by Divina Paredes

CIO50 2019 #26-50: Rebecca Thomas, PwC New Zealand

Mar 28, 2019
Technology Industry

“The role of CIO is potentially a fearful one,” says Rebecca Thomas, CIO at PwC in New Zealand.

This, she says, could stem from being responsible for so many pieces of hardware and software and the business impact their failure could bring.

“Fear brings out the worst in people. The default response is to try to control everything,” she says. “I have learnt that this response doesn’t get the best results.”

“I cannot count the times that I have been faced with a problem and by getting a range of people in the room to look at the problem, including those outside of IT, what has emerged is a truly amazing solution,” she says.

The solution, says is definitely something she could not have come to on her own, or if she tried to “overly control” the situation.

This is a perspective Thomas takes at her role at PwC.

As the NZ CIO of a global firm, Thomas has responsibility to fulfill strategic objectives set both locally and globally.

The global PwC network has a technology strategy that PwC New Zealand participates in, she says.

“The standards of the PwC network are incredibly high and bring an element of maturity to the way we must approach our technology environment, and the leadership I provide here in New Zealand,” she says.

“Locally, PwC has many technologists delivering technology solutions to their clients. They have high expectations for the internal IT team.

“My role as CIO is to be like a bee in these diverse communities, linking people together to support collaboration and innovative outcome,” she says.

“This is an informal but important role I play,” she says.

“I do this by being interested, approachable and involved. We often share resources and opportunities which benefit our clients and gives our internal team a chance to share valuable project learnings. It brings great job satisfaction when these opportunities arise.”

The last two years have been full-on for Thomas and her team as they focused on delivering hardware and software solutions that enable mobility, flexibility, collaboration and productivity across the New Zealand operations.

She says these solutions have deliveredbenefits to PwC’s bottom line and enhanced their ability to ability to serve their customers.

“Many times in your career you get to be a part of technology enabled change, and usually this change is incremental,” she says.

“But the combination of hardware and software the technology team rolled out is uniquely special in the way it has actually made what we do now (and the way we do it) unrecognisable from before,” she says.

And all of this has been done in a short space of time.

“Our approach to this transformation has been the successful delivery of several hardware and software changes,” she says.

While none of these are particularly unique or innovative in their own right, they transformed PwC into a true technology-enabled workspace, she says.

“They are the critical cornerstones to a solid foundation of enablement.”

She explains the key components of the technology rollout.

First was the shift to Google suite, part of a global programme.

The staff were then provided new laptops or tablets that were light, portable and enabled with data cards. Everyone was issued a mobile phone and users get to choose between an iPhone or Samsung.

The new office in Wellington implemented a ‘follow your work’ mobility first policy, complimented with AV and VC technologies.

They will apply the same workplace technology principles in the new Auckland Britomart office that is currently under construction.

Together these four solutions work to make ways of working we could only dream of two years ago, she says.

The staff are always telling me about the innovative ways they have put these tools together to make their lives better, says Thomas.

In one instance, a senior staff member was able to attend his son’s athletics day as he could use his phone to access the Google document his team in the office were collaborating on and give a final sign off.

“With solid foundations now in place, we have been able to build on this and roll out more innovative and tactical solutions,” says Thomas.

These include mobile phone based expense management system (Fraedom), saving hours of time for staff; a performance management tool Snapshot) that enables staff to seek and give tactical timely feedback from team members; and a pilot for a resilience programme for staff wellbeing.

Thomas says that in order for any of these changes to be successful, people need to love their tools.

“To do this we keep our focus on user experience and engagement across every project,” she says.

For instance, in the laptop and mobile phone projects, staff were given a choice of device that would suit them best.

“We showcased the options at roadshows,” she says. “We even let them choose the colour of their phone.”

This engaged them in the project and led to much greater levels of satisfaction, she says.

“With an average age of 28 at PwC, we knew choice was important,” she says.

“With the rollout of Google, we had a lot of fun with our user adoption – even having fortune cookies made in the Google colours and with customised Google sayings inside,” says Thomas.

She invited 5 per cent of the workforce to volunteer as Google guides.

They received training and t-shirts. “They formed the most amazing change champion group I have ever seen.”

Beyond New Zealand

One of the upsides of her role is being able to work with her CIO peers in PwC offices across the globe.

Thomas chairs the PwC Asia Pacific CIO Council and through this, she gets to influence the global PwC IT community.

“I speak both Thai and Mandarin and it is an incredibly challenging but pleasurable part of my role to contribute at this level in PwC,” she says.

She meets with CIOs from 25 other countries and brings the viewpoint of the Asia Pacific to PwC’s global decision-making.

Thomas also sits on the PwC Global Network Data Governance Council.

“I bring the technology contribution to our Global Network Data Protection Programme,” she says.

This is an important piece of work where leaders in law, technology and ethics work together to protect the important and precious reality of privacy.

She says PwC holds an annual Global People Survey, and this is regarded as an important indicator of strategy priorities and people engagement at both global and local levels.

During the latest survey, the New Zealand score for “tech enablement” increased by 25 per cent. “This is a significant positive shift that brought us global recognition at PwC,” she says.

Having our staff feel they have the tools to do their job has been a difficult indicator to shift in the past, not just for New Zealand but many of our fellow territories, she says.

Since achieving this result, Thomas has been asked to talk throughout the PwC global network of firms to help other territories with their technology enablement.

“I work hard to create a safe and empowered space for staff to try new things,” she says.

“I believe a key part of my role is to connect people to opportunities, to training, to other people – so they can thrive and get satisfaction exercising their amazing talents in our workplace.”

Thomas is also a big champion of women in technology.

She says the gender diversity in her team has shifted from 10 per cent women in late 2017, to 33 per cent women in late 2018. Her leadership team is 60 per cent women.

The NZ IT team staff satisfaction has increased 12 per cent since she stepped up to the CIO role, from business portfolio manager.

“My leadership team has focused on improving flexibility, role clarity and transparency to achieve this significant uplift,” she says. “We are still working hard to improve it even more.”

Thomas says she makes time to be involved in industry events.

“I am aware that as a woman in technology it is important ‘to be seen’,” she says.

“This is not something that comes comfortably to me,” she admits.

“But I know how inspiring it is to ‘see’ someone who looks like me in a senior position. Many people in the industry have had a powerful influence on me, and they don’t even know it.

“I always bear this in mind and hope that my involvement in these events is influencing someone in that same way.”