Want To Transform Your Business? Transform Your People

Dillon Papenfuss

FEI Daily spoke with Joe Atkinson, PwC’s chief digital officer, on why PwC is investing billions of dollars in digitally re-skilling the workforce, who needs re-skilling (*hint: everyone), and advice for organizations beginning their own upskilling journey.

FEI Daily: PwC has made waves with its industry-leading approach to upskilling. What can you tell me about the thought process regarding the firm’s digital transformation? 

Joe Atkinson: I’ll start with the why. Why are we undertaking this effort? There are a few factors that we see from a market perspective, but even more importantly, it’s our people that have been driving our investments in digital upskilling.

We have responsibilities in the market to its various participants: clients, stakeholders, and regulators. We know that the environment is changing and clients continue to expect that we will raise our game – that we will bring them more value, more quality. We know that they are looking for a different experience in terms of the way that we deliver insights, assurance, and advice. This reflects a higher expectation relating to the integration of technology into the way that we serve.

We know that every client, every organization, is looking to manage costs. They expect the same from us: that we are managing the cost to deliver, the cost to serve, and the cost to provide the right assurance without compromising quality, value, and all the important things people count on us for.

To get there, to satisfy all of the market’s expectations, we need to transform the way work gets done. It’s easy to say, “Let’s transform how work is done.” It’s a lot harder to do it. But the way we’ve approached this transformation is by thinking across multiple dimensions and investing heavily in our people, so they have the skills to navigate rising expectations during this period of remarkable disruption.

FEI Daily: Who needs upskilling? 

Atkinson: This is one of the debates that we had early on – how we determine who we are going to invest in from a skills perspective. How do you know who needs it? How do you know who already has the skills and won’t require as much investment?

Early on, we determined that everybody needed it. While the degree to which everyone’s upskilling needs differ, everyone needs to be thinking about how they develop, adopt, and apply new skills and technologies in the current environment.

This is true even for people who are highly skilled in technology because it is changing at such a rapid pace. As an employer, we believe that we have an obligation to help them navigate through that pace and build new skills as the environment changes.

We believe that over time, employees should expect upskilling as a benefit. Meaning that it is part of the handshake between an employer and employee to help prepare employees for the environment that they’re operating in to be successful.

In the long term, this is societal. In an age where the change curve is so steep – and getting steeper – we all have to think about how we help our people navigate and give them the optionality of resources. This is perhaps one of the biggest challenges that any organization has ever faced, in helping people grow their careers and grow capability in an environment that’s changing so rapidly.

FEI Daily: Could you go into a little more detail on the aspects of PwC’s Digital Workforce Transformation initiative?

Atkinson: We think about this in two buckets: business-led transformation and citizen-led innovation.

Business-led transformation includes those large-scale technology deployments. At the management level, there’s this recognition that changes only get you so far, as organizations struggle to help each member adopt and embrace change. This is where citizen-led innovation becomes important.

A lot of people are talking about the democratization of technology, and we’ve embraced that concept across the firm. The first thing that became clear was that we have to prepare not only the organization for all of this disruption but also prepare our people to get on the pathway and say, “I do need to make these investments in myself in order to grow my career and be relevant.”

We started with a couple of assets. We deployed what we call our Digital Fitness app, which is a mobile assessment tool that can help people figure out where they are from a digital fitness perspective, or digital mindset. Then, the Digital Fitness app deploys a customized learning pathway for individuals based on their self-assessment. These pathways are five-, 15-, or 20-minute assessments focusing on technologies that are developing around us.

Early on, Tim Ryan [U.S. chair and senior partner for PwC in the United States] said to our people, “If you come along with us, we will work to leave no one behind. We’re going to provide all kinds of assets to help you climb this very, very steep learning curve, but you have to opt-in. You’ve got to do your part.” Our starting point was the Digital Fitness app.

As that grew, we entered year two and deployed what we call our Digital Quests. The quests are client simulations that are built on the things that people had learned about, the emerging technologies (e.g., virtual reality, drones, robotic process automation or RPA, 3D printing). After finishing the quest, employees complete a “choose your own adventure”–style assessment activity to earn their “Digital Acumen Badge.” Our people enjoy earning the badges, and this has helped us bring everybody together to set a foundation and culture of infinite learning in the firm. These badges are also helpful because it enables us to know the skills that our people have. But what is really important is that people can take these badges with them; it’s not a PwC internal course certificate. These badges demonstrate that they have developed those skills and demonstrated them in a meaningful way.

I often like to equate our digital transformation to how we think about cultivating crops. We’ve plowed the fields with the Digital Fitness and the Digital Quests, setting a baseline of understanding our people’s ability and priming them for success; now is the time to plant. We’ve been doing that with Digital Academies, two-day in-person programs that introduce people to four standardized tools in the market, tools used in analysis, data-cleansing, sharing, and also RPA. We immersed everybody in the firm. We give them the toolset to do work differently and the skills to apply them.

The third piece of this farming analogy relates to the water or the fertilizer: our digital accelerators. We opened up an invitation to all of our people. We said, “We know where the firm is going from an upskilling journey perspective. We’re going to need some front-line ambassadors, a front-line catalyst to help make this adoption happen.” We opened up an invitation to all of our people to apply to become a Digital Accelerator. These accelerators receive intensive training while they are taken out of their typical day-to-day roles. Then 18 months later, these accelerators are deployed back into their client engagement teams with new skills and tools in an effort to share what they’ve learned with their teams, change the way they work, and deliver a better experience for our clients.

For a long time, we as employers and organizations accepted that some work was going to be drudgery. We just accepted it, right? Many of us started our career needing to pay our dues. Now, we’ve got a population of talent coming into the workforce, and they don’t have to accept that drudgery anymore. This is a sense of the mission that we have been able to embed in our Accelerators. In taking the drudgery out of work, it allows our people to focus on higher-value tasks.

FEI Daily: How do you define success in upskilling? 

Atkinson: Success is recognizing that there’s no finish line here. What we’re really changing is the way people transform themselves continually at work.

We have been so focused over the decades on the qualifications for “Job A,” and that once those qualifications are met, the person can do “Job A.” What we’ve missed over the decades is that by the time we’re done talking, “Job A” is going to have different qualifications. The destination is the mindset, the habit. If you can get comfortable with the mindset, that’s success in an area where everything is accelerating and changing.

FEI Daily: Any last advice for organizations considering their own upskilling journey?

Atkinson: People bring all kinds of skills to the table, but everybody needs to grow in this environment. Everybody needs upskilling. Resources are limited, but it is worth the time to engage with teams to learn about how work gets done and consider how to equip them with different skills and capabilities to work in a different way. Executives can’t wait much longer, and they need to be relentless.

This article originally appeared on FEI Daily and is republished by permission.

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Dillon Papenfuss

About Dillon Papenfuss

Dillon Papenfuss is a research analyst at Financial Executives International. In addition to research, he writes for FEI Daily (FEI’s daily newsletter covering financial, business, and management news, trends, and strategies) and FEI Forward (FEI’s Sunday newsletter providing the ideas and information financial executives need to consider for the week ahead).