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EY exec shares strategy for digital transformation in business

EY is recruiting STEM talent, offering employees courses in AI -- and more -- in its quest for a digital business model that can exploit rapid change.

If there's one thing that every company -- whether born in the internet age or not -- struggles with in their digital transformation journeys, it's change, said Jeff Wong, EY's global chief innovation officer.

EY is no exception. The difference, according to Wong, is that the accounting firm has adopted an organizationwide "cultural mantra" -- one that's at the heart of its strategy for digital transformation -- that emphasizes innovation, change and continuous learning.

In part one of this three-part interview series, "Why EY is investing in AI, data and blockchain technology initiatives," Wong explained why EY is investing $1 billion in technology and innovation, and detailed the three technologies the company is focusing on to help itself -- and the enterprise at large -- succeed.

Here, in part two, Wong gives us an inside look at EY's strategy for digital transformation -- an ambitious undertaking that includes exploring and embracing new digital business models, recruiting STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) talent and teaching accountants the real-world technology skills required by a digital economy.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What challenges have you faced in executing on a strategy for digital transformation at EY?

Jeff WongJeff Wong

Jeff Wong: What's really interesting is I came in from the internet world. People often ask me about the difference between coming from the internet -- a company [like eBay] that was relatively young -- and EY, which has 260,000 people in every major city in the world and a 100-year-plus history. And they ask, 'Isn't it really different?' It is really different, but what's the same is that change is really hard in any environment.

In any large, successful company and any large, successful entity, change is hard. That's because of its history of being successful at what it's done -- it makes doing new things hard. A lot of the challenges in organizations around the world revolve around convincing the organization that it needs to change. What has impressed me the most about being at EY is how quickly the leadership of this firm and the entire organization at large has taken on the concept of change and the concept that we all need to change together because the world is moving much more quickly. Here, people have taken on this cultural mantra that we need to innovate and we need to change. But we don't just need to change; we want to change because we see the opportunities in front of us.

That being said, it's still hard. We need to make decisions of different tempos. We're asking and answering questions of ourselves that we haven't had to do before. We're challenging our business model. We're asking how we should add new [digital] business models onto the existing business -- which is a wonderful model and it has worked for years and will continue to work for years. We're asking, 'How do we add on different ways to generate revenue and profits?' So, we have these pilot tests throughout the firm around generating revenues and profits in different ways -- jointly with clients around the world.

Talent recruitment

Can we be as good at recruiting STEM recruits as we are at recruiting business schools students -- which we are very good at?
Jeff Wongglobal chief innovation officer, EY

What else is EY doing internally to bring about the change it wants?

Wong: We also ask ourselves, 'How do we have to think about talent in new ways?' We're looking at who we're hiring, how we're thinking about who we're hiring, how we're training them once they're here and how we're promoting them -- all of that we've challenged and evolved.

When we think about how fast the world's moving, we need to think about how do we find more people who can solve complex problems in uncertain environments. So, we decided that, from a background perspective, we need to maintain our leadership in the business schools, but we need to add to that more significant STEM recruits to our organization. So, we've now started to focus a lot more on how we are doing with the STEM degrees, departments and schools around the world. Can we be as good at recruiting STEM recruits as we are at recruiting business schools students -- which we are very good at?

Strategy for digital transformation: Badges galore

EY is known for its mentoring program and extensive course offerings. How is training changing?

Wong: From a training perspective, we historically had thought about training skills. Now, we're asking the question, 'How do we create grit and resilience in the organization on top of training skills?' Skills are important; we still need them to be able to move forward. But on top of that, there's the philosophy of creating an organization that continuously learns that has become an important part of our fabric.

There are two examples when it comes to learning [at EY]. One is badges. We've created these badges which are -- if you think about a university analogy -- kind of like a minor. [There is] coursework and project work to show that you have expertise in different areas. We have almost 30 badges in technology areas, whether it's design thinking, artificial intelligence or data analytics. I think we've awarded 3,000 badges around these concepts already and this program has launched within the year.

We're allowing our people to self-identify and self-apply for these badges and on their own focus and attention, complete the coursework and the project work necessary to earn these badges. And we're allowing these people to take the badges with them outside of EY. This is something they should put on their resume or LinkedIn profile. That's one example of what we're doing differently in terms of learning.

Another example is our Stanford [University] learning program. Most people around the world have these different learning programs from the business school and leadership perspective. We said we need a combined program that has the school of engineering, the school of design and the school of business. We're bringing our most senior leadership throughout the firm in through this program at Stanford -- which is my alma mater. [From the program] they get the context for how to compete and how to win in a dynamic environment that's always changing, [and] underlain by these new technologies that are changing the world.

Go to part three to read Wong's advice to CIOs on developing a digital transformation plan.

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