Has the face of consulting changed forever?

In my former life as editor of a corporate finance magazine I was no stranger to the offices of the big five (as it was then). They were often dark, uninspiring, misogynistic places where partners sat at oak desks wearing double-breasted jackets; the ‘minions’ worked in partitioned rows to keep the tax people from talking to the audit team, and the scant few women wore pencil skirts and took notes or made tea. It’s a very different story today.

It’s hard to imagine a greater revolution in culture between those days and the environment that PwC staff work in today. I spent the day at their flagship London office, More London, which looks and feels like a cross between a Soho coffee shop and a technology start-up. The average age of the people I saw must have been in their mid to late 20s; everyone was dressed casually and everywhere I looked there were pods of people sat together discussing, holding, playing with, and testing bits of technology. I am taken on a tour of PwC’s Frontier space where customers, tech vendors and staff get together to discuss problems and find solutions. There are no divisions between the teams; there could be a tax partner working with a retailer supported by an AI expert, while someone with a VR headset demonstrates the solution in action.

We’ve been very thoughtful about how we integrate our technology services with our business advisory capabilities.

Frontier is PwC’s hub for emerging technologies. It’s where the smartest PwC people work with customers and partners, such as Google and Salesforce, to bring together ideas and collaborate. PwC combines business, experience, and technology to address the needs of its clients and claims to be the only organisation that can provide a genuine 360 view when it comes to solving the most complex of business problems.

I sat down with Madeleine Thomson, UK and EMEA head of technology consulting and alliances, to discuss what was driving PwC’s purpose, how the company had reinvented itself and why the relationship with its technology partners had changed.

PE: Mads, I knew PwC of old. It looks like a very different organisation today but why has PwC reinvented itself so radically?

MT: There’s a philosophy here that’s changed. We are now in the business of transformation and we have to be relevant in today’s boardroom – that goes much further than just focussing on the CIO or CFO. We’ve been very thoughtful about how we integrate our technology services with our business advisory capabilities. When we see a client we ask what their business problem is. We try to understand it from a strategy point of view first and then work through what kind of experience they want, and then think about the technology we need to deliver that outcome. PwC is the only organisation across EMEA with the breadth of experience and resources to address the most complex of problems; we have people who understand tax regimes which is really important when you are looking at supply chain issues. We have people who understand the risk and regulatory situation across all domains. We have people who understand identity management issues, and we have the world’s best cyber practice. When you bolt technology on to that we can present the right choice to our clients having looked at the problem through many different lenses.

“it is all about simplification and standardisation which means we are all in a service economy and that means working together or missing out.”

We’ve been very thoughtful about how we integrate our technology services with our business advisory capabilities.

PE: How does PwC differentiate itself from the other global partners? What can PwC bring to the table that others can’t?

MT: We are known for delivering results even where others have deemed it impossible. We combine strategy, technology and management consulting expertise (including risk), drawing on our network to deliver tangible, measurable, human-centred change.

It’s this unique combination of capabilities which sets us apart in the market. We’re not just a strategy house where the answer to every problem is a new strategy. We’re not simply a technology player where the answer to every problem is digital. And we’re not only management consultants where the answer is always process reinvention.

We have created a philosophy, ‘BXT’, to drive transformation performance in a way that sparks innovation and meets business objectives. BXT combines business, experience and technology, to break down silos and unite fragmented viewpoints to get everyone to focus on a single purpose and solution, something that isn’t possible when viewed through only one lens.

PE: What are the main drivers for digital transformation and how is PwC working with its customers to ensure they take advantage of new technologies and methodologies?

MT: Disruption is one of the main drivers. Organisations and society are facing bigger, more complex problems than ever before. They need to adapt to a world of increasing asymmetry, digital disruption, demographic pressures, populism and declining trust. We’re operating in a more disruptive market, with fast paced tech advances, more demanding customers driving innovation and disruptive thinking.

Changing market demands are increasing the pace at which organisations seek large scale, results-driven transformation. There is a need for integrated solutions backed by the right technology as clients look for broader support across their business.

These issues require businesses to transform what they do and how they do it. Transformation means delivering a set of tangible outcomes, and whilst technology is the enabler for transformation, it is not just about new systems.

We now have the critical mass to go after some of the largest and most complex transformation programmes out there. We’re building a reputation for delivering transformational results and that means results for the customer. We are becoming known for our ability to take on any problem, frame it and solve it. We’ve got great people – clever, talented and experienced. We have broad expertise and diverse perspectives.

Our technological capability allows us to reimagine what’s possible. We do this by accessing an extensive range of technologies to support us in delivering complex transformation programmes. These can include cloud, data and analytics, artificial intelligence and robotic process automation.

PE: How has the relationship between PwC and the technology vendors changed, and what is driving those changes? How and why does digital transformation require a more collaborative partnership?

MT: Yes the relationship has changed and it is still changing. It is not about one-off deals but about long-term partnerships where both PwC and the vendors can offer ongoing relationships and services to customers.

With cloud it is no longer about selling the most software and then a partner implementing it. Customers want more and cloud means both parties have to provide better and more consistent service levels. It is all about simplification and standardisation which means we are all in a service economy and that means working together or missing out.

We work much closer with our technology vendors such as Oracle, Salesforce, SAP and Workday, bringing them into the client conversations earlier and going in as one team wherever possible. We use our business experience and technology perspectives to reframe problems and identify solutions that can be missed if viewed through a single company lens.

Our distinct problem solving approach is twofold; First, we work with the client to understand their problem – and this may not be the one they bring to us. Secondly, we reframe the problem and design an approach that addresses the needs of customers, employees and stakeholders.

Either or both of these stages can involve the technology vendor. We then work with the client to co-create the solution. This builds a shared understanding, promotes a sense of ownership and encourages a determination to implement. We use prototyping to test potential solutions, allowing us to ‘fail fast’, obtain user feedback and test a number of possibilities simultaneously.

This approach validates what works and what doesn’t, helping to make the next steps clear. Our methodology means that any solution we recommend is much more likely to be successful and make a real difference because it responds to the issues faced by all the people who will be affected by it.

PE: How has PwC invested in its partnerships with technology vendors to ensure it is able to meet the demands of its customers?

MT: PwC has strengthened its commitment to alliances and invested heavily in building a professional team to manage the alliance relationships with our key strategic partners. In the last 12 months alone we have appointed senior and experienced directors to each of our key strategic alliances.

We are investing in a range of industries for example retail, consumer, financial services, construction, oil and gas; where our strategic industry knowledge allows organisations to adopt more market standard technology to solve business problems. We are growing our teams and appointing new directors and partners and recruiting experienced delivery teams to service the demand.

This builds a shared understanding, promotes a sense of ownership and encourages a determination to implement.

We have invested in developing accelerators including Maverick and FTIS that support key industry challenges such as IFRS17 and Open Banking, and we will continue to build model systems for specific industries and work together with technology vendors to provide best practice industry solutions.

PE: How closely does PwC work with the technology vendors to ensure that it is aligned with the vendor narrative, and what has PwC done to ensure that its consultants and customer facing team have the skills required to deliver technology-enabled change?

MT: The best way to implement SaaS solutions is to configure the business to the standard software compared to on-premise, where traditional SIs have made a good living in configuring the software to the business.

We feel we are the right partner because we understand the business processes and future challenges. Being strategy-led, using the right technology in the right place and taking a human-centred approach to transformation leads to fast, successful adoption. Customer-centric change management is the key to success, not the technology.

We have invested heavily in building our technology teams and upskilling them, enabling them to gain the right certifications to achieve the various vendor and cloud accreditations. We feel it is mandatory that their technology skills match their consultancy and transformation experience.