As artificial intelligence technologies mature, professional service companies in the business of selling human capital are entering a period of major flux. In order keep pace with competitors, they must find a way to adopt machine learning technology without cannibalizing their core businesses.
Accenture is a business consultancy operating globally with over 410,000 employees. The future of its massive workforce is intricately linked to the adoption of AI strategies both internally within itself and externally for its business clientele. How does a company like Accenture, so reliant upon human capital, create a defensible strategy for the future? To find out, I interviewed the man guiding this renaissance, Paul Daugherty, Accenture’s Chief Technology and Innovation Officer.
Embrace new technology rather than fear it
While some companies fear an AI disruption, Daugherty and Accenture chose to embrace it. In the past decades, Accenture has redefined itself as a “technology” company rather than a “human capital” company . These days, Daugherty spends the majority of his time with AI and machine learning technology. He explains, “AI is clearly overhyped right now, but even if you sort through the hype, we believe it’s the most transformative technology of the information age. It’s not just a new technology, it’s redefining how people work with technology.”
As a human capital driven company, Accenture aims to introduce AI without decimating its workforce or cannibalizing its client-facing business. Nevertheless, rather than reducing workforce, Accenture used the freed capacity from automation to redeploy employees for more productive use. For example, Accenture Operations, a sector with more than 100,000 employees, brought in automation for 17,000 roles in accounts payable and marketing operations. However, the headcount in the department actually grew as employees were repurposed to higher level and higher touch advisory services. Revenue grew as business service offerings increased.
AI opens up new business opportunities
Accenture sits in a unique meta category of firms that both develops its own AI roadmap and also advises clients on AI strategies. Its fear of losing business through technological disruption is largely mitigated by clients’ increasing demand for advisory services in technology adoption. As Daugherty explains, “unless you believe we’re near the end of demand for technology and business transformation services, the laws of supply and demand come into play. Using AI to reduce the price of implementing a solution saves money for the client which they can in turn reinvest to meet still more needs.” Thus, the advisory business grows as technology becomes more advanced and clients require even more support.
AI adoption in-house as testing ground
Similarly, the adoption of AI solutions internally at Accenture allows it to decrease the cost of client service delivery. Accenture invests heavily in an automation platform called myWizard. Internally, myWizard augments human technologists with virtual agents to improve data analysis and pattern identification and drive better business outcomes. The result has been a 60% increase in productivity. Parts of myWizard is built on major platforms such as IBM Watson, Microsoft Azure, Amazon AWS and Google Cloud. This allows Accenture to test these third party platforms — it uses itself as a guinea pig for these technologies.
Address AI concerns
The rapid expansion of AI does not come without concerns. These include AI sprawl, a problem analogous to what was seen with the emergence of cloud computing, data management, and a huge skill shortage. The term “Responsible AI” is also widely bandied about to address specific concerns of executives as well as general concerns about jobs and the economy. Says Daugherty, “we believe AI has the power to be a great productive tool to benefit people, business and society. But to do it in the right way, you do need to follow certain principles”.
Stay ahead of the curve
Using Accenture as a case study, it’s clear that the adoption of automation and machine learning need not come at the expense of jobs or revenue. By choosing to embrace rather than fear technological advancements, Accenture has positioned itself at the forefront of the revolution. Daugherty sums it up best, “we believe in embracing new technology because if it’s disruptive to our business, it’s going to be disruptive to the market, and we’re better off being the disrupter than waiting until the middle or tail end of the cycle.”