Building the Workforce of the Future at Accenture

Intelligent technology meets human ingenuity at the global management consulting giant.
By: | March 30, 2018 • 3 min read

Like it or not, artificial intelligence and the like are going to disrupt your business and workforce strategies. But not necessarily in the way many folks out there presume.

The common narrative around such technologies these days is that they will inevitably lead to job loss. But as Accenture Chief Leadership and HR Officer Ellyn Shook recently reminded us, the outcome may not be nearly so ominous.

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Shook said that Accenture would prefer to focus its energies on what it calls “applied intelligence”: the intersection of intelligent technologies and human ingenuity. While parts of a job will no doubt be replaced by technology, she said, other parts of the job will stay uniquely human. And that’s where HR has greatest opportunity to make a difference in their organizations, she adds.

To make her point, Shook cited Accenture’s “Reworking the Revolution” research, which looked at the kind of impact applied intelligence can have, including a 38-percent increase in revenue, a 10-percent increase in profit and 10-percent increase in employment.

Shook shared her thoughts last Tuesday before an audience of more than 400 HR leaders attending i4cp’s 2018 annual conference in Scottsdale, Ariz., during a discussion with Nina Easton, co-chair of Fortune Global Forum.

Companies, Shook said, find themselves at one of three stages in the journey: the education stage, where they’re doing a lot of education; the exploration and experimentation stage, where they are testing out new ideas and focusing on efficiency; and the “industrialization” stage, where they are taking applied intelligence and scaling it to the business. At present, she said, most organizations currently find themselves at the education stage.

Shook noted that many companies are making significant investments in intelligent technologies. Indeed, she said, Accenture’s research found that companies increased their investment by 60 percent in 2017. Less impressive is the commitment they’re making to “new skill” their people—and, thereby, ensure that they can effectively work with these new technologies.

Accenture’s research found that two-thirds of the CEOs recognized that technology was going to elevate humans so they can do their jobs better, yet only 3 percent of them plan to invest in helping them work with the technologies.

Workers, meanwhile, are apparently more optimistic in terms of what the future holds, according to the data, with almost 70 percent of those surveyed saying they expect that technology is going to help them do their jobs better. So while CEOs may be saying, “I don’t think people are ready for this,” Shook said, employees, drawing from their use of technologies in their everyday lives, consider AI (and other new technologies) an opportunity rather than a problem.

As you might imagine, Accenture is among those companies making a serious investment.

Shook specifically referenced how Accenture has “democratized” its learning so employees can learn new skills on the fly.

Through the use of “digital learning boards,” Shook said, employees can now tap into curated content by subject-matter experts via their desktop computers or mobile devices. In the last two years, she added, there were 45-million completions of these learning boards.

While the company continues to provide traditional training, it’s now being done on a more limited basis. Given the current pace of change and shifting workforce demographics, she said, such training has lost much of its relevance.

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“[Millennials] have told us that they want access to learning because they watched their parents or other family members go through the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009 and come out the back end without a job … , ” she explained.  In response, Accenture now provides employees with an individualized curriculum that’s largely driven by themselves, she said.

Brace yourself: Shook said that Accenture’s workforce (which now stands at 425,000) is roughly 77-percent millennial.

In one case involving roughly 40,000 workers who did transactional processing, she said, “We told them, ‘If you automate your work … we’ll train you to do something else … .’ Our leadership set it up as a challenge,” giving them  “automation architects” so they could [learn] how to automate their work. Roughly 18,000 workers reportedly took advantage of it.

Shook suggested that companies would be well-served to give serious consideration to two factors, in particular, as they hire talent in the future: aspiration and the willingness to learn. She pointed out that both are easy to interview for.

David Shadovitz is editor of HRE. He is also co-chair of the HR Tech Conference and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. He can be reached at [email protected]

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