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October | From the dotcom boom to digital transformation: Tom Puthiyamadam, PwC

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October | From the dotcom boom to digital transformation: Tom Puthiyamadam, PwC

Tom Puthiyamadam has worked at PricewaterhouseCoopers for 20 years, from the peak of the dotcom boom through to the ‘second wave’ of digital transformation in the present day. Five years ago, he was called upon to lead PwC Digital as its Head of Digital Services, and help rebuild its approach to consulting from the ground up.

ClickZ Deputy Editor Rebecca Sentance spoke to him about that journey, about why organizations should go ‘experience backwards’ when approaching digital transformation, and why we don’t need to worry about an artificially intelligent workforce putting us out of a job.

Tom Puthiyamadam can confidently say that he never saw himself working in digital.

Nevertheless, digital has been a constant theme of his career, ever since he began working at PricewaterhouseCoopers 20 years ago. He cut his teeth in software and telecoms, as well as in media – industries that have always been on the “bleeding edge” of digital. From the word go, digital was always part of the discussion.

“I couldn’t talk to my clients without having a digital spin to the conversation,” Puthiyamadam recalls.

During the peak of the dotcom boom, in the late 1990s, Puthiyamadam was working in New York as an Associate with PwC. He remembers it as a volatile period, but also an exciting one.

“The dotcom boom was all around media companies. At that time, nine out of ten of the new start-ups in media crashed and burned, but it was an exciting time for me – to understand what these new business models were, how disruption worked, how to use the internet in different ways.

“For me, it just opened up a whole new moment of curiosity.”

As Puthiyamadam expanded into other industries that weren’t on the cutting edge, like manufacturing and telecom, he found himself trying to bring digital skills and experience into those companies – without even realising it, he was working in digital transformation.

“When I began to get exposure to industries outside of software, media and telecoms, my eyes opened up a bit,” he says. “They were just so far behind. And that moment was when I had my own epiphany, saying: ‘There are so many industries that need to make that change happen. How do we help them?’

“When I think about digital, it’s so much more about innovation than it is about technology. After that, I started having a bit more fun again.”

Some fifteen years later, Puthiyamadam was asked to get PwC Digital Services off the ground, and apply his experience from the first wave of digital transformation to its second wave. In many ways, Puthiyamadam says that he sees our current era of transformation as a renaissance of the dotcom boom.

“I’m glad it happened,” he says. “There was a period of time where we all felt that the innovation and new thinking that need to be applied to business just wasn’t there. But now, here we are.”

Digital transformation: Experience-backward, not technology-forward

Companies of all sizes and across all industries are currently grappling with digital transformation, a concept which means something completely different to practically every company that undergoes it. And plenty of companies who believe they have innovation and new thinking still can’t seem to succeed in the digital age. So where do companies go wrong with digital transformation?

“A lot of companies have the tendency to take the easy way out,” says Puthiyamadam. “What we’re seeing time and time again is that they’re hyper-focused on moving with a ‘technology-forward’ mindset. And what we’re trying to educate them on is that you have to go experience backwards.”

What this means, Puthiyamadam explains, is that technology has become so easy to use that many companies see it as a silver bullet for digital transformation. “Everyone thinks that you can just throw this technology fairy dust onto a problem and voila, you have a new product, a new workforce. That’s why we have this alarming failure rate around digital transformation.”

Instead, what companies should be doing is focusing on people – their customers, their employees, their executives – and approaching technology as a means of enhancing their capability.

“If you go experience-backward, you’re thinking about analytics, you’re thinking about AI, you’re thinking about the cloud technology, and how it can give your customers and employees a superpower of some kind.

“If you start there, and work your way back, I think you’ll find a better application of these tools.”

When it comes to digital transformation, PwC doesn’t just talk the talk – it walks the walk as well. Puthiyamadam describes how, five years ago, the consulting firm underwent a transformation of its own, effectively reinventing its consulting from scratch.

“It’s very difficult to do that, when you have a massive business that you have to turn. But what if you could separate yourself from that entirely and recreate the next-gen consulting firm? What would that look like? That’s what we set out to do.

“The journey has been something of an amazement, for me. We were able to remake a consulting firm that would stand out on its own, and we did it – patiently.We tried to go after the right deals that would complement what we were doing; we tried to bring in the right skills that would augment what we had before. We were trying to carve out something very unique, and stand apart from the competition.”

It was at this time, Puthiyamadam explains, that PwC created what it calls the ‘BXT’ way of working – a philosophy of bringing strategy and operations together with technology, and with the people whose job it is to manage the experience.

“What we created was a new philosophy and a new way of working. Every one of our projects, from a visionary standpoint, and an implementation standpoint, will always include a Business, eXperience and Technology resource mix.

“We knew that we had to do something different; we had to do something bold, that would set a new standard; and we had to do something that would stop all of this digital transformation failure.”

How to digitally transform your workforce

Another core question of digital transformation that innumerable business leaders grapple with is that of their workforce.

It’s all very well deciding that your business should focus on people first, but how can you make sure that those people have the skills to use technologies like artificial intelligence and cloud computing? Should you invest in upskilling your existing workforce, or try to hire new employees who are digitally ‘native’ and have an innovative, forward-thinking mindset?

Puthiyamadam believes you should do both; but he also believes hiring fresh talent is much more important at the executive level than it is at a more junior level.

“I don’t think that a senior marketer with a traditional mindset is capable of creating a culture of innovation within their own organization,” he says frankly.

“For senior marketers to truly build a culture of innovation, they’ve got to think like an executive psychologist. You’ve got to be able to ask questions like, ‘What is our true aspiration as a company?’

“You might be better off hiring the CEO of a start-up, who knows what innovation looks like, and making them your CMO. That would change the game a bit.”

Irrespective of background, he says, the key is hiring people who have the right mindset to lead a digital company. “You need to hire people that are so curious about the future that they’re continuing to explore it. They want to push the boundaries.”

He also believes a multi-industry background is vital – a good CMO should be able to bring in experience from other industries and apply it to their new organization, because the challenges faced by clients are no longer confined to a single industry. “A healthcare organization, for example, might need to bring a technology executive into their team, or a retail executive into their team.”

Lower down the organization, Puthiyamadam estimates that 80% of a typical company’s workforce should be capable of acquiring the right skills for digital transformation, while 20% simply won’t make it. For some business leaders, the idea of potentially losing 20% of their workforce might seem alarming – but for others, the idea of being able to retain 80% will be reassuring.

However, this is only possible if the company’s C-suite commits to a digital upskilling of the entire organization. For Puthiyamadam, the process of creating an innovative, digitally transformed organization is twofold: step one is to hire the next generation of executives, and step two is to commit your organization to acquiring the necessary digital skills.

Again, PwC is not above taking its own advice on digital transformation. Puthiyamadam tells me that the company is currently in the middle of launching a “digital fitness” assessment for all 240,000 of its employees.

“It’s not just about technology skills and know-how, but about your behaviors, attitudes and relationships, and how you think about digitalization in today’s world,” he says.

After the assessment, the company provides a mobile learning app that employees can consume on their own to help improve their digital “fitness”, and go on to apply those new skills in a business context.

This programme is available to everyone across the entire organization – in fact, the first group to take the assessment were the PwC Board of Directors.

“You’ve got to start at the top, and lead by example,” says Puthiyamadam.

Artificial intelligence and ‘super-powered’ humans

When I ask Puthiyamadam which emerging technology makes him most excited for the future, he replies immediately, “It’s all about artificial intelligence.”

He goes on, “The applications are limitless. I know there are wonderful other emerging technologies, but I think AI, at every turn, is what excites me the most.”

In spite of widespread fears about an artificially intelligent workforce putting humans out of work, Puthiyamadam believes that AI is less about replacing humans and more about giving them an “innate superpower” – in other words, about enhancing their ability to do their job well.

“We have a healthcare client for whom we’re deploying an AI service tool. It can analyze the sentiment of a person’s voice on an incoming call, analyze the inquiry that they made, and suggest the optimal answer to the customer service agent – a recommendation that they can use to calm the situation down.

“I think that’s outstanding. Think about the benefits for the employee – they’re having a moment where they can actually share some delight and joy, versus dealing with a very frustrating phone call. That’s what excites me about it.

“If we could start thinking about AI more in that context – rather than about it replacing humans, and putting people out of work – I think the world of business and economics would be a much better place.”

Does he think, then, that the fears of an automated workforce replacing humans are completely unfounded?

“Well, I look at history. We’ve faced massive waves of automation in the past. Maybe not at this pace before, but we as a society have always pulled through – to upskill our workers, get them trained up on the next thing, and get them new jobs that would support their family and their needs.

“I understand that this is a pace of change that we’ve never seen before, that AI is probably a bigger threat than, say, the steam engine. But I think that we as a human society have this tenacity, this perseverance. We’re able to pull through.”

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