A learning initiative that PwC embarked upon years ago has proven a competitive advantage in today’s new normal. In 2016, the company began planning a major training strategy in North America aimed at pushing the company forward in the digital age. The program is now slated to roll out globally and, given the role of technology in enabling remote work, it has also positioned PwC to navigate the work-related challenges of the coronavirus pandemic.
“You can't hire your way out of this," Mike Fenlon, chief people officer at PwC U.S., previously told HR Dive about the digital talent gap. "There simply aren't enough people in market today with the skills."
This past October, the firm committed $3 billion to its "New World, New Skills" program. The program aimed to offer digital skills training to all 276,000 PwC employees and further incentivize the creation of digital tools or time-saving process shortcuts. The company refers to the latter as “citizen-led” innovation.
HR Dive spoke with two leaders on Fenlon’s team about measuring the success of this initiative and how training will continue during the pandemic-driven shift to remote work. So far, tens of thousands of employees have participated in advanced training, and millions of work hours have been saved by these citizen-led process improvements.
After the company recognized the way technology would disrupt people and processes, it decided to address the resulting skills gap from within; “the first step in this journey,” according to Kim Jones, was “to communicate why this was important to our people and to get their buy in.” At the time, Jones was in her first year as Fenlon’s chief of staff. Today she’s the leader of an HR center of expertise for PwC focused on talent markets and employee experience.
“As we all know, it's much easier said than done,” she added. Jones recalls Fenlon delivering a presentation four years ago to more than 3,000 partners to introduce the multi-year initiative. Getting this layer of leadership on board was important because employees needed to dedicate time to upskilling, and managers needed to encourage it, Jones said.
“It was a good business decision because it was going to be faster, less disruptive to our culture to upskill who we have, versus some huge hiring effort,” Rod Adams, U.S. recruiting leader at PwC, told HR Dive, noting that the company still hires around 15,000 people per year.
After securing the commitment from leadership, it took a few months to identify where employees needed the greatest lift: data analysis, process automation and artificial intelligence.
“It's not that hiring tech skills is new,” Adams said. “What has changed is all of our roles, to some extent now, we're looking for some level of digital acumen. It doesn't mean you need to be able to code [...] but we are looking for skills where people are aware and understand how emerging technologies are impacting the way we work and impacting our clients.”
Incentives for participation
After working with internal stakeholders and external partners to develop learning content, PwC organized a variety of ways for employees to gain digital skills. The options included traditional channels such as an online resource hub, podcasts and short intensive programs called digital academies. There was also a trivia game that offered opportunities to win prizes.
“We identified key facts that we would build multiple choice questions around each day,” Jones said. “It was a fun way to have people learn. They could participate individually. They could participate with their teams, and there was even a cash component prize to it.”
Incentives played a key role, as Jones said the achievement-oriented personality of the firm responded to healthy competition and recognition. One of the first formalized offerings included the digital acumen badge, and team-based goals for earning the badge that led to extra time off on holiday weekends.
“People really got into it. Like once they earned that digital acumen badge, they were posting it to their LinkedIn profile. They were posting it to the footer on their emails,” Jones said. “It was kind of a fun thing that we didn't necessarily expect.”
PwC launched a broader badge program to motivate upskilling around many topics, including one for human-centered design.
The digital acumen badge “was about all of us having a base level of understanding about some of the key technologies that are out there,” Jones said, while the human-centered design badge is “focused on storytelling, design thinking and agile project management,” according to Adams.
To cultivate citizen-led innovation, the firm created a space where employees could post ideas, share code and collectively devise other ways to boost productivity.
Given that tax auditing and consulting is “a very demanding profession,” as Jones said, it can be challenging to dedicate time to long-term development. To help with that, PwC implemented “infinite learning days.”
“That is one day each quarter that we basically shut down the firm so that people can learn,” Jones said. “They're not expected to do client work. We're giving them this time to learn whatever has been on their list.”
Measuring and maintaining success
PwC estimates that around 30,000 people participated in digital academies, and Jones said millions of work hours have been automated. These were two of the main measures of success for this upskilling effort.
“We had goals for each of our three primary lines of service,” she said. “So assurance, tax and advisory, and we also had goals for our internal firm. We were looking at ways to make processes more efficient. The processes that were more repeatable types of things, we challenged our people to find a way to build a bot that could do that.”
Bringing every employee along for the ride built a sense of camaraderie and respect for the abilities of the existing workforce, according to both Jones and Adams. “The value has been huge, from an engagement perspective with staff, from new ideas, creating more effective ways of working. […] Yes, there's a lot of cost that goes into it. But we have also seen a lot of benefits,” Adams shared. “It built a community, everyone was in it together.”
Like many other companies that primarily employ knowledge workers, PwC’s workforce is now mostly remote. While digitally upskilling the organization has proven to be beneficial, the firm is mulling adjustments to adapt to the new business climate.
“Because we have started our digital journey years ago, we were in a pretty good place for having to pivot even though we hadn't necessarily anticipated needing to do it in this way,” Jones said. “It has inspired us to evolve even further, so that now it's very much about having our people understand good ways to work from home. How to work virtually with our clients in a really positive and productive way. So, agility is key. I think a lot of a lot of organizations found that out the hard way."