Thought Experiments Help Transform Search at PwC

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Guest post by Mitra Best, PwC’s US Innovation Leader. Follow her on Twitter @MitraInnovates

Einstein’s imaginary ride on a beam of light at age 16 not only helped develop the theory of special relativity, it also illustrated the power of imagination and “thought experiments” in sparking innovations that can transform lives. Thought experiments happen well before moving into the lab, taking place in the mind to decode complex ideas.

How do you embed the power of imagination to spark innovation across 200,000 people around the globe? Can you conduct thought experiments en masse? A recent innovation campaign to modernize enterprise search capabilities and access to information at PwC illustrates how a corporate culture can be tuned to imagine, experiment, and transform key aspects of its operating model.

Reframing the problem
We began by framing the “information access” problem differently. Instead of treating it as an IT challenge, we examined it through a business lens. Every organization’s information needs are unique based on its strategic goals. Imagining ourselves as users first helped us look beyond improving access to existing information to visualizing possibilities that would change the way we work. We realized that if we truly wanted to push the boundaries, our people needed access to a mash-up of data from hundreds of internal data sources plus an ever expanding number of external resources.

Thought experiments and myriad what-if scenarios helped us hypothesize that if we could grab high value information from any data source regardless of platform or location, and organize it in real-time based on each user’s needs and context, we could transform our people’s experience around their use and management of information. What if you could identify a “dream team” customized for your project based on expertise data? What if you could identify solutions to complex client challenges based on historical data and predictive analytics? What if every employee could become an expert about any topic during morning coffee?

Thought experiments early on enabled us to broaden our scope and realize our vision for real-time access to insights, in a way that’s not possible through traditional enterprise search. Our imagination took us away from creating a data warehouse that aggregated and curated data from hundreds of sources, and led us to experiment with advanced computation tools and sophisticated methods for interacting with live data.

Co-creating the solution
During our analysis and throughout surveys and voice of the customer interviews, we solicited volunteers to help us consider a platform that would transform the user experience, enhance productivity, and drive competitive advantage. We quickly amassed hundreds of imagineers who balanced their daily commitment to clients with their passion for innovation. Scaling from the visioning phase to solution development is a lofty goal. Through visioning workshops, virtual work sessions and online discussion forums with our volunteers, we co-created a solution that went well beyond traditional document retrieval platforms, toward a cognitive search and business intelligence platform that would transform how we worked. One hundred years after Einstein coined “thought experiments”, today we have simulation and visualization tools that enable us to co-imagine and co-create, well before we start building.

Re-imagining the team
Rather than engage in competitive bidding, we invited a handful of vetted companies to collaborate on a prototype. Procurement officers were perplexed by our approach to encourage competitors to work together on a project. New legal contracts had to be written, and risk managers needed to be convinced. But the experiment proved successful and worthy of the risks. We were creating a new paradigm and needed multiple partners to help realize our vision. The power of imagination was contagious and the team grew outside the PwC firewall! Creating a network of collaborators to re-imagine new paradigms and platforms was a critical success factor.

Crowdsourcing the solution
We also engaged more people across our firm by crowdsourcing the requirements phase. Through weekly contests and ideation challenges, we created a pipeline of ideas that we validated through agile development and testing with thousands of our employees.

The agile model includes rapid prototyping and co-development with stakeholders, and it lends itself well to crowdsourcing. By empowering our people to imagine a future work environment for themselves, help create the vision and develop the solution, we introduced advanced consumer technologies to the enterprise and completely shifted the paradigm of enterprise search – from users entering keywords and receiving a page of links to users entering questions and receiving relevant answers.

While our new platform is the fruit of many experiments, it’s only the beginning of a journey to automate the transformation of data into relevant insights. Our ongoing efforts will enable an ecosystem of products and services that help us optimize our client experience, enhance the quality of our work, and reduce the burn on our people.

We recognize that many of our clients have similar challenges. Sifting through the plethora of data and information in large organizations like PwC is not humanly possible. We consider this platform an external brain with natural language understanding, advanced computation power, and smart analytics – helping increase our IQ on demand!

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