PwC CTO Explains the Firm’s Approach to Upskilling Employees for AI

By Meghan Hall |  September 6, 2023

Joe Atkinson knows that artificial intelligence has been around for decades — not just since the launch of ChatGPT. And, as PwC’s Chief Products & Technology Officer, he’s aiming to make sure the firm’s employee base of over 60,000 understands that, too. 

As part of a $1 billion investment in expanding and scaling its AI capabilities, announced earlier this year, Atkinson said, PwC employees at all levels have access to learning and development opportunities to further understand — and experiment with — AI for a number of solutions. 

“I’m not expecting to mint PhDs in AI out of this [initiative]. What I am looking for is a little bit deeper than awareness,” Atkinson said. Based in London, PwC is one of the so-called “big four” accounting and professional services firms, with 2022 revenues of $50 billion.

A Multi-Pillar Upskilling Strategy

In addition to giving employees a more concrete understanding of the “why” behind PwC’s AI strategy — which includes integrating the technology into its own operations and coaching clients through how best to use AI — Atkinson said the firm is looking for employees to grasp responsible use principles. A next step is understanding practical applications for the technology. 

“I don’t want to apply AI and cross my fingers; I want to apply it in ways that actually bring value, that bring results and outcomes we can count on,” Atkinson said. “In places where it doesn’t provide a reliable result, I need our people to know that. All the models will get better and better and better, but in the meantime, having that awareness is really important.”

Joe Atkinson, Chief Products & Technology Officer, PwC

All employees will have access to hybrid training, which includes in-person trainings on the firm’s proprietary generative AI tool, virtual modules, and a thought leadership speaker series around how generative AI changes the way employees work and live. The program is a year-long initiative that releases learning bundles each month.

“We’re taking this approach so that what we share with our people is relevant as the technology, and how it’s being used responsibly, is changing rapidly,” Atkinson said.

He said having that knowledge could help employees to streamline systems going forward — including using conversational AI to help navigate questions about HR-related activities. 

“I might try to find, ‘What’s the expense policy for dinner in New York?’ I could search the internal web to find that, [but] that would take me a little while. We think a conversational [AI] opportunity is going to really unlock a lot of that.”

Beyond streamlining simple processes, Atkinson said he sees potential for more robust use cases, like creative development of copy and memos, or making data analysis easier. 

While all employees will take part in base-level training, more technical partners, principals and employees will also have the option to go deeper with AI training, Atkinson said. He expects several hundred employees will choose to do so. 

Responsible Leadership to Mitigate Fears of Job Loss

A Microsoft survey from May found that 49 percent of U.S. employees fear that their job might be eliminated because of AI’s influence. Simultaneously, though, 70 percent of employees said they’d delegate as much work as they could to AI, to decrease their time spent on menial tasks. 

If organizations look at [generative AI] and see it only as a replacement of tasks, and therefore reduction of cost, I think…they’re missing the growth opportunity.

Atkinson acknowledges the anxiety.

“[Generative AI] created this anxiety — ‘Look at what this thing can do; it’s going to take my job.’ And if you’re an executive sitting in a responsible spot, I think, what I’d love them to know is that you can equip your people with skill. That will change the nature of work and give you capacity to go do other valuable things. If organizations look at [generative AI] and see it only as a replacement of tasks, and therefore reduction of cost, I think [they]’re missing the human element of it. I also think they’re missing the growth opportunity,” he explained. 

For those fearing job loss due to AI, Atkinson said the best time to learn is now. 

“I don’t think it matters where you are in your career curve — you should understand how these tools operate and what the power of these applications and technologies are. You can dig in, in a shallow way, and put yourself in a much stronger position as a professional — even if you just spend the time to understand that it’s deeper than the headlines. … You’ve got to get into the technology, the history, where it came from,” Atkinson said. 

AI is Already ‘All Over the Place’

Atkinson said that while generative AI has been stirring up worries — along with plenty of experimentation — it can be helpful to point to ways that AI is already being leveraged inside the organization in productive ways. 

“[AI] is not as scary as people think it is. That’s not to say we shouldn’t be applying this technology in thoughtful, responsible ways. But the reality is, most organizations have AI all over the place today. What created this energy [around the technology] is that generative AI’s accessibility to people that are not technologists.”