• Interview by:
  • Mariana Kouprianoff

Accenture: “Digital became 60% of our company’s structure”

Seven years ago, Accenture started to rotate its company to adapt to the digital transformation. Yves Bernaert, from Accenture Europe, talks to ECO about digital transformation.

Optimizing the business world, transforming companies into digital friendly entities. That’s mostly what seems to motivate Yves Bernaert, at Accenture Technology Europe Lead & Intelligent Platform Services, on a daily basis, as he focuses on building a bridge between the innovation in the tech world, and the potential impact it can have on companies’ performance.

Accenture has rotated its own structure, to ‘meet the expectations’ of the tech advancements, having transformed its company core structure to digital by 60% over the last seven years. ECONEWS met with one of the leading minds behind the tech innovation of Accenture Europe, Senior Managing Director Yves Bernaert, to know what the future holds for companies all over the world, and which are the major trends in tech which will be impacting businesses in the immediate future.

What are the major trends in technology right now?

Firstly, we believe that every company will become what we call an intelligent enterprise. The first thing we need in order for that to happen is AI (Artificial Intelligence), but even more important is to know how to transform companies in a citizen AI’s, or rather a responsible AI company, making sure that the way we implement the technology is good for the people, putting people in the centre.

The second major trend goes around the concept of the ‘end of distance’: we are using extended reality (XR), which we believe is going to expand. We are looking at the end of keyboards, screens. People will interact with the system in an entirely different way, being ‘augmented’, and not constrained by the technology. The third trend is data veracity. We have to make sure that the systems in place guarantee the quality of the data instead of focusing on collecting large quantities of data. Because, if we just do that, the decision or recommendation from the software will be simply wrong.

After that, we have what we call a ‘frictionless business’, which is a cross-industry idea, focused at its core on the idea of partnerships. They [companies] need to be online, connected with the whole ecosystem, transforming their core. Lastly, we are now moving from the Internet of Things to the Internet of Thinking. We have to be able to develop new things, new ideas. And this is all happening now, not in ten years. To ensure that every company will become an intelligent enterprise we have to apply these innovations now, that’s the way we look at it.

Companies have a legacy that makes them resistant to the ‘frictionless business’ transformation you refer to. How are companies dealing with this new way of thinking about partnerships?

It is extremely difficult because companies have done everything they could in the past to be isolated; so this is not a technology play, it is more a strategic play for the company. The question companies should ask themselves is ‘are we willing to try to be successful alone, or should we find ways to partner even sometimes with some competitors, instead of being disruptive?’. So, it starts with deciding between these two ideas. Whenever you have decided that, as a company, you will not only generate a seamless experience for your end client but as well, you will be able to create new products that were not there before for your end customer.

And then, when that decision is made, you need to look at how to adjust the technology, because the current technology of large companies is mainly a legacy system. It’s not agile at all, not flexible at all, so you cannot insert new products or new partnerships. Your legacy is constrained by its way to interface with the screens, and if you haven’t transformed the core, put it in the cloud, and put micro-services on it, there is no way you will develop this partnership. Technically impossible, it is simply impossible.

“It is so important to get the diversity right, as it is to get the right people in the company to do the innovation and to drive client relationships”, Yves Bernaert, AccenturePedro Jafuno

What about blockchain? Are any of your client companies adhering to this new technology?

It has become a secure, automated certification tool or process, and it will accelerate naturally because there are many supply chains in any company, and all of them will benefit from the blockchain technology. Nowadays, they have to interact with multiple businesses within their own company, as well as with their suppliers, and their clients. If you automate certification at all steps, from delivery to transmission, then there is no more paper transmission, there is no control, no double-check, paper-check, all those things will disappear.

So when you think about it this way, then you understand it will accelerate businesses tremendously. If people implement this, not only will it cost less to operate: it will be way more efficient to process anything internally or, mainly, externally. Plus, as we see today, it is not enough to have only one company in the ecosystem adhering to the blockchain solution; it is rather more about convincing the whole ecosystem together to create a blockchain. For instance, banks create blockchain solutions for the whole financial system, and so that is the challenge. The focus is not on one company alone, blockchain rather requires all companies to find an agreement. Just like many years ago companies agreed to create the credit card system, by creating associations to implement it. It might be complex to get this agreement, but technology wise everything is ready.

Which are the sectors more resistant to this new digital transformation?

The first ones are the ones who don’t see the financial or the business risks they are taking [by not implementing these new technologies]. Because their P&L (performance)  is so good today, that there might be little chances of erosion faced by these companies, and they don’t understand how quick they can be disrupted, exactly because their performance is just too good. Those are the ones which usually are showing more resistance, although in a different way. It’s not like they’re resisting, really, they just don’t do it, until the P&L is too affected. Then, they will be ‘forced’ to collaborate, but it might be a bit too late then, and that’s the main problem.

You can’t just handpick a new technology and implement it, you actually have to reinvent your whole business model.

Yves Bernaert, Senior Managing Director

Accenture Technology Europe Lead & Intelligent Platform Services

So how should companies restructure their human resources in order to adapt to these digital transformations?

Maybe the best example is our example, which started seven years ago. Our strategy was set: to rotate ourselves to the new. IMAX, Interactive, Mobility, Analytics, Cloud, Security, but as well the ‘latest new’ like AI, External Reality, and Blockchain. That’s ‘the new’, and we can summarize this with digital, cloud, security. We said to ourselves we would create new offerings to our clients, new solutions and new services, and in seven years this became 60% of our company’s structure, of our business. And it is going to increase still. And the way to do it (in this area) is by implementing the same thing with your own resources, with your people. So we created digital learning boards, we got new ways of training people. To train the people in a very, very accelerated way, because the speed of rotation of the people had to accelerate to capture the acceleration of the revenue. And we always had the talent to get there.

During our first wave of transformation, which lasted 18 months, we trained 180 thousand people. Right now, we are scaling it to the whole Accenture, which has 450 thousand people. That was considered so far the main, or key phase of transformation we had in our hands. And then we change as well the culture of the company so that we are very well recognized to do high-performance delivery. I think now we have come to be very well known as an innovation company, which attracts new talent, and gives a free environment for people to invent and be entrepreneurs. When you do that and you change your company’s outlook and the content of what people do, and then you attract new talent.

And for our case we had to do both – we had to train more people so that they could remain relevant in “the new” and simultaneously attract very new types of talent. At the same time, we set yet another goal as our guideline in the new talent acquisition. Our company focuses on leveraging for wide diversity, and for that reason, we set a simple goal to be 50-50 men and women by 2025. This is a business goal, it is not to be seen as something which is “nice to have”; it is a business goal, just like revenue is. Because it is so important to get the diversity right, as it is to get the right people in the company to do the innovation and to drive client relationships.

In seven years, [the digital has] become 60% of our company’s structure, of our business.

Yves Bernaert, Senior Managing Director

Accenture Technology Europe Lead & Intelligent Platform Services

In seven years, 60% of your company was transformed to digital.

Yes, and that’s why we had to define the new ‘new’. So the business was the core, and we had to do a lot of transformation; transform the core, grow the core, make it better. And then, we created ‘the new’, and we had to scale ‘the new’. At some stage, the new will become the core. So it is a continuous reinvention of what our services should be, and we are at that tipping point today, to see what is going to be our next step. Because digital is going to become, now 60%, then 70% of what we do.

And you call that the ‘wise pivot’. What is this all about?

Yes, we call that the wise pivot. Pivoting to the new, without abandoning the core. You need to pivot from the core to the new. But you can’t do that too quick, because you’re going to lose your people, and you won’t be able to transform your people. And if you go too quick your people won’t be ready, plus you won’t be able to get the revenue that you want from ‘the new’. The idea is not to put the business at risk, it is more to go quick enough so that you don’t become a legacy company.

If a company is doing something wrong, they will feel the impact of that quickly. And when the media spreads that message, it can even go viral.

Yves Bernaert, Senior Managing Director

Accenture Technology Europe Lead & Intelligent Platform Services

What are the actual implications of data veracity?

As I mentioned before, in the future of systems, a lot of the systems will become adaptable. Systems will adjust themselves as they go. Systems are based on algorithms, it’s not like you will have to re-develop anything, the system will rather adjust itself to the data it receives. How the wave of big data, whether internal or external, will affect the system and make it re-sync, is not known yet. But the key point now, because AI is automated, is to make sure of the veracity of the data, because of the automation of tasks, of decisions, that can put our business at risk if the data we feed our systems is wrong. So the data veracity is all about developing new features in the system that are controlling the quality of the data before it goes to the AI tool.

We are developing a lot of systems that include this data veracity layer. To be sure that the AI solution will act properly. The AI solution is about automating an answer to a client, mostly. Or automating a manager decision. And for that reason, there is a huge potential impact in your image and in your P&L, if you let a decision happen wrongly. These new type of systems are to be deployed everywhere, as we transform companies into Intelligent Enterprises, putting AI everywhere. This is happening.

Are there any perils in AI tools becoming part of the decision-making processes?

Yes, of course. When we started the industrial journey, dozens and dozens of years ago, it was a lot about automating factories, and decision makers were thinking a lot about repositioning their workers to do something else. This will be accelerated of course, because digital goes to the production, but does not stop there -now it touches the manager layer. So the change of management does not happen only to the workers, but to the managers themselves, crossing all the hierarchy of the company. People understand the business opportunity behind AI, but they might be more resistant to these changes. And this is the main challenge we have. How can we, as business leaders, explain the added value for these companies, how can we help them and their teams to rotate to this new digital?

It’s all about transforming your company to embark all your employees there. If you do the change management right and have the right strategy about how to do the rotation to ‘the new’, then your people are going to be on it. If you don’t get them in and transform your core, there will be resistance, and that is the main problem. If you let that resistance happen, then your company is going to collapse.

Do you think European regulators will be tough on these new technologies, specifically AI?

The regulators’ role is to focus on what responsible AI means because they can’t define all the rules to operate, how to code an algorithm. Their role is more to look at the ethical rules which you, as a leader, have to comply with. And in the end, it is not about the penalty you get if you don’t apply these ethical rules. In AI, if you don’t apply these standard, ethical rules, then your clients will run away. Even your talent, in your company, will run away, because they will not work for you, and they will not want you to be their supplier, they won’t buy your products. So regulators should clarify the responsibility of every actor, to make sure that whatever AI tool that is going to be put in place is going to be done in a very responsible way. For the company and the ecosystem.

I mentioned something before: there are technological ways to avoid biased decisions. So those are the compliances that need to be defined to make sure that companies commit to them, without being too detailed in regulating. Otherwise, there will be too much control. AI is more about responsibility and trust, and there should be an environment where people trust each other. Of course, there will be someone, somewhere, trying to do some security breaches, that will happen, but the responsibility of AI will be key.

“We are now moving from the Internet of Things to the Internet of Thinking. We have to be able to develop new things, new ideas.” Yves Bernaert, AccenturePedro Jafuno

Is there anything negative about AI?

I think it is not negative at all. I think some people are creating fear, as this is their job, they are paid for it. But I wouldn’t be negative, it is all very positive. Would you reject the arrival of electricity, the arrival of cars? No, so we should accept AI to come in. It will automate many things, and you can see it as something that is augmenting humans in a positive way, removing many boring tasks, then there is no worry to have. It is all about augmenting our intelligence, our physical capacity. But systems should be designed putting people at the centre of it. If not, they can be successful in the beginning, but then people will start to say they are not people-friendly, environmentally-friendly, or that you’re not helping the community, then they don’t trust you and don’t buy your products. It is over, and they run away. If a company is doing something wrong, they will feel the impact of that quickly. And when the media spreads that message, it can even go viral.

  • Mariana Kouprianoff