Digital transformation needs to be people-led, says PwC’s Nicholas Ganz

PwC partner Nicholas Ganz believes adaptability is key to delivering tomorrow’s audit.

This Future of Audit Series interview is proudly brought to you by ACCA.

In summarising how he feels business needs to manage digital transformation, Nicholas Ganz, partner at PwC South Africa, cites a quote from Lindsay Herbert’s book, Digital Transformation: Build Your Organization’s Future for the Innovation Age: “The truth is that digital transformation is actually not about adapting to new technology at all – it’s about directing an organisation to be more adaptive to change itself.”

People haven’t traditionally perceived audit firms as being adaptive to change, Nicholas admits, but he believes PwC has embraced the idea that being open to change is critical to the firm’s success. “We aim to deliver tomorrow’s audit today, and what we mean by that is what we call ‘the experience revolution’, which means that we need to deliver exceptional quality, save our clients time and give them deeper insights,” he explains.

Technology is part of this, he says, but it’s also about getting everyone in the organisation on the same page and reimagining audit together. This means balancing audit IQ with digital IQ. To address the audit side, PwC’s strategy encompasses driving continuous development and professional scepticism (building a culture focusing not just on independence and quality, but also a questioning mindset), as well as a range of firm-wide initiatives focused on helping people to access their potential, both personally and professionally.

“On the digital side, we have something called the digital fitness app,” Nicholas explains. “It’s a mobile app for self-guided training and evaluation at your own pace. Everyone is at a different place on their digital upskilling journey. You basically set your aspirations as to where you want to be from a digital fitness perspective. So, for instance, if somebody wants to upskill themselves in blockchain, there’s a course available for that, as well as news articles and information on the latest developments in blockchain.”

Boosting Digital IQ
PwC has been focusing on ensuring every single employee is upskilled through their digital academies in three key technologies: Alteryx, a workflow software, Microsoft Power BI, for interactive data visualisation, and UiPath, a robotic process automation (RPA) solution.

For employees who want to take their digital skills to a higher level, PwC offers a digital accelerator programme, where individuals go through an intensive, hands-on six-month training programme that includes a Udacity Nanodegree, fully funded by the firm.

“We call this digital upskilling programme ‘Our Tomorrow’ and to date we’ve put more than 5,000 people in audit through this,” Nicholas says. The firm has also established a digital lab, which is a “citizen-led innovation platform for developing and mobilising digital assets”.

What does that mean? Nicholas explains that people within PwC are encouraged to develop workflows, automated processes and other digital assets, which are then tested and put through rigorous approval processes before being loaded to the digital lab for use throughout the firm.

While this investment in digital skills development is significant (globally, PwC spends US$500 million annually investing in people and tech), Nicholas says that it’s an investment in the future of the company, as well as its people. “We believe this is important in servicing our clients better, to increase our people’s value and to help make them and us future-proof. Some of our people may not stay, but we believe that it is important to help them stay relevant in whatever career aspirations they have,” he explains. “We believe that if we don’t invest in this firm-led, people-powered approach, audit firms will become less relevant.”

In fact, all of PwC’s five platforms for delivering the audit are in the cloud: Extract (for sourcing data), Halo (data analysis), Aura (where the audit is documented), Connect (for collaboration) and Innovation (the PwC technology ecosystem). PwC has won three out of the five last Innovation of the Year awards for audit firms globally.
Nicholas says, “PwC needs to do better in sharing our digital story with the market, regulators, and other stakeholders, as we deliver the audit in a more tech enabled world.”

Digital paying dividends
The fact that PwC has embraced digital transformation paid dividends when Covid-19 hit, as the firm was able to adapt to its people working from home – even the 300 people from its service delivery centre based in Gqeberha (formerly Port Elizabeth). “Our challenges were less about technology than about focusing on the softer skills and making sure our people were managing the change on a personal level,” says Nicholas.

One of the pluses has been that many clients who were previously sceptical about PwC’s cloud-based systems (and the online data-sharing they require) have seen the real benefits they offer, and undergone a complete 180-degree change in their attitude to digital innovation in audit.

For Nicholas, while it’s important for audit firms to continue investing in upskilling people in new technologies, it’s equally important to retain the most important human element – the ability to make a good judgement call. “With all the data and all the information that we now have, we need to make sure we analyse it properly, and that the results of that analysis are looked at by people who can then make the right decisions as they deliver the audit,” he stresses. In fact, by ensuring that CAs and managers spend less time on sourcing data and more time applying their minds to analysis, he believes it’s possible to improve the quality of audit delivered, as well as the time it takes for an audit.

This will reflect in the skills that the profession needs to attract too, as well as in accounting curricula. Aside from technology skills, Nicholas believes there needs to be more room for creativity. “Where we have high-volume repetitive work performed by our people, we will rather standardise and eventually automate it,” he says.

“We want our people to use their time to think differently and have an element of creativity when solving problems. If we give everyone a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail. We want our people to use their digital IQ and audit IQ to look at things differently and ask ‘Could we come up with a better solution or a better approach?’ And that needs creativity.”

Fostering this will also require collaboration and knowledge sharing within the industry. “I think there is an opportunity for us to work together with various stakeholders within the capital markets and the profession. If we spend time together and share with one another what good looks like, we can go much further.”