Director of AI at PwC UK
Rob is an evangelist for the responsible and ethical adoption of AI and advises companies, governments and other global stakeholders on harnessing the opportunities of the technology to drive innovation in a way that increases trust. He is a regular media commentator, keynote speaker and an active voice on social media.
He is particularly focused upon the issues and policies relating to the impact of automation on the workforce, the future skills agenda, and ensuring that the benefits to be delivered by AI are equitably spread across society. He is an advisory board member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on AI, an advisor to The IEEE Global Initiative on Ethics of Autonomous and Intelligent Systems, and a Fellow of The RSA. HR Magazine recently announced him as 'HR Most Influential Thinker 2019'.
Tell us about your background and how you developed your social media influence?
My earliest career was in the recruitment sector, and naturally in that line of work platforms such as LinkedIn were always a critical part of the role. It’s just a natural part of the rhythm and cadence of your day. I then got to a stage about six years ago where I was looking to do something else in life and I ended up working in the humanitarian aid sector for a while on the Ebola outbreak response. I worked in West Africa which was quite an interesting time, especially now looking back in light of where we are today with the Coronavirus pandemic.
I eventually ended up moving into PwC five years ago, initially into an HR operations leadership role. I was always looking out for things I could get passionate about and had the opportunity to move into the transformation team to co-lead a major AI project, driving the change management, communications and adoption workstream. Around this time the whole market really started getting busy for insights into AI. For an organization like PwC that has a powerful brand name, but in the past more associated with traditional service lines around assurance and tax, there was an opportunity to start to pull together our capability around data science and machine learning. There was a need for us to start to engage with our stakeholders in a different way, to demonstrate our prowess and our reach in that field.
This saw me develop a new role working with clients, leading on education and insights, and to work with government bodies around the societal and economic implications for AI. Also working with regulators and think tanks looking at some of the issues around the ethics and governance of the technology. This is where I think Twitter started to become really useful for me. It’s been an incredibly powerful platform to build a community, develop the ecosystem and share knowledge. It’s also helped to develop a really powerful network that cuts across industry sector, geography, seniority, rank, grade and hierarchy, which you often find in some of these big corporates. I’m now at a stage where LinkedIn and Twitter are my main two platforms, but for slightly different purposes.
What are the key topics you’re most passionate about?
I tend to focus on the implications and impact of AI on people, both the workforce and society at large. That is the area you’ll see me speaking about online more than anything else.
What is your social media routine? Do you have any daily habits that you’d recommend?
I find a lot of this comes from trial and error. I’m not a big fan of automation of feeds or scheduling of posts. I’m probably quite an organic tweeter and poster. I would tend to average about ten tweets a day, and about three LinkedIn posts a week. What I find with LinkedIn is that if you over post you can actually start seeing the engagement drop off a cliff quite quickly. Whereas with Twitter you feel like you want to maintain the momentum and keep conversations going. I think there’s a volume differential between the two platforms.
The time of day that you post is clearly significant and I tend to have three core blocks throughout the day. I usually have an hour on the train in the morning when I often do a lot of social media. Then I would probably have another wave at lunchtime when the US and Canada come online. I would then maybe go back in the evening and revisit some of the tweets I’ve already made and give them another boost or re-engage them somehow with an additional comment. I’ve desperately been trying to go off-grid on the weekend and on holiday much more than I used to in the past, to ensure that I can replenish the batteries and that I’ve got a degree of digital dieting in my schedule on a frequent basis.
What motivates you to post on social media?
There has to be a recognition that it is not something you can do as a one-off and then that’s the job done for the month. I found through experience that it’s like a garden, you’ve got to constantly keep weeding it. You have got to keep treating it and maintaining it, otherwise, it can soon start losing its impact. I like to talk about implications of the technology and try to bring additional commentary to it to enable it to be translated by people outside of the silo. I get a lot of pleasure out of broadcasting to a larger group of people that wouldn’t ordinarily engage with that type of material.
What tends to be your most successful posts?
I think about this a lot. Sometimes I think I’ve got the perfect tweet and I’ve put a lot of care and attention into it, such as the right image, etc. and it gets negligible engagement. Conversely, something I do as a throwaway comment will suddenly go viral. There’s clearly as much art as there is a science to it. There’s no doubt the posts that I think can really catch fire are the ones where I’ve brought a degree of personal perspective or introspection to a topic.
I try to focus on three key pillars of areas to talk about (i.e. future of work, AI, gender equality). I always make sure that if you took an audit of my last ten tweets, you’d probably find one in there that’s either slightly amusing, something to do with friends and family, or something self-deprecating. For example, I’ve just been through an ‘interesting’ journey with my facial hair during lockdown! I’ve gone from a big bushy beard, to wearing wigs on hangouts on video calls, through to a moustache! Now I’m clean shaven. I started to generate a bit of interaction there.
One thing we’ve done well at PwC is substantially build our online community. We are constantly looking to raise each other up, and to check in on people. As your Consultancy Employee Advocacy report shows, our internal engagement clearly is very high. Over the last two or three years we’ve really showcased this community in a way that collapses the internal hierarchies. For example, you’ll see the most senior partners are speaking alongside the wonderful guy that manages the front desk at our head office. This leads to fantastic employee engagement.
Where do you start in finding relevant content to share with your audience?
I have a few main channels including a set of reliable newsletters or news digest emails that come through every day. For example, MIT’s Tech Review newsletter is very good. Cognition X, do a lot of stuff on AI. Wall Street Journal Pro have a AI News Digest. There’s Wired as well as Expoential View. In addition to that, we have our own content that comes out frequently. Rather than just post it, I try to add some additional commentary on that so it’s more engaging.
Then I think there’s two other content channels: when I’m just having a mindless scroll, things jump out that make me want to comment on or push. Then I’ve found once you establish a certain level of followership, people start sending you interesting things to comment on. I get fed quite a lot of news articles or intelligence that I wouldn’t ordinarily come across in my day-to-day routine. I try to have a range of inputs and different channels I can draw from to keep it fresh.
Do you receive any support or encouragement from your organization?
Yes, we have various ways of helping teams and individuals around the organization to access and post content. We break it down into bite-sized chunks to people to put on LinkedIn and Twitter in particular. There’s a very big focus internally and realization that these channels are critically important for us to engage our client base and key stakeholders. Also it helps to show our humanity and showcase the people behind the brand, which is important for us from an employee engagement and talent acquisition perspective.
What results have you seen both personally and commercially for your company?
Personally I can absolutely point to a whole list of opportunities that have emerged that have led to tremendous results, such as getting appointed to various advisory boards, countless invitations to deliver speeches or join panels around the world. I’ve won several awards from trade publications. It’s also opened up powerful networks for new contacts and clients.
From a commercial perspective, it’s slightly harder to directly attribute input versus output. I think there’s a broad recognition that overall it contributes something important to the way that our brand is elevated into certain new areas. If you take AI, for example, we’ve gone from not really being known as a key player in the space a few years ago, to last quarter being recognized by Forrester as a global leader of AI consulting. So you can see how it’s led to brand recognition improvements. Directly attributing revenue to social media activity is an evolving science that we’re still exploring.
What do you feel was your breakthrough moment?
A few years ago when things really started to get busy within the AI industry, there was something interesting that happened that led to me doing a TEDx talk and this was a conversation I had with my kids about AI. I think from that point on there was an understanding that the ability to story-tell around quite a technical subject really captures the imagination, raises engagement and leads to much greater recognition. That was a really key moment.
Also for my own self confidence it made me realize that there’s a pathway here to take a very technical set of materials and to broadcast it to a much larger cohort of people, either in person or on the stage through keynote speeches and panels and amplifying it through social media. There’s a joy that I get in return from being able to open up hearts and minds to the topic which is really quite fulfilling.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out?
I would say that it’s really important not to lose faith when you don’t get any results for quite a while. It can be quite a slow process right at the start, it takes a while to catch fire. You could put quite a bit of effort into making a post and get zero engagement. Bit by bit it catches up, one step at a time. So I think it’s important to be patient, believe that it will come in good time, but it requires commitment, dedication and consistent application. It can’t just be “right, I’ve done my social media, I’ve ticked the box for the month, I’ll go and do something else now”. It’s got to be a consistent process. Retain the faith and know that it will come good. I can point to countless people in our organization, as well as friends and stakeholders that have tremendous social media fuelled careers across a whole manner of settings, and they all started somewhere, at some point, with zero engagement.