Accenture execs explain why a company's true investment isn't AI - it's in retraining its current workforce

Paul Nunes, Omar Abbosh, and Larry Downes, authors of Pivot to the FuturePaul Nunes, Omar Abbosh, and Larry Downes, authors of Pivot to the FutureAccenture

  • Paul Nunes, Omar Abbosh, and Larry Downes are the authors of "Pivot to the Future: Discovering Value and Creating Growth in a Disrupted World."
  • A survey conducted by consultancy firm Accenture found that the vast majority of senior executives plan to use intelligent technologies like AI over the next three years to automate tasks, differentiate their offerings and enhance human capabilities - but scarce few plan to increase their companies' investments in reskilling their people.
  • The authors think that's a mistake that could lock those companies into costly cycles of layoffs and rehiring to meet their constantly evolving needs for new skills - and lead to a skills gap costing G20 countries $11.5 trillion in GDP growth over the next 10 years.
  • The excerpt below illustrates how Accenture, facing disruption of its core consulting business in 2014, embarked on a massive reskilling of its workforce as part of its own strategic pivot to a "digital-first" future.
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The Accenture leadership team was fully on board with the need to get ahead of both big bang and compressive disruption heading our way. But what about the wider organization, now some 450,000 employees? To succeed with our wise pivot, we clearly needed new talent strategies.

First, we needed to help our Accenture managing directors, who run the day-to-day business of serving clients, understand what the new strategy demanded of them personally.

We started by surveying our top leaders on the characteristics they believed essential for success in the future. When the synthesis of this was presented to a receptive management committee, one thing everyone agreed on was that being a digital-first organization required continual reskilling.

Pivoting to the new would mean retraining and redeploying each and every one of our employees for a sometimes vaguely defined future, even as we asked them to dig in deeper to achieve revenue, quality, and market share gains in the present.

Management's responsibility, we agreed, was to make sure our people would have the skills they needed to serve current and future clients, able to compete head-on with competitors old and new. And to do all of that in a coordinated effort across a global footprint. So since 2015 we've invested approximately a billion dollars in employee education every year.

Pivot To The FutureAccenture

In addition to classroom learning at five global learning centers, the resource at the heart of our reskilling imperative is Accenture Connected Learning (ACL), a digital-learning environment that connects users directly to knowledge as well as to experts they can learn from.

ACL reaches more than 370,000 employees around the world. We offer tens of thousands of courses that have made it possible to redeploy over 220,000 technology professionals as experts in new technologies, including AI, cloud services, mobile applications, and security, all in less than three years.

Fortunately, Accenture is blessed to have more than 75 percent of its employees from the millennial generation, a cohort with a hunger to learn and to improve its own employability.

New learning content, in fact, is increasingly generated and distributed by our employees themselves, using crowdsourced collaboration spaces we call "learning boards." A typical learning board might include links to a dozen or so different sources, including YouTube videos, white papers, TED talks, articles, and self-assessment tests. Topics range from A (acute respiratory distress syndrome, relevant to our health-care practice) to Z (Zuora, a cloud software company).

For us, success in the wise pivot also requires an extremely diverse mix of people. All our leaders know that in addition to its being the right thing to do, inclusion is a business imperative.

But sometimes altering perceptions at the field level is hard. Why? Research in human resources shows that leaders hire and promote in their own image, and that people tend to follow role models they can relate to. What's more, we all suffer from unconscious biases. And across cultures, people have different expectations for their careers at different points in their lives. All these factors make moving the lever on diversity difficult.

Here, Accenture has experienced tremendous gains in recent years, thanks to the singular and uncompromising leadership of our then-CEO, Pierre Nanterme, who made inclusion and diversity a priority. By 2018, we had increased the number of women in our workforce to 42 percent. Women now comprise more than 45 percent of our new hires, putting us well on the way to our goal of gender balance by 2025.

Outside of Accenture, we're also working with Girls Who Code, a nonprofit organization working to increase the number of women in computer science. The goal is to help break up the "boy's club" of the digital economy. Our people host summer immersion programs and year-round Girls Who Code clubs across the United States, offering skills training and exposure to real-world mentorship opportunities in technology fields.

The 'people pivot'

Achieving our goals in hiring, retraining, and diversity required a complete overhaul of our human resources function. Rankings and annual performance reviews have been largely eliminated, replaced with more direct day-to-day feedback. Employees with the same job title, such as "analyst," but with very different responsibilities, are now evaluated based on the work they really do rather than their title.

To combine the value of our acquisitions with our existing expertise, we also broadened the range of career paths available, successfully advancing the CEOs of some of our acquired companies into leadership roles elsewhere in Accenture.

Finally, we needed to retire what had been a core tenet of Accenture's corporate culture: that despite our size and geographic reach, Accenture could still have a single set of processes, methodologies, and a culture that applied to everyone everywhere-our "one firm" model of operation.

While the one-firm model had served us well in the past, our continued expansion made it unsustainable. We have retained a single set of core values, of course, such as creating value for clients and respect for the individual, and hold all our people to the very high standards of our code of business ethics.

Pivoting to the new often requires companies to adapt more elements of the kind of open and entrepreneurial culture that spawned the information revolution, including the social values and work ethic of a younger generation of workers. Employees working in and serving customers in a global marketplace at the same time, is challenging businesses to move from a single set of uniform operating principles toward a more inclusive model, a "culture of cultures." In doing so, leaders must take care not to lose sight of the principles that distinguish their brand, including a shared mission everyone believes in.

This exceprt is from "Pivot to the Future: Discovering Value And Creating Growth in a Disrupted World" by Omar Abbosh, Paul Nunes, and Larry Downes, which publishes on April 23.

Omar Abbosh is group chief executive of Accenture's Communications, Media & Technology operating group and a member of Accenture's Global Management Committee. Previously, he served as Accenture's chief strategy officer. Paul Nunes is the global managing director for thought leadership at Accenture Research and the coauthor of "Big Bang Disruption." Larry Downes is senior fellow at Accenture Research. He is the author of "Unleashing the Killer App" and the coauthor of "Big Bang Disruption."

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