Generation Z is coming up behind them and graduating from college. But, she pointed out, there are some people missing: Generation X. There are not as many people from that generation in the workforce, which, she said, can have troubling implications for firm leadership and succession planning.

“What we see is this leadership void. We have boomers retiring, millennials and Gen Z coming up, and then this gap. We don’t have enough Gen X to fill the spot of baby boomers retiring, and so there’s a talent war out there. There’s a shortage in our profession and, really, all professions because of this,” she said.

Brown said that firms need to find creative solutions, such as fast-tracking some millennials, or maybe even taking advantage of the “boomerang effect” and bringing back older people to mentor young professionals and help people move up faster.

At the same time, she warned against what she said was the “competence trap.” Successfully adapting to disruptive change means not only learning new skills but unlearning old skills. Too often, she said, people believe that the skills that brought them success once are the same skills that will bring other people success now. Her organization recently looked at the World Economic Forum’s report on the kinds of skills that will be essential for the demands of the 21st century economy and, after refining and applying the list to the accounting profession, said that it came down to about eight things.

Some of these should be familiar enough to a CPA. One is deep technical expertise, such as audit or tax. The other is niche area knowledge, like nonprofit organizations or state and local taxes. Then there’s technological literacy and data analytics.

“That’s what we’ve always had,” she said.

But on top of that, according to Brown, there’s what she called the “boundary-crossing competencies” that allow people to apply that deep technological knowledge to different domains. These tend to be softer skills, such as leadership, anticipating and serving evolving needs, strategic and critical thinking, synthesizing intelligence and insight, communications, integration and collaboration.

“They’re all important, but I think sometimes we miss out on those boundary-crossing ones. All that is built on a foundation of empathy and trust, and our profession is built on trust,” she said.

The last one, in particular—collaboration—will become especially important in the future, Brown said. She noted that individuals cannot know everything by themselves, nor can they learn everything by themselves. Being able to collaborate with others will, therefore, become vital to building a career.

Overall, according to Brown, the winners in the new economy will be those who can anticipate and adapt to change. While inaction has no cost during times of relative stability, today is not one of those times, she said. Failing to adapt is already costing real money.

“So the question changes from, ‘What’s the return on investment if I don’t know [an idea] is absolutely going to work?’ to ‘What’s the risk of not investing in this?’” said Brown. “What are we missing out on, and even if it’s not a perfect solution, what are we learning in that process?” 


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