PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC) is one of the largest professional services organizations in the world, providing a range of business consulting services, with almost 300,000 employees and over $42 billion in revenue. The firm's Chief Digital Officer, Joe Atkinson, shares lessons, digital transformation examples at scale, and advice on change management strategy.

Joe Atkinson is a member of PwC's US Leadership Team responsible for executing on our vision to digitally enable our firm and better leverage technology and talent to bring greater value (and a better experience) to our people and our clients.

Previously the leader of our Technology, Media & Telecom (TMT) Consulting business for the US, Japan and China, Joe has built a reputation as a trusted, pragmatic and thoughtful advisor to clients as they navigate through rapidly evolving consumer expectations, accelerating technology changes, and increasing regulatory complexity. He has been a long-time thought leader on the trends shaping the media and communications industry.

Joe has assisted his clients in successfully implementing their strategic and operational capabilities in support of new product development, innovation, and deployment. He has assembled and led cross-disciplinary teams that have helped clients drive significant improvements in financial and operational performance as well as supporting the execution of world-class customer experience. In addition, Joe has assisted his clients as they plan for, implement and sustain the synergy and operational goals associated with some of the TMT industry’s most significant transactions.

Transcript

This transcript has been lightly edited.

About PwC

Michael Krigsman: Digital transformation is one of the most important topics in business today. We are speaking with Joe Atkinson. He's the chief digital officer of PwC. Give us some insight into what is PwC and where is your focus as a company.

Joe Atkinson: PwC is a great brand. Hopefully, a lot of people are familiar with us. Professional services organization that provides assurance in our capital markets, provides tax advice and compliance services, and professional consulting and advisory services for companies that you know well. The top 500 companies are all of our client base and, of course, all around the world as well. We've been in business for 170 years, keep changing, and I think we're going to be talking a lot about how we've been changing in this discussion.

Michael Krigsman: Joe, give us a sense of the scale of PwC.

Joe Atkinson: We are just about 50,000 people in the U.S. and just over 0.5 million people around the world, actually 275,000 people now around the world, so just a very, very large footprint in terms of people. Globally, let's call it $45 billion in revenue climbing toward $50 billion. You think about the scale of us as a private company, makes for a pretty big organization.

Michael Krigsman: When we talk about digital transformation at scale, that's what we're talking about when we speak of PwC.

Joe Atkinson: That's what we're talking about. We're talking about how do we take all of those people, starting with our colleagues in the U.S., the 50,000 people here in the U.S. How do we take all of our people and the 225,000 colleagues they have around the world on this journey with us?

What is the Chief Digital Officer Role?

Michael Krigsman: You're Chief Digital Officer. What does that role involve?

Joe Atkinson: This role was really created because we recognized the technology was driving a pace of change that we all see. Everybody on this webcast sees that pace of change. But it was also challenging our people, and it was challenging our people in new ways.

We were seeing technology develop in ways that that pace was overwhelming to some of our folks. It was certainly overwhelming some of our clients.

At the same time, our people were asking us for much more engagement. They wanted a better tech experience day-to-day.

Our clients were asking us for the same things. They wanted more value. They want more quality as our clients have always expected from us, but they wanted delivery of services in a more tech-enabled way. Of course, they want us to manage our costs and be thoughtful about the way that our cost of delivery connects with their efforts to manage their cost and footprint.

All of those pressures, our people, the pace of change, what the expectations were in the marketplace not only among clients, but regulators, stakeholders, and we saw this opportunity to say we really needed to elevate our game in the way that we were equipping our people and taking them on that transformation journey.

Michael Krigsman: Help us understand what it really means.

Joe Atkinson: I sometimes say that it may be the most overused term in business of our time. We could probably go back 20 years and pick which ones were that. Digital may be ours.

One of the dangers, Michael, to your point of digital transformation, is it does mean a lot of different things to different people. Sometimes, frankly, those things don't mean anything at all in the way work gets done or the way clients get served or businesses are built.

For us, it was very much about how do we change the way work gets done? How do we change the experience for our clients? It wasn't just to make it feel digital.

This wasn't about branding, positioning, or even channels. It was really about can we deliver work in more innovative ways. Can we deliver work in a more efficient way? How do we unlock the power of an unbelievable pool of talent in 270,000-plus people around the world so that they can help us do that in an even more constructive way? For us, it was very much about work that we've done in some places for a long time and other places new work, but how do we rethink that work and do it in a different way?

What is Digital Transformation?

Michael Krigsman: That's pretty interesting, the notion of saying that digital transformation is about doing work in a new way. Is that uniquely true for PwC because you're a professional services firm or do you think digital transformation, broadly, is about changing how we work?

Joe Atkinson: I'm biased on the question, right? I really do think, at its heart, if digital transformation isn't about the way we work then, candidly, I'm not sure what it is about because there is a lot of distraction you can have about emerging technologies and what those technologies mean. Everybody that's ever run a large-scale organization knows you can plug a technology into the environment and not get any change in the way people work and, frankly, disrupt things even more and not get the business outcomes you're after.

For us, the better business outcomes have to be about delivering work in different ways. When we talk to clients, I have the great privilege to talking to a lot of our clients across the globe. That's their challenge. They're trying to figure out how to convert digital transformation, their transformation journey from kind of bumper sticker level or buzzword level into real lasting change in the organization.

They're getting that pressure just as we are. They're getting that pressure from their clients and consumers, they're getting that pressure from the people that are in their house, and they're getting it from people that want to be part of their organizations.

Michael Krigsman: Joe, you mentioned business outcomes. If we try to find a common denominator for digital transformation, is that the key?

Joe Atkinson: I think it has to be. If you look at the trend line from a technology perspective, there are better visionaries than me out there that could tell us where we're going to be in 10 or 15 years. The reality for most executives that I've spoken with is, they're trying to figure out how to get from where they are today to, frankly, navigate the next three to five years.

Everybody has their favorite phraseology and pundit's view about how quick technology is driving change. But if you believe what's been said that the change in technology and the way that we work has been more in the last 20 years than the 200 combined prior, then executives today are facing, actually, one of the most incredible challenges that any executive has ever faced in history. They've got to figure out how to keep their people relevant, their service and products relevant, and they've got to do that while they still have to deliver results to whomever their stakeholders are, whether they're a private company or public one.

If you're having a conversation about digital and you're not connecting the dots and saying, "Okay, what are the business outcomes I want? Of course, I want happier people, I want to retain greater talent, I want to deliver things in more efficient ways, I want happier clients, and I want more effective costs in my delivery chain," if that's not part of the conversation, my counsel to clients would be, "Step back and really think about you're after and why.

What is Digital Business Transformation?

Michael Krigsman: How is this different if we use the generic term "business transformation," because you're talking about business outcomes, different ways of doing work and what you're not talking about is, well, let's buy new software with different features.

Joe Atkinson: I think business transformation and digital transformation, the way we've talked about that over the last 20 years, I think they are intertwined. It's not to say that you should not be buying software and implementing new solutions and capabilities. Obviously, there are places where that pace of technology brings incredible benefit in terms of new cloud-based technologies. If you look at the pace with which we can change enterprise resource planning systems, large-scale financial systems, and operating systems, the cloud unlocks speed in the deployment of these technologies that is very different than what we've dealt with in the 20 years prior, so they go hand-in-hand.

To me, the challenge is, if you're having a conversation about digital because you want to talk about how that's positioned or you want to talk about how that looks to the market, that's a marketing conversation. It's an important one, but it's a marketing conversation.

If you're really talking about, "How do I deliver this product and delight a customer in a very different way? How do I take the grinding of the gears out of my client experience, my customer experience, or my people experience and drive a different business outcome because I unlocked their time and capacity?" that to me is today's business transformation that we're all talking about as digital transformation.

Michael Krigsman: Can you elaborate on that distinction? On the one hand, you're talking about impact on operations, impact on processes, changing how we do business. Then you made the distinction between the marketing discussion of digital transformation.

Joe Atkinson: Michael, I know you've had great marketing execs on, so I don't want to steal any great marketing execs' lines. They know this space much better than I do. If you look at the way that we try to have an engaged consumer discussion, for us it's a B2B discussion.

In the B2B space, clients want to know that you have your front foot from a technology perspective, and that is a really important marketing discussion. It's a really important dialog with your customers, but you have to back it up.

If I make a promise from a technology experience perspective and I tell a client, "We're going to give you a much more data-rich, insightful experience because we're applying technology in new ways," and then I don't deliver that, I've done the worst of all worlds. I've put a promise out into the marketplace that I haven't delivered against.

I think it's really important to understand how they fit together. They're not necessarily mutually exclusive. They actually fit together in a really powerful way. Our counsel would be, make sure you have the business process and the outcomes running right and you're making really good progress. Then engage that dialog with your consumer.

Michael Krigsman: Is it fair to say that operations? We're kind of wading through a bunch of different areas. Is changing operations the foundation or the essence of this?

Joe Atkinson: I always talk about it in the context of people and technology. Maybe an example will help.

We were talking with a team the other day that was talking with a client that is in the financial services space. They've got to do assessments of damage after fires. It turns out that's actually a very dangerous exercise because you have people that have to go in and look. The building might still be damaged or what have you. The team is now applying drone technology, so they can do those initial assessments.

After that idea hits the table you'd say, "Well, of course, that makes perfect sense," but somebody has got to be the team that says, "Hey, wait a minute. There's a different way to assess this damage with the technology and can we use the drone technology?"

There may be different technologies in the future and there will definitely be different technologies in the future. For us, we often talk about that. How do I create the acumen, the mindset that causes somebody to think, "I've done this thing the same way, or I might apply the way I've done something a long time to this new thing, but what I really need to do is apply a new technology to this thing to do it in a different way." That requires a few things.

If I didn't know a drone existed or if I didn't know that drones were being commercially deployed at scale, then I might never consider how they could help me in that situation. Of course, we have large enterprise customers deploying drones in amazing ways.

If I didn't know what blockchain could do to help solve the trust in my system, I might never consider it to help apply to a particular problem.

For me, our effort across all of our people is, how do I open up their mindset? How do I give them enough education and perspective on those technologies so that they can start to think about how they apply to solve a problem? I don't need them to be; we certainly have some, but I don't need them to be the drone expert of the firm or the Ph.D. in analytics, but I do need them to say, "You know what? There's a better way to get at this and there's a better technology to help me go after it."

Myths about Digital Transformation

Michael Krigsman: We have a comment from Twitter from Arsalan Khan who says, "A myth that we hear is digital transformation does not affect culture and are there other myths?" Let's talk about culture and then I'll ask you about other digital transformation myths that might be out there.

Joe Atkinson: The best part about having conversations like this is, I suspect, if you line five or ten of us chief digital officer types up, Michael, you might get five or ten different answers because this area is so dynamic.

My view is, digital is all about culture. It's at the heart of what we're talking about because, if I can't connect it to the way people solve problems and work in teams, if I can't connect it to the way that they're willing to take a risk in solving a problem differently, if I can't empower them to apply a technology in a way that they're not even sure it's going to work and that their supervisor has to accept or their manager, director, partner, whoever may be supervising them has to accept, that risk-taking acceptance of, I'm going to apply technology in a new way, any one of us have managed large scale teams knows that that doesn't come because you tell everybody to take risks. That comes because, at the heart of the team, there's a culture of trust, integrity, going to do the right thing, and going after the right answer that allows the team to take those kinds of risks.

I think, if that's a myth out there, one vote from my seat. It's all about culture.

I think the other myth is, it's all about technology. That clearly goes right back to the culture point.

Our people, one of the things we are really proud of is, we made the decision early that we were not going to selectively upskill our people. We weren't going to make these capabilities, skills, and knowledge available just to people that we thought were definitely going to need them. We wanted to make this capability and skill available to all of our people so that they could work on a journey to take them wherever their career was going to take them, whether it's with us or anywhere, working with our clients, working in the community, working in a nonprofit, doing a startup. That commitment, to me, is all about recognizing that digital transformation, at its heart, is about people.

The technology is changing. We know the technology is going to change. The greatest technology any one of us can apply to a problem today is going to be different in five years. If you bet everything on what the tech is without helping people adapt to that pace of change in the tech, then we think we're really missing something and that's why we started with all of our people.

What is the Connection Between Digital Transformation, Culture, and Technology?

Michael Krigsman: We begin with this technology discussion and we end up with, how do we get people to take risks and have integrity? What's the connection? Why does digital transformation rest on these culture and people pieces as opposed to, we need different technology?

Joe Atkinson: If you think about this idea of, I'm going to upskill everybody and help them have a wider lens on the application of technology, first, I have to help them understand what the technologies are. Second, I have to make the investment in training them in the application of those technologies.

I can't just say, "Hey, here are the tech. You should know them." That's acumen and awareness. It's important, but I have to immerse them in the technology.

For us, that was all about data because much of our work, when we're working with clients, we're exchanging large amounts of data. We're conducting analysis on financial transactions. We're conducting analysis on capital deployments. We're conducting analysis on operational performance, supply chains, and customers.

We're dealing with massive amounts of data from massive global companies. We knew we needed people to be better with data, so we invested a lot of time, effort, and money in skilling our people in the use of data skills. But we also said, these are the data skills that we're looking for, so we gave them a frame around what we were asking so that they could direct their energies in the right place.

Then we applied what I affectionately call our accelerators, our kind of catalyst to the mix. We took 2,000 of our people. By the end of this year, it'll be 2,000 of our people. We asked them to deeply immerse themselves in the tech to really go after it. We put them on essentially two-year tours, we protected some of their time so they have learning, and we charge them with going out, engage with the teams, help them apply the new skills that they have, and help them be the catalyst that everybody wants to be to change the way work gets done.

Here's the example. In that environment, I didn't, frankly, know exactly what our people would do. We call it Citizen Led Development. It's this innovation that our teams innovate around.

One of the most successful innovations that we started with, we've had a ton since, but one of the ones that got a lot of attention early on is, we had a senior associate who was a few years into his or her career, a senior associate that actually went into our time reporting system.

We're a time managed system. We do time reporting to make sure we're being transparent and accountable with clients and with our own time. None of our people like that process. It's not a fun process. Nobody gets excited about doing that and so they built a bot, a desktop bot that helped them scrape information from the systems that the team was using at that particular account and automatically populate the time reporting system of the firm.

There's no rocket science there, but it was a pain point for our team that, with new tools, they were able to look at and say, "I'm going to go after that. I'm going to fix it." We think that, on average, that's probably saving each of our people 10 or 15 minutes a week, 50,000 people at scale.

The more important lesson from my perspective as an executive was, if the team had sent me a note or put a sourcing request in for funding to say, "I want to streamline the time reporting system," I would have said, "We've had the same time reporting system forever. It works fine. That's not where I'm going to deploy limited capital to go change a system."

Instead, they deployed their intellectual capital. They took the tools that we had put in their hands. They applied it to the problem. Now we have a more efficient process. We have no need to reconcile. The client is seeing the exact information they should and the team is a little less frustrated with something that they don't enjoy that doesn't allow them to actually serve the clients in a meaningful way.

Those are the types of things we're really after is, how do I connect that kind of problem-solving so that our people feel ownership for those pain points in the process, whether they're ours or our clients? They go after them with the technology tools we're putting in their hands.

Michael Krigsman: What's the difference then between the two scenarios, on the one hand this citizen-led approach versus somebody coming to you and saying, "Hey, we need to change the time system," and obviously there's no reason to do that because it works?

Joe Atkinson: We often talk about the transformation in two columns. If you think of citizen-led as, how do I empower for us, ultimately, 270,000-plus people, there is also an element of business-led transformation? I would say business-led transformation, for those of us that have been in this space for years, I'll characterize that as the traditional, large-scale transformation.

What we know about that and we've all experienced it is the top-down, large-scale enterprise transformation, including deployment of large tech, that those deployments eventually landed a spot where the change stops and it may stall. Stall, stop, struggle: pick your word.

You can describe that any way you like. I had one client describe it as the permafrost layer of their organization.

I had another client give me a really important insight. They said, "Joe, we always say broadly that people are resistant to change. They're not really resistant to change. They just have to understand the net benefit of the change. If you ask them to take the risk to go make something different, they need to understand that there's upside for them and for their teams and the people they care about on the ground."

Business-led transformation can get you so far. On the other hand, our citizen-led transformation, Michael, if I gave everybody tools and I told them to go do whatever they would like to do on any given day to innovate, I'll get some really interesting business-impacting things and I'll get a bunch of things that are probably really interesting but may not be business impacting.

For us, that combination of business-led plus citizen-led has put this wonderful saturation of the strategy across the firm so that I actually do get change throughout all of the levels. We talk a lot about transformation at massive scale. I firmly believe if we had not attacked it from the two angles that we probably would have made some progress, some good progress, but I don't think would have made the progress we've made.

What is PwC’s Digital Transformation Strategy?

Michael Krigsman: You've been alluding to your broader digital transformation strategy. Can you be a little bit now more explicit? What were the problems you set out to solve and the plan that you put into place?

Joe Atkinson: I'll start with the client pressures because that was the problem we started out to solve. What were our clients telling us about what they expected from us? I always joke; they expect more value and higher quality.

I've been searching my whole career for the client that says, "Just bring it down a notch. You killed it last year and we want a less from you next year." I've never found that client and, frankly, I kind of hope I never do. They're always asking us to raise the bar.

Then they're saying, "I don't want to be served the way that I've always been served. Stop with the large stacks of materials. Stop with the heavy reports that, frankly, half the teams don't read. Stop with the data analysis that I can't make sense of. Give me a much more tech-enabled experience."

By the way, team, if you're in our interest, you have to manage your costs. How do you do that? That was the business problem we were trying to solve.

For us, relevance is about efficiency. It's about taking nonvalue hours out of that equation so that people can deliver that insight in a more value, more rapid way. It's also about how do we tell stories. I'll come back to the idea that so much of what we do is data-centric, so we needed to equip people with not just the tools to ingest, wrangle, and cleanse that data in a rapid fashion, but we needed to give them the tools so that they could help visualize that data at scale, so we gave visualization technology to every single one of our people in the U.S. Everybody has it.

They can share the visualizations direct with clients. They can share dynamic visualizations with those clients. They can collaborate with the clients on how those things work. That's a very different experience for our clients and that again reflects those pressures that our clients told us. They said they wanted a different experience.

My view, and our leadership team's view, is if we don't continue to change at pace then we risk our own relevance. We risk our relevance to our clients and the client-side.

Michael, the other responsibility that I feel every day I wake up and every night I put my head down on the pillow is we have, in the U.S., 50,000 people that are counting on us to get this right; globally, 270,000-plus. Those 270,000 people are looking to us to help them navigate through this. That's about skills, right? That was the other problem that we were looking to solve.

Our profession for a long time had been pretty comfortable bringing people in and asking them to work until midnight, crank through data on the spreadsheets, and just work, work, work, work, work. When you asked our people how much of that work stack was really valuable to them, that they were learning, they were growing, they were delivering value, it wasn't as much of the stack as we'd like. That's also about, obviously, value to clients.

My goal is, I want people's work/life. We talk a lot about the work/life balance and we all know it's work/life integration now, but I want to get them out of the office. I want to get them unlocking that time. Whether they direct that time to their personal pursuits or they direct that time to different value to clients, as long as we're driving those outcomes with clients, that's what our clients expect from us.

They don't count our value in hours. They count our value in business outcomes, and so this is all about focusing our people's attention and energy on those business outcomes.

How Important are Storytelling, Visualization, and Communication with Data?

Michael Krigsman: You mentioned something that I'd like to drill into, which is, you had started to say the word "storytelling." You were talking about data and visualization tools. What is the role and the importance of telling stories and communication in this whole process?

Joe Atkinson: We're all living in a world where there's too much data. There's not enough insight. We know the buzzwords around that.

What I would offer is that because there's so much data and it's so accessible, part of the challenge is, you can tell any story you like with data. I think we all recognize if you give me enough data, I'm going to shape it.

What we saw in the past is that clients and sometimes ourselves, we were making data confirmed decisions. Meaning, we trust our gut and our intuition because that's how we came to be wherever we are, so I'm going to make a decision. By the way, I want to make it on the data, so here's the decision. Could you go pull me a whole bunch of data that make sure I'm right?

We're challenging people to flip that completely and really allow the data to tell the story, to inform the decision. There's a role for intuition and gut in there, no question, but it's about responsible storytelling with data and crafting a story that people can understand.

I can put a thousand lines of spreadsheet up on the video screen of a conference room and I promise you nobody is going to make an intelligent decision based on a thousand lines of a spreadsheet in a conference room. But if I can help people understand, for example, what their customers are seeing in certain zip codes, in certain stores, if I can visualize that in a way that the mind thinks and gets around it more rapidly, then I can equip people to get more comfortable moving that decision tree up into the data analysis level as opposed to just having the data analysis conduct the validation in the back-end.

For us, there's a huge element of trust and integrity there, right? I keep coming back to these. They're so powerful in our brands.

In our brand, that trust and integrity are paramount, so I really want to make sure that all of our people are thinking about the implications of how I gather and tell a story with data because it's just so important in today's society.

How Does PwC Capture and Re-Use Knowledge Across Client Engagements?

Michael Krigsman: We have another comment from Twitter from Arsalan Khan who has picked up on a comment that you made earlier about data and bots. He is asking a question about your internal processes. We'll see how much of this you're comfortable answering. He says, "How do you capture or do you capture lessons learned from client engagements and turn that information into bots so they can be helpful for your next engagement?" He's wondering about your internal processes.

Joe Atkinson: I mentioned that we gave everybody visualization tools. We also have trained over 30,000 of our people in the U.S. and now taking that across the globe. Thirty thousand of our people in the U.S. have been trained on bot building. For those of you that are deep in the tech, I'm going to characterize this as desktop bots or task bots versus enterprise bots, so call it desktop bots where I've got tasks that are on my desktop that I want to automate in a more meaningful way.

What we've done is we've created a sharing platform where we are able to take those bots. If a team in Philadelphia develops a great way to approach a client or firm problem with a bot, we have a sharing platform that's essentially an internal marketplace where they can submit that bot. They can submit the documentation; this is what it does and this is why it works. We have a curation process behind that. Then that bot can be blasted out to 50,000-plus people in the U.S. We've just deployed this capability in the U.K. It's coming to other territories soon.

That capability allows us to scale those small bits of IP in ways that, frankly, were never possible before. You have this ability to take automations and scale them. By the way, we do the same thing with data models. We do the same thing with visualizations and the other digital assets that people are building.

From a lessons-learned and IP perspective, the trend that we're seeing is much more online, collaborative communication. That's not a new trend, obviously. The way that our people are working together, the comfort level they have creating chatrooms to serve particular clients, creating chatrooms that share ideas around certain industries, respecting everybody's data protection and all those good things, but the way that our teams are able to collaborate now is dramatically different than it was even five years ago. Deploying those tools at scale, along with the ability to do the sharing at scale, that combination has been very, very powerful for us.

Michael Krigsman: Knowledge capture and collaboration are as, if not more, important today than it was historically. I know, historically, it's always been very important.

Joe Atkinson: If you think about where we're at in terms of what our people expect when they come to us, we hire people at all stages of their career. Everybody thinks of us as a place you can start your career and we're a great place to start your career. We're hiring people that are at all stages of their careers that have done amazing things.

When we bring that talent in, part of the idea is, how do we share that talent? How do we share that IP with everybody? It doesn't make everybody an expert, but the accessibility of that IP is, frankly, what our clients expect from us.

If you go to that person who says, "I used to spend some portion of my time doing something that was repetitive, so repetitive in fact that I could build a desktop bot to solve the problem," for us that opens up intellectual capacity. It opens up value capacity that we can now redirect to clients to, frankly, go solve the thing that they hired us for in the first place.

Then the talent that we're bringing in looks at that and says, "Well, you're actually tapping into why I came here in the first place because I didn't come here to do that repetitive thing that I can automate on a bot." The difference that I think has been so powerful for us is before people would come in.

We're in the client service business. If a client asks us to get it done, we're going to get it done. Not everybody had the skills, the tools, the capability figure out, how can I take some of that out so I can get to the things that are really valuable to the client, to the team, and to my team behind me? Now, we've blasted those skills across and we're doing the collaboration across so people can take advantage of that.

Michael Krigsman: The nature of the kind of consulting that you're doing is also being affected and, ideally, improved by this type of transformation and collaboration as well.

Joe Atkinson: It absolutely is. One of the most fun privileged parts of my job is, I often get asked to spend time with our clients' C-suite, boards, and executive teams on how we're thinking about transformation.

I've been in consulting my whole career, or at least 26 of my 27 years, often going to a client and trying to figure out how to solve the problem they have on the plate. In this case, all of us share the same problem. We're all trying to figure out how to adapt and drive this technology and innovation at scale, so we've been sharing the story with clients all across the country.

What's been really fun about that is that that is shaping the way that we're thinking about the commercial opportunities in those markets, the way we're thinking about how we can help clients with the right technology and tools and, in some cases, how we could take technology and tools that were originally built for us and commercialize those in the marketplace to help our clients do the same thing we've done to ourselves.

Measurements, Metrics, and KPIs for Digital Transformation

Michael Krigsman: Let's talk about measurements and metrics. Okay, you're doing all of these things. How do you know when you're successful and do you ever reach a point where you say, "We're done"?

Joe Atkinson: There are days I wake up in the morning that I'm looking for that point that we're done. I haven't found it yet. I know our chair has not found it yet, as we keep working on the agenda. That part I actually love a lot.

Let's talk about how we measure because I think there are a couple of dimensions. I want to start with people because, if we believe what we say that people are the heart of our transformation, then the question becomes, are our people seeing what we would expect to see? I would share two things.

I mentioned this force of 2,000 digital accelerators. One of the things that's been amazing is, among that population of people, our retention of that talent is actually roughly 2x their peer group that are not in that program. If you thought about that intellectually, and we spent a lot of time worrying about it, there is a part of you that says, "If I train people up in those skills, these skills are hot in the market, I'm going to give them all these skills, they're going to go."

What we've found is that the mission and purpose that we've given them help us change the firm, be an advocate for change, be an advocate with your peers to help them change. That is resonating. Again, these are people at all stages of their career. That's resonating with that population of people and they're sticking with us because they're enjoying the ride. That's one really, really important measure.

The other important measure, now I'll flip to, are our people at scale comfortable that they have tools and capability to innovate? Like a lot of organizations, we poll our people every year. We've been privileged to be part of the Great Place to Work studies and we've had great external recognition on that, but we look at that data and we look at that data very hard every year to figure out where we can improve and continue to drive the experience.

This year, when we asked our people whether they had the ability to innovate on the job as we've taken this journey, that measure moved by almost 19 points, which is one of the largest movements we've ever seen at any point on the study. These are people telling us, "We don't have everything right yet, but we're feeling the power of what you're doing and you're giving us new tools and skills." From a people perspective, we feel really good about that.

Now let's talk about, we are a business. We're a private partnership. We're a business. We need to drive growth an innovation just like everybody else does, and profitability. What we're seeing is that, because we're automating so much of the activity that doesn't have the higher value in the marketplace, our profitability is actually seeing the impact of that. That is the value of an individual in terms of the revenue per professional and some of the measures that a professional services firm would be really familiar with.

We're watching those very, very carefully because we want to make sure that we're converting this activity into the business outcomes that we'd expect to see in the marketplace. So far, and again to your point, I don't think I will ever declare victory, maybe at my retirement party, but so far we're seeing movement on those measures that really encourage us that this is going to drive the ROI that we would hope for.

Michael Krigsman: Profitability is driven by so many different factors. How can you isolate?

Joe Atkinson: We definitely can't isolate. I wouldn't want to suggest to anybody you can isolate; you know that this factor hits this thing. In fact, one of the most challenging but really energizing parts of our transformation journey is, we do look at this as a portfolio. I often tell our partners and our leadership team; I would like to tell you and pick the number of assets that we have. We have all kinds of learning assets, technology tools, and software products that we've taken from the outside to help drive this. We have all kinds of assets that we've purchased and built, et cetera to help drive this.

I would love to tell you I could figure out exactly what the percentage point allocation is on movement on anything in that, but I can't. What I do know and I'm very confident about is the portfolio of that impact is driving the outcomes we want. I really encourage clients to think about the portfolio of impact.

Every once in a while, you can isolate based on engagement or utility of a particular asset and say that's not actually driving, but we spend a lot more time thinking about engagement, application of skills, engagement with the assets, the use of the assets than we do, does this asset drive this particular outcome? When we see the engagement, we're confident it's contributing to that portfolio effect.

I'll also come back to something we started the conversation on, Michael, which is, if you're not thinking about that portfolio of assets in the context of business outcomes, then, frankly, you run the real risk of just being a really interesting side project to somebody and not actually something that's core and strategic to the business.

One of the things our chair and our board did from the beginning, which was really impactful, was, they laid out a strategy that included, as a pillar, our digital transformation. It's not something that we're doing to help enable the strategy. It's not something that's an add-on to the strategy. It's not coming from the left side or the fifth floor to the strategy. It's in the strategy. It is the strategy.

I say a lot to our digital accelerators, "If you're trying to understand the firm's strategy, look to your left, look to your right because you are the power of our strategy." It's that enablement and, frankly, enabling, empowering our people and letting them do what we hired them for and get out of their way when we need to get out of their way.

Michael Krigsman: What kind of changes did PwC need to make in order to undertake the digital transformation of its own business?

Joe Atkinson: There were a few things. One is, we had to really take a hard look at our technology. Did we have the right technology? Had we standardized on the right platforms? Were we driving them at the right scale?

We had to look at all of our training and development programs. Did we really have the right training and development?

We had to reposition it. I often say training and development moved from an enabler to the front of the train because now it's everything. That enablement, the technology environment, and culture, how our partners looked at our teams from a problem-solving perspective, they were all part of the pieces that we looked at.

Michael Krigsman: Let's talk about the challenges or the obstacles that organizations typically run into when they want to undertake this type of program of transformation that you've been describing.

Joe Atkinson: I do think there is this question of adversity to change. I think once you understand why people resist certain changes, it helps. Help them understand what you're after and, generally, people are going to go with you.

Having said that, I also think there are some people that just aren't ready to change for whatever reason. Often, people want to go focus and go figure out why those 10 people out of the 100 didn't move with the change. I would counsel all day long, "Focus on the 90 that are taking you where you're going and either the 10 come along or they don't."

Then the other thing I would say is, don't let the tech get in the way. Technology is complicated. It's difficult. It's expensive. It's a really important part, obviously, of digital transformation, but it's a part, and getting that strategy right and standardizing where you can.

I often say to our leadership team, "Make what can be the same the same. Customize and go bespoke when you need to in order to deliver that distinctive value to a client or a customer."

Michael Krigsman: Do you think that, in business, just generally, there is confusion around the role of technology in digital transformation?

Joe Atkinson: I do. I do. I think that people struggle because they equate them. People struggle because they want to believe that you've made a massive investment in technology that's going to bring you change. Often, it can, but it has to be done in the right way.

You've got to be thinking about that user experience. How does it land? What's their day-to-day like? That's why so much of what we're doing on human-centered design and some of these other things that we're really training people on is so important now because, to me, that's how you tap into the value of technology investments.

Digital Transformation Advice for Business Leaders

Michael Krigsman: Let me finish up by asking you for advice that you can share to folks in companies that are listening and are involved with digital transformation in one way or another. It's a tough road sometimes, so what advice can you share?

Joe Atkinson: It is a tough road sometimes. Again, I hope nobody took away that we thought we have every answer to any of this because we're working through it just as every other organization does.

Having said that, when you look at this question, you're going to see a million blockades. You're going to see a million problems. It's really no different than any other problem executives have solved before, which is, you knock them out one at a time. You send the teams after them and you go after them. That might obviously be in parallel in large, complex organizations, but you've got to go after the problems and the blocks.

The other thing is, there's that great saying we've all shared that perfect is the enemy of good enough. If you're really going to drive scaled change, you have to accept that it's going to be rocky along the way. If you're really going to drive technology innovation that's going to change people's experience, you have to accept that the first iteration of that classic agile methodology kind of thinking, that first iteration might be your minimum viable product and you've got to move from there. That requires helping your people understand what's about to happen because, otherwise, they'll be contrasting what's happening to what their expectations were in the old model.

Michael Krigsman: It's not about Ping-Pong tables.

Joe Atkinson: No. [Laughter] Who doesn't love a good Ping-Pong table, but it's a great point. The workspace and the environment really matters and you can engage people in creativity and all of that, but people want to do good work. They want to do interesting work. They want to apply their skills to solve important problems. If you can unlock that, my experience and we're blessed with phenomenal people across the PwC world, my experience is they're going to go along for the ride with you.

Michael Krigsman: Is that the ultimate key is finding those people who have an interest and a propensity who are willing and capable of going along for the ride, identifying them at the outside and early stages and then expanding from there?

Joe Atkinson: I think that's huge. The talent has always mattered. The talent still matters and it will matter even more in the future.

That understanding of who is really going to take me there, who is leaning in, who is taking the risk, who is taking others along with them, who feels that natural desire to coach and develop the people around them?

This is not about fear. Everybody talks about the technology disruption, replacing jobs. This is about doing our jobs differently in the face of all that disruption. I firmly believe, if we do that, we're going to tap into this technology and make things easier for people. That's a good thing.

We're going to make things more impactful for our customers, our clients, and our fellow colleagues. That's a great thing.

We're going to actually add security to the people that operate and build that kind of capability rather than take it away. I think inspiring our people is where it all comes down to.

Michael Krigsman: Well, such an interesting discussion and, unfortunately, we are out of time. I want to say a huge thank you to Joe Atkinson, the chief digital officer of PwC, for taking time and sharing his insight and experience with us. Joe, thank you very, very much.

Joe Atkinson: Michael, thanks so much for having me. I really enjoyed it.

Michael Krigsman: Everybody, thank you for watching. Before you go, please subscribe on YouTube and hit the subscribe button at the top of our website so you can subscribe to our newsletter. I hope you have a great day. Check out CXOTalk.com. We have excellent shows coming up. Take care, everybody. Bye-bye.

This transcript has been lightly edited.

About PwC

Michael Krigsman: Digital transformation is one of the most important topics in business today. We are speaking with Joe Atkinson. He's the chief digital officer of PwC. Give us some insight into what is PwC and where is your focus as a company.

Joe Atkinson: PwC is a great brand. Hopefully, a lot of people are familiar with us. Professional services organization that provides assurance in our capital markets, provides tax advice and compliance services, and professional consulting and advisory services for companies that you know well. The top 500 companies are all of our client base and, of course, all around the world as well. We've been in business for 170 years, keep changing, and I think we're going to be talking a lot about how we've been changing in this discussion.

Michael Krigsman: Joe, give us a sense of the scale of PwC.

Joe Atkinson: We are just about 50,000 people in the U.S. and just over 0.5 million people around the world, actually 275,000 people now around the world, so just a very, very large footprint in terms of people. Globally, let's call it $45 billion in revenue climbing toward $50 billion. You think about the scale of us as a private company, makes for a pretty big organization.

Michael Krigsman: When we talk about digital transformation at scale, that's what we're talking about when we speak of PwC.

Joe Atkinson: That's what we're talking about. We're talking about how do we take all of those people, starting with our colleagues in the U.S., the 50,000 people here in the U.S. How do we take all of our people and the 225,000 colleagues they have around the world on this journey with us?

What is the Chief Digital Officer Role?

Michael Krigsman: You're Chief Digital Officer. What does that role involve?

Joe Atkinson: This role was really created because we recognized the technology was driving a pace of change that we all see. Everybody on this webcast sees that pace of change. But it was also challenging our people, and it was challenging our people in new ways.

We were seeing technology develop in ways that that pace was overwhelming to some of our folks. It was certainly overwhelming some of our clients.

At the same time, our people were asking us for much more engagement. They wanted a better tech experience day-to-day.

Our clients were asking us for the same things. They wanted more value. They want more quality as our clients have always expected from us, but they wanted delivery of services in a more tech-enabled way. Of course, they want us to manage our costs and be thoughtful about the way that our cost of delivery connects with their efforts to manage their cost and footprint.

All of those pressures, our people, the pace of change, what the expectations were in the marketplace not only among clients, but regulators, stakeholders, and we saw this opportunity to say we really needed to elevate our game in the way that we were equipping our people and taking them on that transformation journey.

Michael Krigsman: Help us understand what it really means.

Joe Atkinson: I sometimes say that it may be the most overused term in business of our time. We could probably go back 20 years and pick which ones were that. Digital may be ours.

One of the dangers, Michael, to your point of digital transformation, is it does mean a lot of different things to different people. Sometimes, frankly, those things don't mean anything at all in the way work gets done or the way clients get served or businesses are built.

For us, it was very much about how do we change the way work gets done? How do we change the experience for our clients? It wasn't just to make it feel digital.

This wasn't about branding, positioning, or even channels. It was really about can we deliver work in more innovative ways. Can we deliver work in a more efficient way? How do we unlock the power of an unbelievable pool of talent in 270,000-plus people around the world so that they can help us do that in an even more constructive way? For us, it was very much about work that we've done in some places for a long time and other places new work, but how do we rethink that work and do it in a different way?

What is Digital Transformation?

Michael Krigsman: That's pretty interesting, the notion of saying that digital transformation is about doing work in a new way. Is that uniquely true for PwC because you're a professional services firm or do you think digital transformation, broadly, is about changing how we work?

Joe Atkinson: I'm biased on the question, right? I really do think, at its heart, if digital transformation isn't about the way we work then, candidly, I'm not sure what it is about because there is a lot of distraction you can have about emerging technologies and what those technologies mean. Everybody that's ever run a large-scale organization knows you can plug a technology into the environment and not get any change in the way people work and, frankly, disrupt things even more and not get the business outcomes you're after.

For us, the better business outcomes have to be about delivering work in different ways. When we talk to clients, I have the great privilege to talking to a lot of our clients across the globe. That's their challenge. They're trying to figure out how to convert digital transformation, their transformation journey from kind of bumper sticker level or buzzword level into real lasting change in the organization.

They're getting that pressure just as we are. They're getting that pressure from their clients and consumers, they're getting that pressure from the people that are in their house, and they're getting it from people that want to be part of their organizations.

Michael Krigsman: Joe, you mentioned business outcomes. If we try to find a common denominator for digital transformation, is that the key?

Joe Atkinson: I think it has to be. If you look at the trend line from a technology perspective, there are better visionaries than me out there that could tell us where we're going to be in 10 or 15 years. The reality for most executives that I've spoken with is, they're trying to figure out how to get from where they are today to, frankly, navigate the next three to five years.

Everybody has their favorite phraseology and pundit's view about how quick technology is driving change. But if you believe what's been said that the change in technology and the way that we work has been more in the last 20 years than the 200 combined prior, then executives today are facing, actually, one of the most incredible challenges that any executive has ever faced in history. They've got to figure out how to keep their people relevant, their service and products relevant, and they've got to do that while they still have to deliver results to whomever their stakeholders are, whether they're a private company or public one.

If you're having a conversation about digital and you're not connecting the dots and saying, "Okay, what are the business outcomes I want? Of course, I want happier people, I want to retain greater talent, I want to deliver things in more efficient ways, I want happier clients, and I want more effective costs in my delivery chain," if that's not part of the conversation, my counsel to clients would be, "Step back and really think about you're after and why.

What is Digital Business Transformation?

Michael Krigsman: How is this different if we use the generic term "business transformation," because you're talking about business outcomes, different ways of doing work and what you're not talking about is, well, let's buy new software with different features.

Joe Atkinson: I think business transformation and digital transformation, the way we've talked about that over the last 20 years, I think they are intertwined. It's not to say that you should not be buying software and implementing new solutions and capabilities. Obviously, there are places where that pace of technology brings incredible benefit in terms of new cloud-based technologies. If you look at the pace with which we can change enterprise resource planning systems, large-scale financial systems, and operating systems, the cloud unlocks speed in the deployment of these technologies that is very different than what we've dealt with in the 20 years prior, so they go hand-in-hand.

To me, the challenge is, if you're having a conversation about digital because you want to talk about how that's positioned or you want to talk about how that looks to the market, that's a marketing conversation. It's an important one, but it's a marketing conversation.

If you're really talking about, "How do I deliver this product and delight a customer in a very different way? How do I take the grinding of the gears out of my client experience, my customer experience, or my people experience and drive a different business outcome because I unlocked their time and capacity?" that to me is today's business transformation that we're all talking about as digital transformation.

Michael Krigsman: Can you elaborate on that distinction? On the one hand, you're talking about impact on operations, impact on processes, changing how we do business. Then you made the distinction between the marketing discussion of digital transformation.

Joe Atkinson: Michael, I know you've had great marketing execs on, so I don't want to steal any great marketing execs' lines. They know this space much better than I do. If you look at the way that we try to have an engaged consumer discussion, for us it's a B2B discussion.

In the B2B space, clients want to know that you have your front foot from a technology perspective, and that is a really important marketing discussion. It's a really important dialog with your customers, but you have to back it up.

If I make a promise from a technology experience perspective and I tell a client, "We're going to give you a much more data-rich, insightful experience because we're applying technology in new ways," and then I don't deliver that, I've done the worst of all worlds. I've put a promise out into the marketplace that I haven't delivered against.

I think it's really important to understand how they fit together. They're not necessarily mutually exclusive. They actually fit together in a really powerful way. Our counsel would be, make sure you have the business process and the outcomes running right and you're making really good progress. Then engage that dialog with your consumer.

Michael Krigsman: Is it fair to say that operations? We're kind of wading through a bunch of different areas. Is changing operations the foundation or the essence of this?

Joe Atkinson: I always talk about it in the context of people and technology. Maybe an example will help.

We were talking with a team the other day that was talking with a client that is in the financial services space. They've got to do assessments of damage after fires. It turns out that's actually a very dangerous exercise because you have people that have to go in and look. The building might still be damaged or what have you. The team is now applying drone technology, so they can do those initial assessments.

After that idea hits the table you'd say, "Well, of course, that makes perfect sense," but somebody has got to be the team that says, "Hey, wait a minute. There's a different way to assess this damage with the technology and can we use the drone technology?"

There may be different technologies in the future and there will definitely be different technologies in the future. For us, we often talk about that. How do I create the acumen, the mindset that causes somebody to think, "I've done this thing the same way, or I might apply the way I've done something a long time to this new thing, but what I really need to do is apply a new technology to this thing to do it in a different way." That requires a few things.

If I didn't know a drone existed or if I didn't know that drones were being commercially deployed at scale, then I might never consider how they could help me in that situation. Of course, we have large enterprise customers deploying drones in amazing ways.

If I didn't know what blockchain could do to help solve the trust in my system, I might never consider it to help apply to a particular problem.

For me, our effort across all of our people is, how do I open up their mindset? How do I give them enough education and perspective on those technologies so that they can start to think about how they apply to solve a problem? I don't need them to be; we certainly have some, but I don't need them to be the drone expert of the firm or the Ph.D. in analytics, but I do need them to say, "You know what? There's a better way to get at this and there's a better technology to help me go after it."

Myths about Digital Transformation

Michael Krigsman: We have a comment from Twitter from Arsalan Khan who says, "A myth that we hear is digital transformation does not affect culture and are there other myths?" Let's talk about culture and then I'll ask you about other digital transformation myths that might be out there.

Joe Atkinson: The best part about having conversations like this is, I suspect, if you line five or ten of us chief digital officer types up, Michael, you might get five or ten different answers because this area is so dynamic.

My view is, digital is all about culture. It's at the heart of what we're talking about because, if I can't connect it to the way people solve problems and work in teams, if I can't connect it to the way that they're willing to take a risk in solving a problem differently, if I can't empower them to apply a technology in a way that they're not even sure it's going to work and that their supervisor has to accept or their manager, director, partner, whoever may be supervising them has to accept, that risk-taking acceptance of, I'm going to apply technology in a new way, any one of us have managed large scale teams knows that that doesn't come because you tell everybody to take risks. That comes because, at the heart of the team, there's a culture of trust, integrity, going to do the right thing, and going after the right answer that allows the team to take those kinds of risks.

I think, if that's a myth out there, one vote from my seat. It's all about culture.

I think the other myth is, it's all about technology. That clearly goes right back to the culture point.

Our people, one of the things we are really proud of is, we made the decision early that we were not going to selectively upskill our people. We weren't going to make these capabilities, skills, and knowledge available just to people that we thought were definitely going to need them. We wanted to make this capability and skill available to all of our people so that they could work on a journey to take them wherever their career was going to take them, whether it's with us or anywhere, working with our clients, working in the community, working in a nonprofit, doing a startup. That commitment, to me, is all about recognizing that digital transformation, at its heart, is about people.

The technology is changing. We know the technology is going to change. The greatest technology any one of us can apply to a problem today is going to be different in five years. If you bet everything on what the tech is without helping people adapt to that pace of change in the tech, then we think we're really missing something and that's why we started with all of our people.

What is the Connection Between Digital Transformation, Culture, and Technology?

Michael Krigsman: We begin with this technology discussion and we end up with, how do we get people to take risks and have integrity? What's the connection? Why does digital transformation rest on these culture and people pieces as opposed to, we need different technology?

Joe Atkinson: If you think about this idea of, I'm going to upskill everybody and help them have a wider lens on the application of technology, first, I have to help them understand what the technologies are. Second, I have to make the investment in training them in the application of those technologies.

I can't just say, "Hey, here are the tech. You should know them." That's acumen and awareness. It's important, but I have to immerse them in the technology.

For us, that was all about data because much of our work, when we're working with clients, we're exchanging large amounts of data. We're conducting analysis on financial transactions. We're conducting analysis on capital deployments. We're conducting analysis on operational performance, supply chains, and customers.

We're dealing with massive amounts of data from massive global companies. We knew we needed people to be better with data, so we invested a lot of time, effort, and money in skilling our people in the use of data skills. But we also said, these are the data skills that we're looking for, so we gave them a frame around what we were asking so that they could direct their energies in the right place.

Then we applied what I affectionately call our accelerators, our kind of catalyst to the mix. We took 2,000 of our people. By the end of this year, it'll be 2,000 of our people. We asked them to deeply immerse themselves in the tech to really go after it. We put them on essentially two-year tours, we protected some of their time so they have learning, and we charge them with going out, engage with the teams, help them apply the new skills that they have, and help them be the catalyst that everybody wants to be to change the way work gets done.

Here's the example. In that environment, I didn't, frankly, know exactly what our people would do. We call it Citizen Led Development. It's this innovation that our teams innovate around.

One of the most successful innovations that we started with, we've had a ton since, but one of the ones that got a lot of attention early on is, we had a senior associate who was a few years into his or her career, a senior associate that actually went into our time reporting system.

We're a time managed system. We do time reporting to make sure we're being transparent and accountable with clients and with our own time. None of our people like that process. It's not a fun process. Nobody gets excited about doing that and so they built a bot, a desktop bot that helped them scrape information from the systems that the team was using at that particular account and automatically populate the time reporting system of the firm.

There's no rocket science there, but it was a pain point for our team that, with new tools, they were able to look at and say, "I'm going to go after that. I'm going to fix it." We think that, on average, that's probably saving each of our people 10 or 15 minutes a week, 50,000 people at scale.

The more important lesson from my perspective as an executive was, if the team had sent me a note or put a sourcing request in for funding to say, "I want to streamline the time reporting system," I would have said, "We've had the same time reporting system forever. It works fine. That's not where I'm going to deploy limited capital to go change a system."

Instead, they deployed their intellectual capital. They took the tools that we had put in their hands. They applied it to the problem. Now we have a more efficient process. We have no need to reconcile. The client is seeing the exact information they should and the team is a little less frustrated with something that they don't enjoy that doesn't allow them to actually serve the clients in a meaningful way.

Those are the types of things we're really after is, how do I connect that kind of problem-solving so that our people feel ownership for those pain points in the process, whether they're ours or our clients? They go after them with the technology tools we're putting in their hands.

Michael Krigsman: What's the difference then between the two scenarios, on the one hand this citizen-led approach versus somebody coming to you and saying, "Hey, we need to change the time system," and obviously there's no reason to do that because it works?

Joe Atkinson: We often talk about the transformation in two columns. If you think of citizen-led as, how do I empower for us, ultimately, 270,000-plus people, there is also an element of business-led transformation? I would say business-led transformation, for those of us that have been in this space for years, I'll characterize that as the traditional, large-scale transformation.

What we know about that and we've all experienced it is the top-down, large-scale enterprise transformation, including deployment of large tech, that those deployments eventually landed a spot where the change stops and it may stall. Stall, stop, struggle: pick your word.

You can describe that any way you like. I had one client describe it as the permafrost layer of their organization.

I had another client give me a really important insight. They said, "Joe, we always say broadly that people are resistant to change. They're not really resistant to change. They just have to understand the net benefit of the change. If you ask them to take the risk to go make something different, they need to understand that there's upside for them and for their teams and the people they care about on the ground."

Business-led transformation can get you so far. On the other hand, our citizen-led transformation, Michael, if I gave everybody tools and I told them to go do whatever they would like to do on any given day to innovate, I'll get some really interesting business-impacting things and I'll get a bunch of things that are probably really interesting but may not be business impacting.

For us, that combination of business-led plus citizen-led has put this wonderful saturation of the strategy across the firm so that I actually do get change throughout all of the levels. We talk a lot about transformation at massive scale. I firmly believe if we had not attacked it from the two angles that we probably would have made some progress, some good progress, but I don't think would have made the progress we've made.

What is PwC’s Digital Transformation Strategy?

Michael Krigsman: You've been alluding to your broader digital transformation strategy. Can you be a little bit now more explicit? What were the problems you set out to solve and the plan that you put into place?

Joe Atkinson: I'll start with the client pressures because that was the problem we started out to solve. What were our clients telling us about what they expected from us? I always joke; they expect more value and higher quality.

I've been searching my whole career for the client that says, "Just bring it down a notch. You killed it last year and we want a less from you next year." I've never found that client and, frankly, I kind of hope I never do. They're always asking us to raise the bar.

Then they're saying, "I don't want to be served the way that I've always been served. Stop with the large stacks of materials. Stop with the heavy reports that, frankly, half the teams don't read. Stop with the data analysis that I can't make sense of. Give me a much more tech-enabled experience."

By the way, team, if you're in our interest, you have to manage your costs. How do you do that? That was the business problem we were trying to solve.

For us, relevance is about efficiency. It's about taking nonvalue hours out of that equation so that people can deliver that insight in a more value, more rapid way. It's also about how do we tell stories. I'll come back to the idea that so much of what we do is data-centric, so we needed to equip people with not just the tools to ingest, wrangle, and cleanse that data in a rapid fashion, but we needed to give them the tools so that they could help visualize that data at scale, so we gave visualization technology to every single one of our people in the U.S. Everybody has it.

They can share the visualizations direct with clients. They can share dynamic visualizations with those clients. They can collaborate with the clients on how those things work. That's a very different experience for our clients and that again reflects those pressures that our clients told us. They said they wanted a different experience.

My view, and our leadership team's view, is if we don't continue to change at pace then we risk our own relevance. We risk our relevance to our clients and the client-side.

Michael, the other responsibility that I feel every day I wake up and every night I put my head down on the pillow is we have, in the U.S., 50,000 people that are counting on us to get this right; globally, 270,000-plus. Those 270,000 people are looking to us to help them navigate through this. That's about skills, right? That was the other problem that we were looking to solve.

Our profession for a long time had been pretty comfortable bringing people in and asking them to work until midnight, crank through data on the spreadsheets, and just work, work, work, work, work. When you asked our people how much of that work stack was really valuable to them, that they were learning, they were growing, they were delivering value, it wasn't as much of the stack as we'd like. That's also about, obviously, value to clients.

My goal is, I want people's work/life. We talk a lot about the work/life balance and we all know it's work/life integration now, but I want to get them out of the office. I want to get them unlocking that time. Whether they direct that time to their personal pursuits or they direct that time to different value to clients, as long as we're driving those outcomes with clients, that's what our clients expect from us.

They don't count our value in hours. They count our value in business outcomes, and so this is all about focusing our people's attention and energy on those business outcomes.

How Important are Storytelling, Visualization, and Communication with Data?

Michael Krigsman: You mentioned something that I'd like to drill into, which is, you had started to say the word "storytelling." You were talking about data and visualization tools. What is the role and the importance of telling stories and communication in this whole process?

Joe Atkinson: We're all living in a world where there's too much data. There's not enough insight. We know the buzzwords around that.

What I would offer is that because there's so much data and it's so accessible, part of the challenge is, you can tell any story you like with data. I think we all recognize if you give me enough data, I'm going to shape it.

What we saw in the past is that clients and sometimes ourselves, we were making data confirmed decisions. Meaning, we trust our gut and our intuition because that's how we came to be wherever we are, so I'm going to make a decision. By the way, I want to make it on the data, so here's the decision. Could you go pull me a whole bunch of data that make sure I'm right?

We're challenging people to flip that completely and really allow the data to tell the story, to inform the decision. There's a role for intuition and gut in there, no question, but it's about responsible storytelling with data and crafting a story that people can understand.

I can put a thousand lines of spreadsheet up on the video screen of a conference room and I promise you nobody is going to make an intelligent decision based on a thousand lines of a spreadsheet in a conference room. But if I can help people understand, for example, what their customers are seeing in certain zip codes, in certain stores, if I can visualize that in a way that the mind thinks and gets around it more rapidly, then I can equip people to get more comfortable moving that decision tree up into the data analysis level as opposed to just having the data analysis conduct the validation in the back-end.

For us, there's a huge element of trust and integrity there, right? I keep coming back to these. They're so powerful in our brands.

In our brand, that trust and integrity are paramount, so I really want to make sure that all of our people are thinking about the implications of how I gather and tell a story with data because it's just so important in today's society.

How Does PwC Capture and Re-Use Knowledge Across Client Engagements?

Michael Krigsman: We have another comment from Twitter from Arsalan Khan who has picked up on a comment that you made earlier about data and bots. He is asking a question about your internal processes. We'll see how much of this you're comfortable answering. He says, "How do you capture or do you capture lessons learned from client engagements and turn that information into bots so they can be helpful for your next engagement?" He's wondering about your internal processes.

Joe Atkinson: I mentioned that we gave everybody visualization tools. We also have trained over 30,000 of our people in the U.S. and now taking that across the globe. Thirty thousand of our people in the U.S. have been trained on bot building. For those of you that are deep in the tech, I'm going to characterize this as desktop bots or task bots versus enterprise bots, so call it desktop bots where I've got tasks that are on my desktop that I want to automate in a more meaningful way.

What we've done is we've created a sharing platform where we are able to take those bots. If a team in Philadelphia develops a great way to approach a client or firm problem with a bot, we have a sharing platform that's essentially an internal marketplace where they can submit that bot. They can submit the documentation; this is what it does and this is why it works. We have a curation process behind that. Then that bot can be blasted out to 50,000-plus people in the U.S. We've just deployed this capability in the U.K. It's coming to other territories soon.

That capability allows us to scale those small bits of IP in ways that, frankly, were never possible before. You have this ability to take automations and scale them. By the way, we do the same thing with data models. We do the same thing with visualizations and the other digital assets that people are building.

From a lessons-learned and IP perspective, the trend that we're seeing is much more online, collaborative communication. That's not a new trend, obviously. The way that our people are working together, the comfort level they have creating chatrooms to serve particular clients, creating chatrooms that share ideas around certain industries, respecting everybody's data protection and all those good things, but the way that our teams are able to collaborate now is dramatically different than it was even five years ago. Deploying those tools at scale, along with the ability to do the sharing at scale, that combination has been very, very powerful for us.

Michael Krigsman: Knowledge capture and collaboration are as, if not more, important today than it was historically. I know, historically, it's always been very important.

Joe Atkinson: If you think about where we're at in terms of what our people expect when they come to us, we hire people at all stages of their career. Everybody thinks of us as a place you can start your career and we're a great place to start your career. We're hiring people that are at all stages of their careers that have done amazing things.

When we bring that talent in, part of the idea is, how do we share that talent? How do we share that IP with everybody? It doesn't make everybody an expert, but the accessibility of that IP is, frankly, what our clients expect from us.

If you go to that person who says, "I used to spend some portion of my time doing something that was repetitive, so repetitive in fact that I could build a desktop bot to solve the problem," for us that opens up intellectual capacity. It opens up value capacity that we can now redirect to clients to, frankly, go solve the thing that they hired us for in the first place.

Then the talent that we're bringing in looks at that and says, "Well, you're actually tapping into why I came here in the first place because I didn't come here to do that repetitive thing that I can automate on a bot." The difference that I think has been so powerful for us is before people would come in.

We're in the client service business. If a client asks us to get it done, we're going to get it done. Not everybody had the skills, the tools, the capability figure out, how can I take some of that out so I can get to the things that are really valuable to the client, to the team, and to my team behind me? Now, we've blasted those skills across and we're doing the collaboration across so people can take advantage of that.

Michael Krigsman: The nature of the kind of consulting that you're doing is also being affected and, ideally, improved by this type of transformation and collaboration as well.

Joe Atkinson: It absolutely is. One of the most fun privileged parts of my job is, I often get asked to spend time with our clients' C-suite, boards, and executive teams on how we're thinking about transformation.

I've been in consulting my whole career, or at least 26 of my 27 years, often going to a client and trying to figure out how to solve the problem they have on the plate. In this case, all of us share the same problem. We're all trying to figure out how to adapt and drive this technology and innovation at scale, so we've been sharing the story with clients all across the country.

What's been really fun about that is that that is shaping the way that we're thinking about the commercial opportunities in those markets, the way we're thinking about how we can help clients with the right technology and tools and, in some cases, how we could take technology and tools that were originally built for us and commercialize those in the marketplace to help our clients do the same thing we've done to ourselves.

Measurements, Metrics, and KPIs for Digital Transformation

Michael Krigsman: Let's talk about measurements and metrics. Okay, you're doing all of these things. How do you know when you're successful and do you ever reach a point where you say, "We're done"?

Joe Atkinson: There are days I wake up in the morning that I'm looking for that point that we're done. I haven't found it yet. I know our chair has not found it yet, as we keep working on the agenda. That part I actually love a lot.

Let's talk about how we measure because I think there are a couple of dimensions. I want to start with people because, if we believe what we say that people are the heart of our transformation, then the question becomes, are our people seeing what we would expect to see? I would share two things.

I mentioned this force of 2,000 digital accelerators. One of the things that's been amazing is, among that population of people, our retention of that talent is actually roughly 2x their peer group that are not in that program. If you thought about that intellectually, and we spent a lot of time worrying about it, there is a part of you that says, "If I train people up in those skills, these skills are hot in the market, I'm going to give them all these skills, they're going to go."

What we've found is that the mission and purpose that we've given them help us change the firm, be an advocate for change, be an advocate with your peers to help them change. That is resonating. Again, these are people at all stages of their career. That's resonating with that population of people and they're sticking with us because they're enjoying the ride. That's one really, really important measure.

The other important measure, now I'll flip to, are our people at scale comfortable that they have tools and capability to innovate? Like a lot of organizations, we poll our people every year. We've been privileged to be part of the Great Place to Work studies and we've had great external recognition on that, but we look at that data and we look at that data very hard every year to figure out where we can improve and continue to drive the experience.

This year, when we asked our people whether they had the ability to innovate on the job as we've taken this journey, that measure moved by almost 19 points, which is one of the largest movements we've ever seen at any point on the study. These are people telling us, "We don't have everything right yet, but we're feeling the power of what you're doing and you're giving us new tools and skills." From a people perspective, we feel really good about that.

Now let's talk about, we are a business. We're a private partnership. We're a business. We need to drive growth an innovation just like everybody else does, and profitability. What we're seeing is that, because we're automating so much of the activity that doesn't have the higher value in the marketplace, our profitability is actually seeing the impact of that. That is the value of an individual in terms of the revenue per professional and some of the measures that a professional services firm would be really familiar with.

We're watching those very, very carefully because we want to make sure that we're converting this activity into the business outcomes that we'd expect to see in the marketplace. So far, and again to your point, I don't think I will ever declare victory, maybe at my retirement party, but so far we're seeing movement on those measures that really encourage us that this is going to drive the ROI that we would hope for.

Michael Krigsman: Profitability is driven by so many different factors. How can you isolate?

Joe Atkinson: We definitely can't isolate. I wouldn't want to suggest to anybody you can isolate; you know that this factor hits this thing. In fact, one of the most challenging but really energizing parts of our transformation journey is, we do look at this as a portfolio. I often tell our partners and our leadership team; I would like to tell you and pick the number of assets that we have. We have all kinds of learning assets, technology tools, and software products that we've taken from the outside to help drive this. We have all kinds of assets that we've purchased and built, et cetera to help drive this.

I would love to tell you I could figure out exactly what the percentage point allocation is on movement on anything in that, but I can't. What I do know and I'm very confident about is the portfolio of that impact is driving the outcomes we want. I really encourage clients to think about the portfolio of impact.

Every once in a while, you can isolate based on engagement or utility of a particular asset and say that's not actually driving, but we spend a lot more time thinking about engagement, application of skills, engagement with the assets, the use of the assets than we do, does this asset drive this particular outcome? When we see the engagement, we're confident it's contributing to that portfolio effect.

I'll also come back to something we started the conversation on, Michael, which is, if you're not thinking about that portfolio of assets in the context of business outcomes, then, frankly, you run the real risk of just being a really interesting side project to somebody and not actually something that's core and strategic to the business.

One of the things our chair and our board did from the beginning, which was really impactful, was, they laid out a strategy that included, as a pillar, our digital transformation. It's not something that we're doing to help enable the strategy. It's not something that's an add-on to the strategy. It's not coming from the left side or the fifth floor to the strategy. It's in the strategy. It is the strategy.

I say a lot to our digital accelerators, "If you're trying to understand the firm's strategy, look to your left, look to your right because you are the power of our strategy." It's that enablement and, frankly, enabling, empowering our people and letting them do what we hired them for and get out of their way when we need to get out of their way.

Michael Krigsman: What kind of changes did PwC need to make in order to undertake the digital transformation of its own business?

Joe Atkinson: There were a few things. One is, we had to really take a hard look at our technology. Did we have the right technology? Had we standardized on the right platforms? Were we driving them at the right scale?

We had to look at all of our training and development programs. Did we really have the right training and development?

We had to reposition it. I often say training and development moved from an enabler to the front of the train because now it's everything. That enablement, the technology environment, and culture, how our partners looked at our teams from a problem-solving perspective, they were all part of the pieces that we looked at.

Michael Krigsman: Let's talk about the challenges or the obstacles that organizations typically run into when they want to undertake this type of program of transformation that you've been describing.

Joe Atkinson: I do think there is this question of adversity to change. I think once you understand why people resist certain changes, it helps. Help them understand what you're after and, generally, people are going to go with you.

Having said that, I also think there are some people that just aren't ready to change for whatever reason. Often, people want to go focus and go figure out why those 10 people out of the 100 didn't move with the change. I would counsel all day long, "Focus on the 90 that are taking you where you're going and either the 10 come along or they don't."

Then the other thing I would say is, don't let the tech get in the way. Technology is complicated. It's difficult. It's expensive. It's a really important part, obviously, of digital transformation, but it's a part, and getting that strategy right and standardizing where you can.

I often say to our leadership team, "Make what can be the same the same. Customize and go bespoke when you need to in order to deliver that distinctive value to a client or a customer."

Michael Krigsman: Do you think that, in business, just generally, there is confusion around the role of technology in digital transformation?

Joe Atkinson: I do. I do. I think that people struggle because they equate them. People struggle because they want to believe that you've made a massive investment in technology that's going to bring you change. Often, it can, but it has to be done in the right way.

You've got to be thinking about that user experience. How does it land? What's their day-to-day like? That's why so much of what we're doing on human-centered design and some of these other things that we're really training people on is so important now because, to me, that's how you tap into the value of technology investments.

Digital Transformation Advice for Business Leaders

Michael Krigsman: Let me finish up by asking you for advice that you can share to folks in companies that are listening and are involved with digital transformation in one way or another. It's a tough road sometimes, so what advice can you share?

Joe Atkinson: It is a tough road sometimes. Again, I hope nobody took away that we thought we have every answer to any of this because we're working through it just as every other organization does.

Having said that, when you look at this question, you're going to see a million blockades. You're going to see a million problems. It's really no different than any other problem executives have solved before, which is, you knock them out one at a time. You send the teams after them and you go after them. That might obviously be in parallel in large, complex organizations, but you've got to go after the problems and the blocks.

The other thing is, there's that great saying we've all shared that perfect is the enemy of good enough. If you're really going to drive scaled change, you have to accept that it's going to be rocky along the way. If you're really going to drive technology innovation that's going to change people's experience, you have to accept that the first iteration of that classic agile methodology kind of thinking, that first iteration might be your minimum viable product and you've got to move from there. That requires helping your people understand what's about to happen because, otherwise, they'll be contrasting what's happening to what their expectations were in the old model.

Michael Krigsman: It's not about Ping-Pong tables.

Joe Atkinson: No. [Laughter] Who doesn't love a good Ping-Pong table, but it's a great point. The workspace and the environment really matters and you can engage people in creativity and all of that, but people want to do good work. They want to do interesting work. They want to apply their skills to solve important problems. If you can unlock that, my experience and we're blessed with phenomenal people across the PwC world, my experience is they're going to go along for the ride with you.

Michael Krigsman: Is that the ultimate key is finding those people who have an interest and a propensity who are willing and capable of going along for the ride, identifying them at the outside and early stages and then expanding from there?

Joe Atkinson: I think that's huge. The talent has always mattered. The talent still matters and it will matter even more in the future.

That understanding of who is really going to take me there, who is leaning in, who is taking the risk, who is taking others along with them, who feels that natural desire to coach and develop the people around them?

This is not about fear. Everybody talks about the technology disruption, replacing jobs. This is about doing our jobs differently in the face of all that disruption. I firmly believe, if we do that, we're going to tap into this technology and make things easier for people. That's a good thing.

We're going to make things more impactful for our customers, our clients, and our fellow colleagues. That's a great thing.

We're going to actually add security to the people that operate and build that kind of capability rather than take it away. I think inspiring our people is where it all comes down to.

Michael Krigsman: Well, such an interesting discussion and, unfortunately, we are out of time. I want to say a huge thank you to Joe Atkinson, the chief digital officer of PwC, for taking time and sharing his insight and experience with us. Joe, thank you very, very much.

Joe Atkinson: Michael, thanks so much for having me. I really enjoyed it.

Michael Krigsman: Everybody, thank you for watching. Before you go, please subscribe on YouTube and hit the subscribe button at the top of our website so you can subscribe to our newsletter. I hope you have a great day. Check out CXOTalk.com. We have excellent shows coming up. Take care, everybody. Bye-bye.