Technical Skills for the 21st Century

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Harry HoweTechnical Skills for the 21st Century
Presented by Harry Howe
CFO, Capstone Technologies LLC and President of the Indianapolis Chapter of the Institute of Management Accountants.
Contact Harry Howe at: [email protected]

April 24, 2001

Visit the AccountingWEB Workshop Calendar for upcoming sessions.


Read the full transcript of this workshop!

The workplace of the 21st Century will be radically different for accounting and finance professionals than the one in which I started my career.

This transformation will include the development of a set of technical skills that will become critical to an individual’s success in this field. I believe these skills will include:

  1. Expertise in a variety of relevant desktop applications;
  2. Leveraging the Web for communication, collaboration, business intelligence, and research;
  3. Developing and managing a virtual office, including mobile computing, communications, and a website for networking with work partners, suppliers, and associates;
  4. Technology aids for business and personal time management and communication in a 24 X 7 world; and,
  5. The capacity to filter information, prioritize, and focus in an environment characterized by information overload and multitasking.

Full Transcript

Session Moderator: Welcome everyone and thank you for joining us today! We are happy to have Harry Howe with us to share his ideas about necessary technical skills for the 21st century. Harry Howe has over 20 years experience helping businesses achieve sustained financial improvements. Harry is a Business Administration graduate of Bucknell University. He worked for General Electric where he completed their Financial Management Program. At Thomson Consumer Electronics (a result of the RCA & GE consumer electronics merger), Harry was Controller for North American TV Operations with responsibility for seven manufacturing facilities and various headquarters functions ($1.6 billion in revenues; 13,000 employees).

At Thomson, Harry played a key role in the planning and start-up of the world's first digital satellite system manufacturing facility. Harry is noted in Cost Management for Today's Advanced Manufacturing (Harvard Business School Press, 1988), and is certified in Production and Inventory Management (CPIM) by the American Production and Inventory Control Society (APICS). He is also a Certified Management Accountant (CMA), and conducts workshops for the Institute of Management Accountants, where he serves on the Indianapolis Chapter's Board of Directors and is the current Chapter President.

Welcome, Harry!

Harry D. Howe: This afternoon I would like to highlight those skills that I believe to be essential for accounting and finance professionals in the days ahead. I think this will be a fun session and I look forward to your participation. These skills are based on trends I'm observing today and I expect to become more accentuated in the future.

As these trends converge, they will affect how work gets done within your organization, how organizations inside and outside your business interact, and your own value added to your organization. I don't claim to be a prophet; however, I do know how to connect the dots. My experience as CFO of Capstone Technologies, coupled with consulting in the area of technology planning with our clients, gives me a special vantage point from which to observe these trends.

Our focus this afternoon is not the trends themselves, but rather their collective impact. With change comes opportunity. But with the increased pace of change, the window of opportunity to capitalize on those changes is increasingly brief. Let me begin by addressing one of the key skills to be mastered - desktop applications. Mastery of desktop applications means an advanced level of proficiency with those applications delivered to your workstation.

Typically, these are the tools that can empower you to operate as a self-contained micro-business. They enable information access, analysis, communication, collaboration, integration, and other highly valued processes. From my consulting engagements, it's my observation that few accounting and finance professionals today are at this level. In fact, most have never invested the time to do the simple things like customizing their tool bars that would have a significant impact on their day-to-day productivity. We adjust the seat and mirrors in our car for the half-hour drive to work and eagerly search for short cuts. Then we sit down for a ten-hour day in front of our computer that still has the default settings from when it was set up.

You say, "Who has time to fuss around with computer short cuts?" Well, that's a different workshop - the one about "what's urgent" vs. "what's important."

Jeff Collins: That is the easy seems to have added an additional two hours a day to my workload!

Harry D. Howe: Jeff, I'll address that point in a moment if you'll bear with me. Mastery of desktop applications involves proficiency with a variety of tools, knowing which is the right one for a specific task, how they can work together, and customizing solutions to improve your personal productivity and value. It also includes being alert for new applications that you can learn and add to your personal tool kit.

In particular, be on the lookout for things that can consolidate into a single application tasks that currently require multiple applications. Or a tool that will simplify a complex process or speed up a bottleneck process. One suggestion here. I don't recommend leading the parade when it comes to new technologies or tools. I differentiate state-of-the-art from state-of-application.

Kevin McMillis: Like what?

Harry D. Howe: Kevin, I'm talking about perhaps a database...or a utility or an application you might design in a spreadsheet that would address a manual and complex task.

Kevin McMillis: Okay, thanks

Harry D. Howe: State-of-the-art technology is often over the edge. I'm suggesting being near the front of the "state-of-application" parade. So mastering desktop technology involves taking the initiative to understand and utilize the full functionality of the applications available to you and finding others that would add value.

The most important steps come at the beginning. Additionally, what is the skill level of those who will be using it? Planning should be about half the effort and execution the other half... testing is the "3rd half."

Holli McKay: What is the key factor to anticipate or to acknowledge prior to building one database that your entire firm would utilize? We are currently looking into building a more functional database that would benefit our firm. Not everyone would be changing the information, but certainly accessing it. We're looking into having a VPN and having more advanced staff maintain the database.

Harry D. Howe: Sounds like you are doing a good job of planning. Most folks make a wrong turn in the beginning with too complex a design to maintain.

The second problem many encounter is how to get the information out that they put in. So, it is very important to define the output requirements. If the data isn't in there, you'll never get it out.

Holli McKay: We've spent MUCH time planning, as it is the most important part.

Harry D. Howe: I believe it is helpful to think of yourself as a self-contained micro-business. Like any business, you should be looking upstream at your suppliers and downstream to your customers. These may be co-workers in your own department, another department of your company, a foreign affiliate, or other companies. Information used to be power and people tended to hoard it. I think this has been particularly true in our field. Today, our technology supports collaboration and companies are sharing information.

So, with the convergence of increased power on the desktop, mobile communications and computing, plus an ever-expanding library of information, you have more control over your own destiny. This control includes what you choose to work on, plus when and where you work. The other side of this equation is your responsibility to contribute to the library and respond to those with whom you are networked.

Doing all of this successfully requires the capacity to filter information, prioritize, and focus in an environment characterized by information overload and multitasking. Let's pause for a minute to see if you have any questions or comments on anything up to this point.

Lezley Wass: Do you think these skills replace other skills that will no longer be necessary?

Harry D. Howe: Good question, Lezley. No, I view these skills as foundational. I see them as an additional set of prerequisites.

Ok, let's move on. Let's go back to mobile communications and computing. We're seeing "device convergence" between cell phones, pagers, and pocket PCs with wireless modems. In the near future, most of us will be online and in-touch 24x7. As with most technologies, this will be both a blessing and a curse. Last week, I was seated next to an individual in a meeting who came with a cell phone, a Palm Pilot, and a pager. One of them would vibrate, ring, or chirp about every ten minutes. He would excuse himself, return a few minutes later, and then the process would repeat itself.

This episode reminded me of the importance of managing technology before it begins to manage you. This is another key to success. People tell me, "This was supposed to make my job easier - now it's more complex than ever!" Technology often moves faster than people can learn and adapt.

Harry D. Howe: Jeff, this brings us back to your earlier comment. Would you like to elaborate?

Jeff Collins: I am just taking this all in, no comment from the peanut gallery just yet.

Harry D. Howe: Each of us has had an experience like Jeff's. The point is, training must done well and done continuously if new technology is to be used effectively.

Jeff Collins: I am still hear, just trying to make technology work for me, phone ringing, email chiming, you know

Harry D. Howe: Your accessibility through mobile communications is just the beginning of the blending of your personal life with your business life.

Mobile computing and wireless communications are the building blocks for the "virtual office." As a consultant, my mobile office is a necessity. It also gives me the flexibility to work from home or when I'm on vacation or whenever I'm inspired! You get the idea. I need to be assertive in managing my time to strike the right balance between my personal life and my business life because the boundaries are no longer defined by a particular time or place.

Jeff Collins: So when do you shut down and rest with everything always running

Harry D. Howe: That's the challenge that must be addressed. I'll share my thoughts in a minute. I'd like to hear from some of you.

Kevin McMillis: I feel that I am always on with access to computers at work, home and well anywhere you want... My truck even has adapters for my computer. Sad huh?

Session Moderator: It sounds to me like efficiency should be just as much a part of training as application training and training on new equipment

Harry D. Howe: I think if you go with the flow your work will suck up all your life. You must actively manage your time.

Steve Whitney: True.

Harry D. Howe: You can do that by scheduling personal time just as you would a business appointment.

Lezley Wass: Do these technical skills apply primarily to accountants?

Harry D. Howe: No, Lezley. This afternoon I'm focusing on accounting and finance professionals; however, I believe they apply pretty broadly. However, there will certainly be challenges unique to accountants. For example, as the pace of business change accelerates, professionals from all functions - manufacturing, marketing, engineering, accounting - must continuously adapt to business changes by reassessing what contribution is needed from them to sustain the success of the business. And it's a moving target.

Lezley Wass: Good point...thanks!

Harry D. Howe: So, for example, as the real value of your business shifts from tangible assets to less tangible assets such as know-how, knowledge, and other assets that often take the form of digital information, some of our former approaches to cost accounting will become irrelevant. Think about it - an asset in the digital world of 1's and 0's has no weight, no size, and can travel at the speed of light. The marginal cost to make one more is $0. No inventory is needed. You can sell them and keep them simultaneously. The originals and copies are indistinguishable.

This is pretty scary stuff for us accountants. So we must stay current if we are to be relevant. And technology will help us through online communities such as AccountingWEB, computer-based training, and other forms of long distance learning.

I'd like to highlight the importance of effective utilization of online resources.

Picture two finance professionals working side-by-side. One has at his disposal only the reference materials and tools that can be neatly stored in his cubicle. The other has researched and identified web-based resources relevant to her job and can use them as needed. All other things being equal, she will consistently out-perform her co-worker in terms of the quality and timeliness of her work.

Lezley Wass: What kind of resources are you referring to?

Harry D. Howe: In the context of a financial analyst's job, it might be prefab Excel templates for various analyses. It might be business intelligence on customers, suppliers, and competitors. Or the latest thinking on applications of the Balanced Scorecard or Real Options theory.

Or maybe up-to-date forecasts of economic data and foreign exchange rates, and customized financial calculators. It could be a network of contacts with expertise in specialized areas. Or it may be a web-based process for rapidly collecting ad hoc information from each of your worldwide manufacturing locations to satisfy that information request from the VP of Finance - for example, the application of the collaboration tools on the web -- such as those found on Yahoo! Groups -- that provide a group email address and website for sharing files, posting threaded messages, and a group calendar.

For the financial analyst who is frequently collecting ad hoc information from all the various outposts of a company, this is the greatest thing since the pocket protector. Let me pause for a moment to see if there are any other questions or comments...

Harry D. Howe: OK, let's move on to several "soft" skills. I think business relationships will be at least as important in the future as they are today. But they will be different. While you may become a self-contained micro-business, you will also have interdependence on a network of other self-contained micro-businesses. Your challenge will be to develop and maintain constructive working relationships with those in your network, many of whom you may never meet face-to-face.

Do any of you face this today -- working with colleagues you've never met face-to-face.

Lezley Wass: definitely

Steve Whitney: oh yes

Harry D. Howe: This is likely to be more the rule than the exception in the future. Social skills may take a slightly different form than today. For better or worse, I suspect that an affable personality and good looks will become a lesser factor in these long distance relationships. Such things will reflect your online personality as your willingness to share information, your responsiveness to information requests, and your dependability.

Stated differently, the character traits we value today we will value in the future. But they will be expressed and read through a different medium. Online etiquette is based on the golden rule. It's a good guide for when to mark a message urgent, or an acceptable time frame for responding to a message, and what to do with jokes and chain letters.

How can you cultivate positive working relationships with people with whom you have only a long distance relationship? I think it's basically the same as with your co-worker in the next cube. It starts with saying "hello", "please", and "thank you."

Another "soft" skill that is becoming increasingly important is holistic thinking. By that I mean the ability to see the big picture. In a networked business environment it becomes more difficult to understand the linkages between ourselves and the other various individuals and enterprises in our network. This leads to a discussion of prioritization and focus.

Steve Whitney: So True! Commonsense works well all the way around.... Be pleasant.

Harry D. Howe: Someone has said, "Opportunity no longer knocks, and it flows like an open fire hydrant." I call it the "Starbucks phenomenon." I enjoy coffee. My choices used to be regular or decaf, cream or sugar. My first Starbucks experience was disorienting because of the many new decisions that had to be made.

Steve Whitney: Sometimes there are too many choices, I get confused. Just coffee please!

Harry D. Howe: My point is twofold. First is prioritization. Which are the critical, strategic decisions that need to be made today? Note that your ability to prioritize requires an actionable objective that acts as a filter. Secondly, focus on those few tasks or decisions that you have identified as most important and give them your undivided attention.

Let me conclude and then I'll take a few questions. Studies of outstanding employees consistently indicate that the key to their success is not usually superior intelligence. More often, it is how they used what they had. Your future success is likely to be significantly influenced by how well you use the technology available to you. Don't expect to be recognized for finding a more efficient way to do your job. That's already expected of you. Rather, you will be recognized for the consistent quality and timeliness of your work.

One manager said, "It's not about working fast, it's about working fast enough and working smart."

OK. Questions or comments?

Lezley Wass: Back to the long distance working you have any more insight on ways to improve those relationships?

Harry D. Howe: I think they need to be nurtured... Just like the ones with your family.

Session Moderator: We have only a few minutes left - are there any other questions for Harry?

Jeff Collins: No, not at this time, great information though. I will share this will my staff.

Steve Whitney: Thank you for all the information - good job

Michael Platt: Harry, thank you so much for all the information you provided today.

Lezley Wass: Thanks for all of your insight....Excellent session, Harry!

Harry D. Howe: Thanks everyone. It was fun.

Michael Platt: Thank you! Good night!

Jeff Collins: bye

Session Moderator: Thank you so much Harry - great job!

Harry D. Howe: My pleasure.


Harry D. Howe has over 20 years experience helping businesses achieve sustained financial improvements. In addition to his role as Capstone Technologies’ CFO, he is a senior management consultant with in-depth experience in strategic planning, performance measurements, cost and working capital management, and project management.

After graduating from Bucknell University studying Business Administration, Harry worked for a CPA firm and then went to General Electric where he completed the Financial Management Program. At GE, he worked in the Wiring Devices and Industrial Controls businesses, as well as the Corporate Manufacturing Consulting organization. At Thomson Consumer Electronics (RCA & GE consumer electronics merger), Harry was Controller for North American TV Operations with responsibility for seven manufacturing facilities and various headquarters functions ($1.6 billion in revenues; 13,000 employees). At Thomson, Harry played a key role in the planning and start-up of the world’s first digital satellite system manufacturing facility. Harry was a project manager for Locus Consulting prior to joining Capstone Technologies. He is noted in Cost Management for Today’s Advanced Manufacturing (Harvard Business School Press, 1988), and is certified in Production and Inventory Management (CPIM) by the American Production and Inventory Control Society (APICS). He is also a Certified Management Accountant (CMA), and conducts workshops for the Institute of Management Accountants, where he serves on the Indianapolis Chapter’s Board of Directors and is the current Chapter President.

Harry resides in Indianapolis with his wife Grace. They have a married daughter, Abigail, who lives in Grand Rapids with her husband, Jeremy Toyer. In their spare time, Harry and Grace are involved with youth ministry at their church.

E-mail: [email protected]
Web site:


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