Like most of its peers, Accenture is trying to recreate itself for a different era. It has moved sharply to live by the new rules of IT services that mandate the broad use of cloud and mobile technologies and often involve faster deployment, flexible contractual terms and design elements that would have been alien to the Accenture of 10 years ago, never mind in the days of its previous guise as Andersen Consulting.
The changes have had a clear impact on services firms from the way revenue comes in to the whole look and feel of the organisations involved. Accenture UK and Ireland technology managing director Emma McGuigan joined the company in 1994 and can recall a very different time.
“We all came from the same universities and the women all wore skirt suits and we weren’t allowed to take our jackets off,” she recalls, laughing.
That’s a far stretch away from today where staff are more likely to dress the way their customers dress… everything from suits and ties for the financial services teams to rolled-up shirt sleeves over heavy metal T-shirts for (some of) the bleeding-edge developers, she says.
Toon Raider: Accenture’s first female apprentice graduate
Accenture’s graduate apprentice programme in Newcastle, in the north-east of England, provides the chance for young people to gain a degree while working for a salary in the real world with clients. It recently celebrated having its first female grad: Amy Killoran who joined Accenture as a Software Tester aged just 17.
Amy studied everything from Java to SQL databases and put her knowledge to work at clients including UK tax collector, HMRC.
“I’ve learned so much on the programme,” she says. “When I started I didn’t have that much in the way of communications skills. There was a small minority of females but they were quite high up and confident and I thought ‘if they can be like that then I can’. My friends said it was excellent having an income and learning. I got the experience of working in a workplace and having that uni lifestyle. I really want to grow with the company and learn and get to a higher level. I’ve really liked how I’ve become such good friends with people within the company. I’d say to other girls: don’t let being a woman hold you back.”
Changing of the guard
Once belittled as ‘your mess for less’ vehicle for financial arbitrage and creating business process efficiencies, the top-end IT services sector has been changing fast in recent years. It has morphed from 10-year application outsourcing mega-deals to cloud deployments and best practices, sprints and Agile methodology, and a creativity and user experience focus that would once have been the domain of a very different agency such as a WPP, Publicis or unknown boutique outfit.
To help it compete, Accenture has made a series of acquisitions in quick time, among them: design consultancy Fjord; user experience specialist Chaotic Moon; and cloud services firms Tqila, and Cloud Sherpas. It’s also a situation that has led Accenture to bring more young talent to the company via one of the largest IT apprenticeship schemes in the country. (See box.)
The fashionable term today is “digital transformation” as businesses seek to present a slick and consistent sales and marketing experience online, in apps and in person to customers and prospects. It is everywhere, for Accenture and for its customers, says McGuigan.
“We see the same challenges for CIOs and IT departments,” she says. “It’s about how they can engage with their customers, whether that’s B2C or B2B, and that’s really changing the way we drive development. It might be a design-led thinking project for a few days… and at the same time they’re still looking for ways to drive cost changes.”
While big market changes tend to be gravy for new companies intent on disruption, they are usually painful for incumbents. McGuigan locates Accenture’s sweet spot today in connecting the old world with the new, bridging between the on-premises world that prevailed for decades to the remote, cloud-centred model that is rapidly becoming the default setting today. Partners such as SAP, Oracle and IBM are all trying to pull off the same manoeuvres.
And of course it’s also about helping customers make big-switch changes.
“If you look at banking several years ago there was a big rush to get mobile apps onto smart devices,” she recalls. “They gave a small section of customers the chance to deal with banking without going anywhere near a branch. Today, most of us never go near a bank, and it’s not just the 18-21 generation.”
That ‘app generation’ shift means that somebody will have to build the connectors between apps and legacy IT estates and Accenture wants to be right there to help with systems integration. “We can build on our strengths in the SI space to enable that to happen at scale,” McGuigan says.
The other big shift she sees is around ecosystems and a tendency to mix and match suppliers both at the cloud and software level but also at the level of the service provider. That ‘frenemy’ or ‘co-optition’ approach means Accenture is today often working with traditional competitors. An example: a big utilities provider asked Accenture to work with two of its old rivals – “They said, ‘We don’t think any one of you is right to do all of it.’” The answer was to create a consortium that would provide the best of each supplier.
Outcomes and snacks
It’s a fact that today there are fewer big deals around but they still exist – it’s just that they are shaped very differently, McGuigan says. Robotics, analytics and new development languages can deliver the sort of competitive differentiation opportunity that was lacking in the days when application outsourcing was the name of the game. And rather than five-year deals with a promised annual saving, there are more outcome-based deals that hang on the ability of Accenture to help customers get from ‘here’ to ‘there’.
“The level of disruption is like nothing we have seen for 50 years and the way we can take advantage of that is being really pragmatic,” McGuigan says. Systems integration, IT outsourcing and consulting services remain core but there has to be more API-level work, design-led thinking and “snackable” work that is broken down into component parts. Providing that balance of ancient and modern will be critical to the future of this company with roots going back to the 1950s.
Ts and Cs have also moved on.
“We have a far higher variation in the way we draw up commercial contracts than a few years ago,” McGuigan claims. “We have to be easier to work with and clients want to see that fresh thinking because the right answer three years ago isn’t the right answer today.” Another example cited: central government agencies going from biannual to weekly release schedules.
“We’ve got to really continue with the culture of curiosity and evolution and our people have to keep evolving their skills at the same time they value the core skills they have,” McGuigan says. “We have to be continuing to think about the art of the possible and connecting with our consumers.”
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