Beyond data: ‘We use technology to invoke positive change’

<span>Photograph: Hero Images/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Hero Images/Getty Images

Businesses across the UK are unlocking their digital potential, boosting productivity and driving positive social change, thanks to PwC. The firm’s regional offices are working with local, national and international businesses to serve a wide range of technology needs.

More than a fifth of PwC’s revenue comes from technology enabled engagements, an area of growing importance to both the firm and its clients and, in its regional offices, PwC is developing specialisms across the technology spectrum to deliver these services to its clients.

In Northern Ireland, for example – the largest PwC office outside London – 400 of the 2,400-plus people work in technology. A key part of that operation is data analytics, which involves visualising data in clearer ways, so businesses can identify key trends across all aspects of their business processes. But the Belfast office does much more, from artificial intelligence (AI), cloud transformation and blockchain, to advanced analytics, DevOps and cyber security. It also contributes to community cohesion and social change in a number of areas, including the Hive Academy programme. This engages with primary and post-primary school students across Northern Ireland, with members of the technology team going into schools to help students learn about technology fundamentals such as coding, design thinking and cyber security.

Kieragh Nelson, a partner at Operate, the UK firm’s operational delivery division, adds that the company is investing heavily in improving skills for staff. One scheme, the Digital Accelerators programme, offers a nine-month training course in digital skills. “The thinking behind it is to equip and upskill our people in how we use technology to invoke positive change,” she says. “It’s about how we use data, trends and insights to really focus our efforts on creating change.”

Operate is one of the UK firm’s fastest growing businesses. It is leading the way on PwC’s growing use of alternative delivery models, working alongside wider PwC teams to help them move from “advice” to “action” – helping clients get stuff done. The division was set up in 2017 to help businesses that face operational challenges but lack the expertise, resources or technology to deal with them. The 2,000-strong team also acts as a source of innovation and differentiation for the firm in the market.

Meanwhile, PwC aims to build its presence in the field of AI, through its partnership deal with the University of Bath. As part of the tie-up with the university’s centre for doctoral training in accountable, responsible and transparent AI, PwC offers PhD students project-based internships, acts as an industry student adviser, and has joined the strategy and partnerships board.

Maria Axente, PwC’s programme driver for AI, who is leading the partnership, says: “In the long term, this is about building a bridge between academic research and industry beyond the technology itself.”

She says PwC is using its knowledge of AI in business to highlight areas where research is needed. For instance, researchers may look at the governance of AI systems, examining issues such as risk, trust in business, and ways of broadening uses of the technology. The governance drive could also create guidelines and principles for AI that can be applied in businesses of all sizes – from startups to big corporations.

In Scotland, where the technology needs of businesses are growing, PwC’s offices are ready to meet them. The risk assurance team in the technology practice helps organisations manage risks associated with large-scale change programmes and ensure the appropriate governance processes are in place; it also helps prevent and respond to operational incidents such as outages or cyber-attacks.

Among Scotland’s financial services companies there’s fierce competition for technology graduates, with Royal Bank of Scotland, Clydesdale Bank and Standard Life Aberdeen all vying for candidates. To give it an edge, PwC’s tech risk unit has forged links with the University of Edinburgh to create a data science degree apprenticeship; students undertake 12-week placements at the firm as a part of their course, with a view to becoming full-time employees.

The firm also partners with a digital skills academy called CodeClan, which helps it hire staff for coding, data analytics and cybersecurity roles. As part of the agreement, PwC gets in touch with full-time students before they graduate, to discuss opportunities at the firm.

PwC also offers an “ethical hacking” service to clients, looking for ways to challenge and test their cybersecurity controls and identify any weaknesses. The ethical hacking team, which is split between London and Cardiff, has about 25 staff in each office; the Cardiff office offers graduate training in ethical hacking to up to 20 trainees per year, while more are based at the London office.

“We go and perform engagements in the client buildings and evaluate the security they have,” explains Stuart Criddle, ethical hacking lead at PwC. “More than half our work is remote attack work, looking at websites, data loss work, looking to see if certain types of attacks are going to be used to scrape data off sites. We do a lot of attack simulation, looking at people sending emails to clients with bad links, looking to see if we can install software on their machines to take over their network,” he says.

Helping clients implement robotic process automation (RPA) – in which highly repetitive activities such as invoice processing and reconciliation are automated by software – is a key area for PwC’s technology service. But highly repetitive tasks are not always straightforward to automate. To implement RPA in a client’s audit functions, for example – a sensitive and highly regulated area – the Centre for Intelligent Automation creates RPA robots that complete the tasks end-to-end while respecting the regulations that govern them, all the while having an audit trail of the robot’s actions.

The software resides on a staff member’s computer or on a remotely accessible computer, potentially in the cloud, and is triggered to handle tasks such as identifying, capturing, transferring and merging data in high volumes across platforms – for example, invoice reconciliation across two or more disparate systems. Jason Kurensky, PwC’s risk operations leads the Centre for Intelligent Automation in PwC’s Risk Assurance Business unit based in Manchester. He says the division has helped clients seeking to implement RPA in various assurance tasks and activities.

“We have made a difference for our clients who are running an RPA centre of excellence, as well as those considering how to approach the journey into automation. Clients have spoken to our team because the automation needs to fit into the audit function and they are concerned about transparency in audit,” says Kurensky.

“I would say there are going to be key challenges and areas that all of our clients face in adopting, maturing and deriving value from their investment in this technology, and we will focus on supporting those. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, as platforms and processes vary by organisation. We are looking to enhance our teams’ abilities to better service the clients’ needs and solve their problems,” he adds.

PwC is developing technology expertise in its regional offices across a wide range of business functions, leveraging emerging technologies as it seeks to become a leader and invaluable partner for clients in their digital transformation.

Whether you’re just starting out or have a wealth of experience under your belt, find out more about career opportunities at PwC