Gina Lee, journalist

When PwC’s Jim Woods moved into his new chief digital officer role in Hong Kong, he not only took a new title but opened up new service opportunities for the Big Four firm.

Three years later, he calls the creation of the role a ‘recognition of the importance of digital internally across mainland China and Hong Kong, and also in how we interact with our clients’. He is currently leading digital transformation at the firm by creating a digital-savvy workforce, upskilling around 25,000 employees in digital tools and offering more software solutions.

‘The vision is that we’ve disrupted the market, as well as ourselves and our revenue model’

Another big focus for Woods is the effort to create software with a service (SwaS). Unlike software as a service (SaaS), SwaS offerings combine technology with human-led services, generating new products and bringing new approaches to traditional offerings.

‘The vision is that we’ve disrupted the market, as well as ourselves and our revenue model,’ says Woods. ‘This means moving from having pretty much 100% of our revenue based on people to a position where a good portion of our revenue is linked to the value of our technology. This could be achieved through a licensing model rather than a traditional services model.’

He adds: ‘The sweet spot for us would be to leverage our insights in China into industry and geographic issues, as well as different segments – whether it’s a privately-owned or state-owned enterprise – to develop solutions and products.’

Digital challenge

The CDO role is Woods’ most recent in a 30-year-plus career with PwC. After five years in London, he moved to Hong Kong and then spent some time in Thailand working in mergers, acquisitions and investigations during the Asian Financial Crisis in the 1990s. Later returning to Hong Kong, he moved into risk assurance at a global level.

When he became CDO, PwC China had embarked on a major programme to digitise its network and develop software solutions for its clients.

His work is also connected with PwC’s recently-unveiled global strategy – The New Equation – which responds to fundamental changes in the world, including technological disruption, by looking at innovative ways of building trust within organisations and helping clients to solve problems.

‘When the CDO role was envisioned, it required someone willing to take on very new challenges, as well as be uncomfortable and creative,’ he recalls. His experience in a global role and leading large teams helped him tackle a process of digital transformation that has been demanding for many.

‘When the CDO role was envisioned, it required someone willing to take on very new challenges’

As part of its digital drive, PwC’s Digital Lab initiative encourages employees to create and share micro assets – small pieces of code to automate manual processes or produce scripts to visualise data for client presentations. These assets are made available to everyone in the firm.

‘These micro assets are smaller innovations, but as we move forward we can probably combine some of them to build something bigger,’ Woods says.

On the client engagement side, initiatives include an online Digital Store featuring more than 50 different products, including Smart Office, which creates a digitalised workspace and makes it easier for staff to book meeting rooms or access resources remotely.

Simplifying software

Woods says that so-called low-code and no-code software platforms (intuitive systems that do not require coding knowledge) are on the rise in Asia Pacific. PwC has developed its own platform, Digital Maker, which launched last November.

‘Digital Maker is now growing in popularity across Hong Kong and mainland China as a low-code, no-code platform that can build enterprise-grade products that are highly secure very quickly,’ he says. Smart Office is one of the products developed using Digital Maker.

The shift to digital has raised fears that the rise of automation will impact jobs. These fears were noticeable in PwC’s Hopes and Fears 2021 report – a survey of 32,000 workers in 19 countries that found 51% of respondents in mainland China and Hong Kong were concerned about job security.

Woods points out that digital transformation has increased rather than reduced the number of jobs. ‘It has led to many jobs, roles and activities being automated, particularly those that can be standardised. But technology is also creating new businesses and demand in new areas that did not exist before,’ he says, adding that one of these areas of opportunity is the cloud.

Innovative role

Woods acknowledges that few accountants may aspire to become a CDO, but advises finance professionals to keep their options open. ‘A CDO can mean different things to different organisations; it’s more about what the role enables you to achieve, as it provides the opportunity to innovate.’

‘A CDO can mean different things; it’s more about what the role enables you to achieve’

The tendency in the accounting profession to value technical expertise is evolving as advances in technology and artificial intelligence make information freely available. This shift from pure technical expertise to broader business acumen is something that accountants could bring to the CDO role, Woods says.

Giving back

Driven by his passion for health and wellbeing, Woods currently sits on the board of Mind HK, a Hong Kong charity that promotes mental health.

The charity lobbies the government for more skilled resources, such as counsellors and hospital units. It also runs workshops on weekends for adolescents and adults on how to spot the signs that someone is struggling, the appropriate questions to ask, and how to respond in an emergency. Woods provides strategic and fundraising advice ‘mainly from an NGO perspective’, and he runs marathons in support of the UK-based charity Mind.

Woods is convinced that a healthy workforce is critical to success. ‘If your people are not well, both physically and mentally, it will impact their productivity, innovation and collaboration,’ he says.

Ultimately, he notes, companies looking to attract and retain the best talent need to adopt or create world class tools and technology to shape today’s digital world.