PwC Australia’s Chief People Officer, Dorothy Hisgrove, talks to Digital Pulse about her experience running a cultural change program in the midst of a technology implementation — and living to tell the tale.

Dorothy Hisgrove laughs when you ask her what PwC attempted with ‘Project Ignite’. 

“The impossible!” she jokes. But as we continue to talk, it becomes apparent that, if anything, the Chief People Officer for PwC Australia is understating the scale of change the company went through. Other words that come up in our conversation are ‘colossal’, ‘herculean’, and ‘seismic’.

The global PwC HR transformation, which aimed to simplify and standardise over 60 people processes across 157 countries, and more than 740 locations by implementing a new cloud-based HR information system was indeed ‘big’. And needed. 

Across the network of PwC firms, HR systems were over 12 years old and highly customised to each country, necessitating costly upkeep. Over 100 technology vendors supported more than 30 systems, and a further 700+ related apps. US$70 million was being spent annually on manual data entry… and yet it still took over 45 days after month’s end to compile a global headcount. 

But what started as a straight-forward, albeit gargantuan, tech implementation program soon became a more complicated beast for the Australian firm. 

An opportunity

“At the outset, it was considered a systems change,” Hisgrove says. 

Standardisation, the uniformity of processes, and the enablement of efficiencies through access to a single system was the goal. The new cloud-based platform would span the end-to-end people lifecycle, from onboarding through to leaving the firm and everything in between.

But in looking at the planned implementation, and the way that the chosen system was to be set up, PwC Australia saw an opportunity to fix things that they knew needed to be addressed. “We came to understand that the HR platform was actually the key to a needed cultural change,” says Hisgrove.

Employee surveys had indicated many people were unclear about who was accountable for their careers at the firm. And so the Australian team redefined the meaning of the global transformation project to meet local needs, a step that proved pivotal to its overall success, though it meant introducing a brand new leadership role and operating model into the mix.

“There was a need for people to look up and see somebody who was directly accountable for their career development and opportunities for success in the business,” Hisgrove explains. “We recognised that extending leadership down to an operational level having decisions made closer to the employees they affect would start driving cultural change. The team leader role would be pivotal to what we were trying to achieve.”

But this meant decommissioning over 4,200 coaches (the equivalent of manager/career advisors) and creating a new role — not an easy task, given the great care needed to do so and the 10 month timeframe in which the tech was to go live. It also meant that the HR transformation needed to evolve human resources’ own ways of working and operational model — including implementing a larger shared services team and a shift from ad hoc support to a more streamlined services network.

sets in

“Not everyone in PwC across the world did it this way,” says Hisgrove. Understandable, given the amount of change this would require in the midst of a technology implementation program. 

But she says that she wouldn’t have done it any other way. “I think we would have lost the value of the technology in not doing the cultural piece at the same time. Much as it was a seismic change, if you wait to do the cultural part afterwards it’s too late to expect people to adapt again once the technology is in.”

The technology piece, while critical to get right and a lot of work in and of itself, was at least methodical. One step followed the next. 

“The harder part in this transition was the stakeholder management, stakeholder engagement.” Even with a solid plan, Hisgrove found you never say anything just once. Without the finished tech in place to ‘sell’ the concept, they needed to say everything twice, thrice and sometimes four times. Even then, the assumption that employees and the business understood wasn’t necessarily correct.  

This was evident when everyone across the firm was given access to the system and leaders were able to see their team’s compensation. While it had been signposted over the last 10 months, the reality didn’t ‘sink in’ until the system was populated with real data. For leaders who had been living and breathing such details in spreadsheets for years, it seemed like a breach of security to have such ease of access when in fact, it was many times more secure than before.

Hisgrove is realistic when it comes to the challenges they faced. “Any change of this order of magnitude doesn’t run without bumps. We learned lessons along the way. We kept the focus on our people, prioritised understanding and didn’t cut corners when it came to data integrity. Those things helped immensely.”

Why the work
was worth it

Despite the ‘double whammy’ of a technological and cultural change, the project has been successful. The adjustments to the leadership structure resulted in employees having a better understanding of where they fit within the organisation, and a deeper connection to its culture. 

Implementing the new roles has already proven beneficial. Moving responsibility for people leadership in the organisation has resulted in clear accountability and autonomy, and that in turn is empowering the teams beneath. Moreover, the role was deliberately created with a 50:50 gender balance, something that will continue to diversify the firm’s culture and thinking

The efficiency of decommissioning 30 different platforms and what felt like hundreds of millions of spreadsheets has resulted, in Hisgrove’s words, in a “democratisation of the workforce”. 

“It allows your people to lift up and focus on the things that matter. That’s the important part in this. You get to do an awful amount more with the improved technology, but also you now have time to invest in business imperatives because you’re not doing low-value or duplicated transactional work — and that means more time focusing on what matters: our people and our clients.”

As to the technology itself, “the real benefits are downstream. The data and insights from predictive analytics [enabled by the new system] will start shaping our future workforce. The global execution of the technology implementation will give us insights to be able to take solutions to market for our clients. All that benefit is yet to be realised.”

The beginning of the
HR transformation

Despite the whirlwind, Hisgrove looks to what can be accomplished next now that Project Ignite is well established

“We’re only at the start of the journey,” she says. “The technology will continue to evolve, the culture will continue to evolve, but we have an incredibly strong foundation in place that’s been successfully delivered.”

Asked if there are any final thoughts that she’d like to share around attempting an HR transformation of Project Ignite’s enormity, Hisgrove replies, “The fact that we’re all alive to tell the tale is just extraordinary!” 

She’s laughing again. Clearly, the mammoth task has not dampened her spirit. “We wouldn’t have done it any differently.”

She pauses. 

“Actually, I would have asked for more people. At least ten more people…”



Dorothy Hisgrove

Dorothy is the Chief People Officer for PwC Australia.

More About Dorothy Hisgrove


Amy Gibbs

Dr Amy Gibbs is a manager at PwC Australia, and the global content editor for Digital Pulse.

More About Amy Gibbs