What Small and Midsized Firms Can Learn from PwC’s Digital Upskilling

Portrait of Rod Adams

One possible side effect: reverse mentoring.

By Donny C. Shimamoto
Strategic Technology Decisions

Over the last three years, PwC has undertaken an ambitious initiative to provide digital upskilling to the entire firm. Yes, you read that right, the entire firm. Everyone including staff, partners and admin team members were involved in this voluntary program to increase their digital acumen.

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I was able to gather some lessons learned and understand some of the underlying strategies behind PwC’s digital initiative via an interview with Rod Adams, CPA, PwC’s U.S. talent acquisition leader. Recognizing that most firms don’t have access to the same resources that PwC has, I also asked Adams how small and midsized firms could approach this type of initiative for their firms.

Digital Skills Important Across the Firm

PwC felt that digital upskilling was important strategically for its firm because “Clients want more value, a digitally enabled experience. They want all that and they want it cheaper,” said Adams. He also said that they wanted to “do things more efficiently because then it allows you to spend more time on things that provide value and effectiveness.”

PwC identified three sets of skills that they felt were important to their clients, people and business:

  1. Data manipulation and visualization – leading to the gathering of insights
  2. Process automation – driving toward more efficiency to get the same results
  3. Human skills around technology, design-thinking, storytelling and agile project management.

PwC also took the approach of upskilling all employees rather than just a subset of high potentials or specialists. Adams said they took this inclusive approach “because everyone is engaging with clients or impacts client service in some way.”

Digital Upskilling Is a Journey

PwC started its digital initiative in 2016. Adams described it as a journey, and a deliberate effort that began very simply relative to where they are now. Their initiative started with a Digital Fitness app where each person could take an assessment, was given a score and then was provided with access to a variety of content that would allow them to build their digital acumen. The intent of the app was “more about (digital) awareness and mindset,” said Adams. He said that there were mixed reactions to the scores because PwC is a very competitive environment, but that scores were only released to the person taking the assessment.

The next phase involved all partners and staff (including administrative staff) being given the opportunity to attend a Digital Academy. These two-day in-person programs covered one day of data wrangling, and data visualization and insights, and one day of process automation. The curriculum for the Digital Academy was determined by working with various departments over a couple of months to identify which skills were most needed across the firm. Part of PwC’s philosophy in developing the Academy was to have a “one-firm” approach.

Additionally, interested employees could apply to be a “Digital Accelerator.” If selected, these people went through an additional 300 hours of training (that’s 7.5 weeks!); two weeks up front and then more learning while doing. This curriculum built upon the foundation from the Digital Academy and added training in artificial intelligence. The intention of this training was that the Digital Accelerators would be able to help those who identified opportunities to apply digital tools across the firm to make their ideas a reality. As of the writing of this post approximately 2,000 people across the firm (out of 50,000 total employees in the U.S.) had been identified throughout the firm to be Digital Accelerators.

Justifying the Digital Journey

Adams admitted that for PwC it was “a little bit of a leap of faith – if we took the time to create the skills there will be a way to use them in the work that is done now.” The challenge was helping the masses to appreciate the opportunity that existed without being able to see it. While PwC didn’t do any formal proofs of concept or pilots to build a business case, they often had seniors in pockets around the firm who were experimenting and trying to figure out better ways to do things. These incidental cases were used to show the potential value of creating a formal program.

Preparing to roll out the Digital Academy surfaced a key question: “We never needed these skills before, why do we need them now?” Because all partners and staff were given the option to attend an Academy, a shift in mentality to think of the billable hours that would be given up as an investment was also required. Luckily PwC’s leadership was able to make the leap of faith and the Academy was rolled out. Again, formal mechanisms weren’t used to track returns so Adams said they weren’t able to quantify the return on investment, but “value showed up quickly,” and PwC continued its digital upskilling journey. In fact, PwC is currently in the process of converting the Academy to be able to be delivered virtually so that they can increase their reach.

Lessons Learned from PwC’s Digital Journey

So that other firms could learn from PwC’s experience, I asked Adams to share some of the key challenges that PwC encountered in trying to get compliance from all employees. I expected to hear how PwC had used some of the traditional change management techniques to identify and proactively address the challenges, but I was pleasantly surprised to learn that a more informal approach had been taken and still yielded great success. This is good news for small and midsized firms because they won’t have access to the change management expertise that PwC would have in its consulting teams.

Get All Employees On Board

PwC’s program was a completely voluntary program. Employees weren’t penalized for not participating and program participation was not included as part of their annual performance review process. However, Adams said that PwC knew that they really had to get all elements of the firm engaged for this to truly be successful.

As we saw, the PwC journey has multiple stages from the Digital Fitness app, Digital Academy and Digital Accelerators. This allowed people to self-select the level of involvement that they wanted in terms of their digital upskilling. PwC also provided information in a variety of modalities: articles, video, online and in-person to accommodate different learning styles and to keep it interesting for all employees.

To encourage participation, PwC also offered to provide additional days off during the holidays if the firm reached a target percentage of participation. This incentive proved effective as 80 percent of its people achieved its Digital Acumen Knowledge Badge, meaning that they participated in the Digital Fitness app and completed the Digital Academy.

Include Everyone in the Same Boat

Digital skills are so new to everyone that Adams said that most people felt like they were in the same boat. A vast majority of the people didn’t have the digital skills, so no one was alone in not knowing how to use any of the tools.

Partners and staff were included in the same courses in the Digital Academy. This created “reverse mentoring” opportunities for staff to help teach partners and be a part of their learning. Adams reported that it was often staff at the senior level who ended up reverse mentoring a partner.

Top-Down and Bottom-Up

Adams described PwC’s initiative as “both a citizen-led and business-led effort.” The firm has its own “bigger and bolder” projects that are being developed by formal teams and funded directly by the firm. But they also created a “Digital Lab” where any employee could share something that they had developed and others could download it to use on their engagements. Employees received small incentive compensation payments when they uploaded something, and again each time someone downloaded it.

Staff who participated in the programs, particularly the Digital Accelerator, were also able to differentiate themselves. It allowed them to create automations for their team and stand out. While this was important to staff for career advancement, it was also important to the firm as it allowed the firm to identify those with high potential digital talents. Because many of these digital skills are new to everyone and there are so few “experts,” being able to quickly identify and nurture this talent an important initiative for the firm.

Digital Programs Help with Recruiting

As the head of PwC’s U.S. recruiting team, Adams also cited the importance of its digital programs to their ability to recruit the best and brightest talent. Whether for new hires or experienced hires, joining PwC provides the person with an immediate opportunity to develop their digital acumen and upskill – a key selling point when trying to provide differentiators beyond monetary compensation.

Overall Adams said that PwC thinks it addressed its digital upskilling in the right way. While it is difficult to directly correlate its return on investment in time and opportunity costs, there continues to be enough anecdotal evidence to keep the program alive and evolving.


PwC Helps Upskill Professors

PwC has already offered seven sessions of its Digital Academy to professors from a variety of different schools. Through this effort, PwC has helped over 351 professors get introduced to the new digital technologies and tools. The courses were taught by PwC’s Tax Analytics Academy team using examples of the work products from the Digital Accelerators so that the professors could appreciate how the tools were actually being used in practice, whether internally at the firm or to help PwC’s clients. Professors interested in future digital upskilling opportunities with PwC should contact PwC at us_pwc.university.relations@pwc.com

Call for Research and Stories

Has your firm gone through a digital transformation or rolled out a digital upskilling program? Whether you’ve been successful or not, we’d love to hear from you! As we’ve shared in the article above, these initiatives don’t necessarily follow traditional change management and return on investment methodologies. Help our profession learn from your successes or even your failures. All responses will be kept confidential unless you provide permission to share your story. You can contact me at donny@intraprise.us

One Response to “What Small and Midsized Firms Can Learn from PwC’s Digital Upskilling”

  1. Alice Wright

    Hello, Donny, thank you for this detailed piece on the digitalization initiative taken up by PwC. As we move forward in time, paper documentation and transactions are finding themselves in the back seat. Digitalization in a firm is actually a dynamic and much-needed process given the present-day scenario. PwC took a trailblazing step by deciding to digitalize their entire firm. This might have a bandaid rip-off effect, but this change would surely be worth it. In the present day digitizing business processes is almost becoming a necessity, as every firm is parallelly connected to another be it in term of insourcing or outsourcing, now if the other firm that you’re connected with has gone digital, it would be a little bit of a hassle if you’d still be practicing the old methods. There would be a lack of sync in this case. Indeed, it is a big step; but digitalization is almost inevitable in present business settings.