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Progress fueled by the past

Deloitte Review, issue 26

Every leap forward is bound by principles that create a stable foundation for us all. The occasional, quick backward glance reminds us that challenges similar to those we encounter in business today have been met—and often conquered—before.
Punit Renjen

This coming year, as you steer your organization through the intricacies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, I hope you’ll also join us in celebrating 175 years of what began as a one-man operation in the waning years of the First Industrial Revolution.

I doubt there was much fanfare when William Welch Deloitte hung a shingle outside his London office in 1845. After all, there were 204 other accounting firms listed in the city’s directory that year. The 27-year-old Deloitte, who’d dropped out of school a dozen years earlier to work as an assistant in bankruptcy court, was an undistinguished face in a sea of competitors. But he was industrious and talented, which caught the eye of Great Western Railway’s board of directors, who appointed Deloitte as its first-ever independent auditor just four years later.

As we barrel into the digital age, there’s value in recalling pivotal events that occurred since the age of steam engines. The occasional, quick glance into the rearview mirror reminds us that challenges similar to those we encounter in business today have been met—and often conquered—before. Our job as leaders, to paraphrase Goethe, is to make a better future by developing elements from the past.

Sprinkled throughout this issue of Deloitte Review are a number of viewpoints that Deloitte has expressed in prior years: reminders that circumstances evolve, but fundamental issues persist. The accountability sought by the board that invited William Deloitte’s external review in 1849 remains at the core of ethical debates around the use of technology. Concerns about privacy that exploded with the growth of data collection during the age of Aquarius are equally troubling in the age of analytics. Decades-old fears that automation will make humans obsolete continue to be stoked by leaps in artificial intelligence. Trepidation about diversity in the workplace has been replaced by anxiety that we don’t have enough.

These ancient, ongoing struggles do not signal failure on our part. Quite the opposite, they reflect how far and how quickly business has advanced, and more importantly, how attached business leaders remain to the basic values that bind society. As much as ever, integrity matters. Responsibility matters. Fairness, security, well-being, and relationships all still matter. The fact that we remain focused on these ideals in the face of radical transformation speaks well of our instincts.

Progress is fueled by the past, and every leap forward is bound by principles that create a stable foundation for us all. In the 175 years since William Welch Deloitte’s modest foray into professional services, the world has learned many lessons and achieved many amazing things. May the future be as full of potential.

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Cover image by: Barry Downard

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