This article first appeared in ICAS’ CA magazine.
Jacky Wright, Corporate VP and Chief Digital Officer, Microsoft US, tells Laurence Eastham why business and society thrive at the intersection of technology and ethics, and why we’ve now hit a critical juncture.
As Corporate VP and Chief Digital Officer, Microsoft US, Jacky Wright has a pivotal role in the digital revolution. In fact, driving innovation at one of the world’s tech giants is why she’s just been named the most influential black Briton by Powerlist.
For London-born Wright, business is at a pivotal juncture, one that offers great opportunities through digital transformation as new values drive business beyond simple growth-at-all-costs economics. The emerging consensus that business must act on social matters intersects with a growing understanding that purpose-driven decision making is key to futureproofing all sectors, including finance and accounting.
“Existential threats from the pandemic to climate change, as well as the undercurrent of the younger generation, have come together to create a perfect storm around the question of purpose,” she says. “Are we driving towards things that have outcomes that are for all? Or are we this self-centred capitalistic organ in a culture that is all about self? We’ve had a series of events that have helped shine a spotlight on this. And with the technology that is now available to all, when things occur, they can occur in a global way.”
If the pandemic, in particular, has made us look again at what constitutes risk, it has also accelerated a growing understanding of the centrality of people to business – right the way along global supply chains. Businesses are becoming cognisant of the structural and emotional intelligence required to forge work cultures that embody and articulate purpose – an acceleration that Wright has called an “inflection point in the identification of our moral compasses”.
You want people who have natural curiosity to take in disparate information and then have empathetic muscle around understanding what it means to be someone else
“Leaders have had to ask themselves whether they are really thinking about their end-to-end business in the right way,” she says. “Every part of a business ultimately relates to people. I can’t get inventory if people in China are not working because there is a pandemic, for example. So, this notion of purpose now means having empathy because the threats affecting my business are so profound if I don’t address them from a position of understanding that people play an integral part in the business, then I will no longer be in business.”
For Wright, forward motion demands rethinking business culture, leadership and soft skills, as well as really understanding clients and outcomes – all within the crucible of the ongoing digital transformation in how we live, work and provide services.
The “tone from the top” matters, she insists, as it allows the purpose that will lead to the right outcomes to be embedded. Leaders also need to understand that only diverse and inclusive business cultures can provide the solutions necessary for a world in which machines and humans must find a way to co-exist effectively. “We have to build knowledge workers who understand the world, because we’re not solving problems in isolation,” she says.
Future businesses will quickly become irrelevant if they don’t keep pace with what’s going on around them. “You want people who have natural curiosity to take in disparate information and then have empathetic muscle around understanding what it means to be someone else,” says Wright. “For the leaders of today, soft skills have to involve a combination of looking at the world and what’s going on around you, understanding the dynamics of people and making sure you include them in a way that shows you can harness the power of everyone.”
Increasing collaboration, both between businesses and across sectors, will also be crucial to building on the power of diverse thought. Existential crises have become levers to create opportunities, such as more collaboration on sustainability among organisations looking to tackle common threats, while growing public and private collaboration offers innovation, as well as giving business the ability to inform policy.
Quite simply, the metrics of what defines a successful business are changing: if companies are doing the right thing and operating with purpose, then employees will be happier and stay longer, products will be better, clients will feel a greater sense of loyalty and business will continue to be won.
The trust economy
And within purpose, trust is fundamental, which means aligning action with ideas every step of the way, internally and externally. The question to ask, Wright says, is around reputation: “What is the brand that I want to be? How do I communicate that externally? Then, how do I build trust? It starts with transparency – and that means in everything, from when I’m doing things well, to when I’ve made a mistake. The idea is that as a company I’m going to show you what I’m doing and I’m going to bring you along.”
Within this, strong digital strategy and meaningful data are crucial to being able to demonstrate efficacy and method, especially in professional services. “If you want to know whether what you are doing is working, then data is the litmus test,” says Wright. “You can then use it to gather insights and predict outcomes in order to build better products and services.”
With the development of AI and machine learning, we are now unleashing the power of that in a way we never thought we would before
But while the growth of data analytics is just one of the many profound digital innovations that are transforming the sector, it is the new skills these technological step changes demand of the workforce that will have the greatest impact on accountancy. Even pre-pandemic, accelerating change saw professionals having to continually upskill just to stay abreast. Post-pandemic, that agility will continue to be crucial, while the switch to hybrid working means another step in the transformation, with huge implications for business, society and individuals alike, as well as for issues such as diversity and inclusion. It’s a shift Wright welcomes.
“We need to ask ourselves where work can get done, and recognise that this fluid nature we’re going into is not only new and innovative but will help the overall wellbeing of individuals,” she says, while acknowledging that business is merely at the beginning of this journey. “With the development of AI and machine learning, we are now unleashing the power of that in a way we never thought we would before.”
The race to gain a competitive edge will mean it won’t be a lengthy transition and will be one underpinned by digital transformation strategies informed by data, Wright insists: “People who recognise this early and use their data on working patterns – for example, to formulate plans around how to work differently – will be ahead of the game. Those first out of the gate will really start to create the momentum around this, and then others will follow.”
Do the right thing
New financial products and process technologies also offer exciting opportunities for accountancy, believes Wright. “The distributed ledger blockchain methodology, for example, can really transform how we do business from a financial perspective. However, it is cryptocurrency that may create the biggest disruption – and will again demand financial service providers interrogate their purpose and ethics carefully,” she says.
Wright also notes that artificial intelligence and machine learning have created the ability to anticipate and create a whole new economy – one in which collaboration again becomes key. “New currencies are so ubiquitous as they relate to cross-borders now that we do have to collaborate to understand how we ensure things are being done in the right way – ethically and legally,” she says.
One could argue that technology’s ability to take care of the data will transform the role of accountant to one who thinks beyond the transaction
“If we’re not ethical in our approach to this technology, many things could occur that we don’t want. At the same time, ethics is not just about doing the right thing to make sure that we are ‘legal’, but also in making sure that everyone can participate and no one is shut out of this economy. We have to remove biases so we’re not creating a financial instrument to the detriment of someone else.”
For financial professionals dealing with new digital landscapes, purpose will also be found in recalibrating their roles in the wake of these new systems and processes. “One could argue that technology’s ability to take care of the data will transform the role of accountant to one who thinks beyond the transaction,” says Wright. “[With AI] there is no longer a need to capture the information, but rather an imperative to use it in insightful, informative and predictive ways – that is where people are going to look to finance professionals to help.”
For Wright, the power of digital is in its ability to unlock potential and transform traditional systems, turning change into opportunity. Technology may allow analysis in a more comprehensive way, but it will be crucial in the future to be able to translate that and communicate it to clients. For Wright, watching carefully as the digital transformation continues apace, value will be more and more about taking a broader perspective about what it means to have vision and create successful outcomes.
“Give me insight,” she says, in parting. “That’s the secret sauce now.”