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Humans at the center: EY’s People Advisory Services in the post-pandemic workplace

Transforming the employee experience for EY and its clients

In late October 2021, TBR met with senior partners from EY’s People Advisory Services, including Kim Billeter, principal, Americas People Advisory Services leader; Jonathan Sears, principal, Americas Organization and People leader; Gerard Osei-Bonsu, EMEIA Integrated Mobility leader; and Agi Donnithorne, associate director of Global Analyst Relations, to discuss their firm’s ambition, investments, people and place within the broader people advisory market. The following reflects that discussion and TBR’s overall research and analysis of the current human management consulting market.

Throughout the entire discussion with TBR, EY’s People Advisory Services leaders emphasized that their whole practice revolved around placing “humans at the center,” an approach that has been embedded natively into every EY service line, including Consulting, Tax, Strategy & Transactions, and Assurance, reflecting EY’s firmwide and global approach to talent issues. EY’s leaders also emphasized deploying and testing solutions internally before introducing them to clients and continually working to “simplify complexity” across every element of the hire-to-retire people advisory spectrum.

Notably, the EY leaders said their main clients have expanded beyond the chief human resources officer to now include chief operating officers, chief financial officers, and line-of-business leaders more attuned — possibly due to the pandemic — to the vast array of human capital management challenges, including office space, productivity tools, immigration, and risk management. While human capital management consulting includes, potentially, an impossibly diverse and almost unmanageable set of capabilities, offerings and consulting services, Billeter and the rest of the EY team kept the discussion focused on two key components: prioritizing a “humans at the center” approach and transforming the employee experience, starting with a reimagining of EY’s and its clients’ workforce agendas.

In TBR’s view, every company has faced human capital management challenges during the pandemic and some lessons have spread quickly (for better or worse). As spiking attrition, return-to-workplace issues and the war for talent all heat up across professional services and the broader workforce, EY’s decision to ground humans at the center while thinking about how long-term transformation should resonate with clients while helping the firm maintain its own employee morale and culture.

EY Skills Foundry designed to meet upskilling and reskilling demands for digital transformation

In briefing TBR on the full scope of EY’s People Advisory Services Practice, the EY leaders described transformation solutions; capabilities including talent management, workforce planning, HR transactions, and digital assets such as the Learning Experience Platform and EY Mobility Pathway; and strategic alliances with IBM, Microsoft, SAP and ServiceNow. Turning to the EY Skills Foundry, the EY team reiterated that the seemingly relentless need for digital transformation (DT) among all enterprises drives upskilling and reskilling talent among professional services and technology firms. Clients’ workforces must change as well, and clients, according to EY, are not prepared and lack skills, capabilities and scale.

The EY Skills Foundry, which the firm initially deployed and refined internally, includes three components: a live heat map of skills across an organization, showing both supply and demand and allowing for more rapid decision-making around reskilling investments; a content aggregator EY described as “learning intelligence” designed to add speed and scale to training; and “a validated, secure digital record of employees’ skills and experiences,” which can help clients more rapidly deploy the right person to the right opportunity. The EY team stressed that the firm tested the foundry platform over the last couple of years, applying automation when possible and seeking input and refinements from clients.

While still nascent, with fewer than 10 live clients, TBR believes the EY Skills Foundry has two key attributes likely to separate EY’s offering from that of its competitors in the crowded human capital consulting field. First, the firm can prove the business case and almost ensure success by pointing to EY’s own internal results across a global firm with nearly 300,000 professionals. This “customer zero” use case resonates with clients, particularly for offerings blending technology and change management. Second, EY has prepared itself to sell, deploy and support the EY Skills Foundry through multiple business models, including traditional consulting engagements, SaaS and managed services.

Expanding how EY engages with clients extends the firm’s reach within clients and enlarges the potential market EY can serve. TBR’s November 2021 Digital Transformation: Voice of the Customer Research includes the following analysis: “Improving HR operations and employee efficiency slid to the bottom of the objective list in 2021 — down from No. 3 about 18 months ago, just after the pandemic began — confirming that the emphasis on employee experience was short-lived and buyers quickly reshuffled priorities to ensure shareholders’ expectations are met.

Business ecosystems must invest in massive supply chain pivots

COVID-19 supply chain impact

COVID-19 laid bare the underinvestment in contingency capabilities during the decades-long pursuit of cost optimization. In short, business leaders assumed a certain status quo in business continuity and did not leave sufficient capital tied up in unfinished inventory to provide necessary buffers in supply chain efficiency. Firms had over-rotated on optimization and perhaps assumed their trading partners were on par with them in terms of the technology “twinning” of their activities. COVID-19 exposed the need for agility, and when scale advantage only enabled top-tier firms to have the automated tool sets, working with the vital Tier 3 and Tier 4 suppliers resulted in the cascading pileups now in the news.

Future supply chains have to be embrace open contributions

Uneven technology enablement with supply chain participants certainly has created a network effect, but not the positive force multiplier discussed in third-wave economics papers. Supply chains, by definition, are a collection of ecosystem participants. For there to be a positive network effect, there has to be democratized access to technology innovations. Tier 3 and Tier 4 suppliers lack the funds and the skills to build digitally transformed supply chains on their own. In this sense all enterprises have to learn a lesson from the technology industry in terms of IP contributions to the ecosystem.

Ecosystems have to provide a common platform of nondifferentiable value-add to all participants —value-add in terms of stripping labor and labor mistakes from process flows, and nondifferentiable as it impacts neither ideation nor sales engagement. Open source is how technology has wrung cost of compute out of the model. This is how platform businesses achieve the network effect, as positively espoused in third-wave economics. 

Supply chain has the attention of the boardroom

The value of the interconnected supply chain ecosystems has been gaining boardroom attention and, as EY notes, COVID-19 only accelerates the need. The pandemic was a blindside disruptor and, as enterprises get back up from the blindside hit, the focus shifts from the diminishing return of investing in supply chain for cost optimization and turns back to the double-digit revenue hits enterprises took due to pandemic-fueled disruptions. The board focus is now on gaming out what other events could have a similar impact on business resiliency that the pandemic has had.

Does the boardroom see value in ecosystems yet?

Boards generally are populated by mature executives well versed in the current ways of working. Ecosystem business models are not a legacy best practice with which TBR would expect many board members to be familiar. They are too new. The idea of taking huge sunk investment costs and donating them to a buyer/supplier consortium will likely be anathema to many boards, but, as technology has proven time and again, open-source communities accelerate innovation. Linux/Red Hat represents just one illustration of that value creation in technology.

Advisory firms have permission to play to educate boards on ecosystem business model best practices

TBR hears a constant refrain in its discussions with services firms that people and process are the constraints and not the technology itself. This rings true with large enterprises but not necessarily with the small businesses comprising many of the Tier 3 and Tier 4 suppliers in enterprise supply chains. Outlining the value of a resilient supply chain will be an easy boardroom sell based on the current pandemic-related constraints being felt throughout the global economy. Convincing the board to contribute sunk IP investments to a consortium will be a harder sell. If any services entities can convince the boards of this efficacy, it will be the tax and audit advisory partners who have been providing business guidance to enterprises for centuries.

TBR’s recently published November 2021 Digital Transformation: Voice of the Customer Research bears out these notions. Based on survey data, respondents allocate 13% of their digital transformation services budget to business advisory services, another 16% to IT advisory services and an impressive 43% for managed services. TBR believes these managed services will more frequently flow from the advisory-led firms rather than the technology-led firms given the advisory firms’ advantage in knowing the business rules and business risks to digitization more than how to get the technology plumbing to work seamlessly.

Figure 1

From a straight technology perspective, firms invest in cloud computing, cybersecurity, IoT and analytics for digital transformation. Cloud localizes the activity where the firm wants it, cyber mitigates risk, IoT allows for more workflow automation, and analytics tells the business leaders what is important from the frictionless business flows. Cloud similarly was brought to the fore during the pandemic given the need to accommodate remote workers and reduce the amount of on-premises IT equipment requiring on-site staff.

Figure 2

Of course, all of these statements hinge on having IT platform plumbing built correctly and then transforming the business workflows that sit atop the IT platform. Figure 3 highlights the need for this gradual rollout strategy. Right now, improving IT operations management dominates the list of respondents’ digital transformation objectives. In two years, however, there will be a string of different business workflows on the customer docket. Workflows are automating business processes that often engage with other corporate entities and customers. This is where the deep knowledge of business rules and business risks come into play, and where tax and audit firms have clear market distinction.

Figure 3

Technology-led firms, hyperscale cloud companies and equipment manufacturers will certainly all play roles in moving industries further along the path of digitization. But just as business is turning to ecosystems, so too must the technology-based firms move to ecosystem offers where advisory-led firms will increasingly take the leadership role to advise boards in formulating business risk and resiliency policies that drag the tech stack participants along as the derived decision from the C-Suite aspirations.

Supply chain is the current example where tech innovations, business rules and employee training will give businesses competitive advantage providedthose ecosystems extend the IP value to the Tier 3 and Tier 4 suppliers. Like a chain only being as strong as the weakest link, ecosystem networks are only as strong as the weakest participant.

The statement stands for all business ecosystems. Other aspects of the business value chain come to the fore as different events trigger different reactions and technological choke points in need of modernization and remediation.

The need for short-term support, coupled with an anticipated surge in cloud adoption, will create security and advisory opportunities

The need for short-term support, coupled with an anticipated surge in cloud adoption, will create security and advisory opportunities

Cloud professional services is on the cusp of a wave of growth that will outpace prior estimates. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, the increasing complexity of enterprise hybrid and multicloud environments had already established a growing need for managed services and system integration vendors. Traditional deployment schedules and delivery timelines have been accelerated as the pandemic has created a short-term need to fulfill the demands of a new work-from-home (WFH) reality, especially in the realm of security and privacy. The increased demand for cloud professional services will necessitate both immediate and ongoing advisory and implementation services as the pace of multicloud and hybrid cloud adoption will increase rapidly for many enterprises needing advisory and implementation services.

TBR’s Cloud Professional Services Benchmark covers the professional services that are critical to enabling customers to take advantage of available technology as well as the market opportunity that exists for firms that cater to service needs. Additionally, the benchmark analyzes the size, growth and leading providers of services around cloud environments.