Talking to Manish Sharma is like going through a karma carwash – you feel pretty fresh and sparkly at the end. But don’t take the effervescence lightly – Manish has cultivated his career at Accenture over three decades, now leading “the largest operations business on the planet.” I had the opportunity to catch up with Manish during HFS’ OneOffice Symposium, in addition to a behind-the-scenes catch-up call. He uses words without embellishment, so when he speaks of dramatic mindset shifts, super compressed transformations, and the multiplier impact, you know this era has been a stunning one.
You can create your own karmic take-aways from the closed-door call below:
Phil Fersht, CEO and Chief Analyst, HFS Research: Good afternoon Manish. It is great to see you again. You’ve been traveling for some time, right? Great to have you on here. For some of the folks not so familiar with you personally, maybe you could just give us a little bit about you and your background, and how you came to be in your current role. Did you always want to be leading a multi-billion dollar P&L within Accenture? Or did you have other plans when you were starting out?
Manish Sharma, Group CEO of Accenture Operations: First of all, Phil, it’s always good to chat with you, and catch up about the industry trends. In terms of my own journey, I have been with the firm now for 27 years. When I joined, it was a small consulting office in Mumbai. That is where I joined, and my background, funnily enough, is an engineering background, and never in my life, in my early years, did I ever think that I will be in an operations business or a BPO business. My dream was to design the best ever machine tool, whether it is the boring machine tool, or for cutting, or any other stuff, but that was my original plan, with my background. I joined because, at that time, it was Arthur Andersen in 1995, and I joined for setting up a manufacturing excellence practice in India, including supply chain, and everything else. That is where I spent all my years on, and I was always. I lived in Mumbai.
After a few years, when the outsourcing started, we got our first few clients, and I was told that “Can you help with one of the clients for few weeks?” I said, “Okay,” and I did my Monday to Friday from Mumbai to Bangalore, as we were setting up our business. Now, that two or three weeks, or two or three months, has got converted into virtually a decade, two decades out there. Right? That is the funny part of it. I have always enjoyed my journey in this. ’95 to 2002 consulting, 2002 onwards in this business, right from the formative years.
“It is exciting to lead the largest operations business on the planet. Right?”
It is exciting to lead the largest operations business on the planet. Right? When I think of it, what inspires me is our people. I think the best thing for me has been that I have seen people who joined us, when they came in, in early 2000, and now they are having families, and great infrastructure where they live in, great careers, growth of their people. It has been fascinating to just see the people grow, along with our client portfolio.
Phil: Excellent. You took the role of Group Chief Executive for Accenture Operations just over a year ago now, right? Was it February last year, something like that?
Manish: Yeah. It was announced in January, and on March 1 I took over. It is just more than a year now.
Phil: Wow. You’ve spent your entire first year in a completely different business environment than you were expecting, right? [Laughs].
Manish: Yeah. [Laughs].
“The good thing was that I have been in the business right from the beginning, so I know all of our leaders, I have traveled to almost every single center of ours, probably selected the site of each of the centers, and everything else. I knew our leaders and our people really well before the pandemic started. In that way, it was much easier for me, even during the COVID times.”
The good thing was that I have been in the business right from the beginning, so I know all of our leaders, I have traveled to almost every single center of ours, probably selected the site of each of the centers, and everything else. I knew our leaders and our people really well before the pandemic started. In that way, it was much easier for me, even during the COVID times.
Phil: How different has it been for the business that you’ve been running, compared to what it was like before? I mean, you’ve got the perfect comparisons. But how different has it been for you guys?
Manish: I would say, for me, while I think personally, and for our people, we have tried to do everything keeping people at the center with people’s safety at the center of everything that we do.
After making our people secure, and our clients’ work secure, if I look at the business, I think we have seen some dramatic mindset changes from the clients. I use the word dramatic not lightly because it is what I am seeing in terms of our growth, sales volumes, the number of clients, which I have never seen that before.
I have never seen the kind of demand for super compressed – I am not even using the word compressed, I mean super compressed transformation timelines, and we have done some of the most complex transformative deals in the last one year. It shows the appetite, where the clients have understood that there is no way to get around the digital transformation and relentless focus on creating business value. There is no way around it. I think the appetite for some of these things has really grown up.
“I have never seen the kind of demand for super compressed – I am not even using the word compressed, I mean super compressed transformation timelines, and we have done some of the most complex transformative deals in the last one year. It shows the appetite, where the clients have understood that there is no way to get around the digital transformation and relentless focus on creating business value. There is no way around it. I think the appetite for some of these things has really grown up.”
I will give you very simple examples. Earlier, you had to go and talk to the clients, and ask, “I want to do automation, I want to do this stuff,” and they would say that they would put you through the security, this, that, which used to take huge timelines for doing even simple stuff. Now, guess what? In these times, people understand the value of time. People understand the lead time has to be crushed for doing and enabling digital transformation. So, the realization is very high.
“The absolute super compressed transformation is now the stuff that the clients want. They do not want a journey of five years. They want a journey of next two to three years, and what can be achieved in that timeline.”
The absolute super compressed transformation is now the stuff that the clients want. They do not want a journey of five years. They want a journey of the next two to three years, and what can be achieved in that timeline.
Phil: Wow. And what do you think is the biggest change that they’re having to go through, to go through such a rapid transformation? What are they having to overcome, themselves?
- I would say that there is some bit of inertia. I think the inertia got virtually shaken up because of COVID. That was one thing.
- The change part. Is everybody on board? Is everybody still aligned?
- The third important piece is the silos that they operated in, because now it is an enterprise play. It is not a functional play. There is a correlation between different parts of the enterprise. How do you get integrated enterprise coming together?
I think these are some of the key things that the organizations have to think through.
What has really happened is that operations have now become central to the CEO and the board agenda, and there are more conversations which are involving the CEOs and the board than ever before. Five years back, or even three years back, we used to speak to the GBS owners and the functional leadership. Last couple of years, we are talking to the CFOs, CMOs, CHROs in the C-suite.
“What has really happened is that operations have now become central to the CEO and the board agenda, and there are more conversations which are involving the CEOs and the board than ever before. Five years back, or even three years back, we used to speak to the GBS owners and the functional leadership. Last couple of years, we are talking to the CFOs, CMOs, CHROs in the C-suite.”
Given the transformational nature of the deal, size of impact to the core business, including revenues, expedience, and cost, we are now talking to several CEOs and boards, because they need to move towards overcoming the inertia and changing the siloed behavior, which is not a functional thing. It is something at a board level, that the discussions are taking place.
Phil: Right. How much is trust becoming a factor here, Manish? I don’t get the feeling you can walk into a client you’ve never worked with before, and take on a deal this size. Is this, very much, years and years of working together, and suddenly it’s, “We know these guys, we’re going to go with them”? I mean, how is that playing out? Or is every client very individual, at this point, and very unique with their own needs?
Manish: No, I think trust has become more important in these times, Phil. I think relationships have become more important in these times. When you think about pure outsourcing, it is a transaction. I think the difference what we are seeing now is that people are not doing transactions. They are trying to build partnerships. The trust and the relationships now certainly matter. The kind of people that are involved, from your team, and from their team matter. I would say trust has become a huge part of the buying pattern from the clients, along with the partnership levels and our ability to help during tough times. I think how we reacted when the pandemic hit us, held us in good stead, because we put everything for the clients, while making our people safe. I think that really solidified our relationship and trust with the clients.
Phil: How has this changed the Accenture Operations approach to taking on additional scope, additional business? Because, I mean, I’ve seen you guys aggressive in the market, more aggressive than I’ve seen you in a long time, and some of these deals feel quite strategic, in that it’s maybe you’ve got to win the baseline work, to start with, that might not be the most profitable work in the world, but that will lead to some much broader transformation with those clients in 18-24 months. Are you taking that type of view now, that sometimes you need to compete for some of the commodity stuff, to really up the value in time? And how is that shifting, in your mindset?
Manish: Let me put two points in terms of how we are shaping and what is the approach that we are taking.
“I think the speed and the scale of impact is seen as what I call as a multiplier impact, as process transformation is now coupled with technology disruption.”
I think the speed and the scale of impact is seen as what I call a multiplier impact, as process transformation is now coupled with technology disruption. Right? Let us talk about some of the examples. One is integrated solutions across automation, analytics, and AI, which I know HFS has always highlighted as a key development in the industry as the Triple-A when I read some of your stuff. The second one is no-code, low-code, and AI on unstructured data, and data science on the big data. That is the second, you know, in terms of what we are trying to do. All the above, when combined with functional and industry-leading practices and implementation, create a multiplier effect on the speed and scale of outcomes. That is the one point that I will certainly say that we go aggressive in the market because we are seeing a huge impact on this.
The second one, I think you touched on that, Phil, is data is becoming central to driving the intelligent operations for us, powered by SynOps. SynOps is, like, one end-to-end transformation play that we are really proud about. We have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in that. There is a lot of talk about some of these things to be a mere statement, but I think for us it is real.
“SynOps is, like, one end-to-end transformation play that we are really proud about. We have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in that. There is a lot of talk about some of these things to be a mere statement, but I think for us it is real.”
At last count, I will give you some figures, because data is something which I know you and I have a huge passion towards, right?
We have processed 1 trillion data elements annually with increasing variety, whether it is contacts, emails, documents, pictures, calls, inventory data, invoice data, and the list that can keep on going. Secondly, we continue to respect how we treat client data, but continue to harness the power of data within those limits through aggregation and anonymization, which is the way we get that. We are leveraging data-driven process discovery, data-driven benchmarks for the clients’ business cases, and data-driven automation diagnostics, data-driven knowledge graphs for complex AI.
“We are leveraging data-driven process discovery, data-driven benchmarks for the clients’ business cases, and data-driven automation diagnostics, data-driven knowledge graphs for complex AI.”
Now, I am just saying that the power of what we can do, and along with these three things, processing the 1 trillion stuff, and, you know, data points, and what we are doing with end-to-end data is creating value as we work on more comprehensive scope for clients, across functional and industry value chains. Then, what we are doing on top of these layers is mixing external and internal data optimally, as only one of them is not much of use without the other. That is kind of what comes in our SynOps platform as the benchmark, when we start any particular study. Before I start doing any diagnostic this and that, right, get the level of details around the benchmarks, and with the data that we have. But that kind of leads us to a very different approach, as we approach the market, Phil.
Phil: As you look at the development of these solutions, and maybe over your career, since you have been at Accenture, in particular, who have been the major influences on you personally, Manish, in terms of shaping your thinking, and the way you carry yourself, and your leadership?
Manish: Sure. You know, I have always been driven more by people who are on the ground, and on the floor. They are always driven to shape my thinking. When I look at it, I remember when you were there in Bangalore once, and we were starting this journey, and I do not know whether you remember when we were sitting in the band 9 innovation floor. If I look at even the automation journey, we have now got 82,000 robotic solutions, the world’s largest robotic workforce, I will say in terms of what we have within SynOps. What really inspired me to convert this industry from an MRPT, measurable, repeatable, predictable, and transactional work into a value-driven work, was driven by one of our employees, who came once to me in 2014 or ’15, and she said, “Why are you making us do this kind of work? I know how to do this work much better, and much faster, and I don’t even need to be involved.” But that kind of shaped my thinking, that what are we doing. Are we really utilizing the human potential?
“I have always been inspired by my discussions, by walking around. And even in these times, I go around with our people even virtually, because that inspires me, and that gives me most of my ideas and my thinking around this.”
I have always been inspired by my discussions, by walking around. And even in these times, I go around with our people even virtually, because that inspires me, and that gives me most of my ideas and my thinking around this. Then, when we started the discussion, that idea came, and she is still an employee with us.Human beings should not do any work which is measurable, repeatable, predictable, and transactional.
Manish: Now, if I just go back two months again, we started this. Quickly we started, “Okay. Let us go and automate it.” You know, it was not a great journey. Because a lot of the folks were doing task-automation, which is the worst form of automation. They were not looking at end-to-end. You know, it was all like, I would say hardwiring your organizations to waste, and we didn’t really want to do that. Again, the idea came from someone suggesting that anybody who automates their job gets promoted. Thus, imagine the paradigm shift. This way, you are not instilling fear about job losses. Instead, you are creating a different feeling that you will get promoted when you actually get an automation done. That is the second thing, again, coming from our employees.
“It is always the people on the floor who have the best ideas, and always the thing for us, as a leadership team, is how do I really harness them, and actually create client value from those ideas?”
If I just continue to weave through my journey, the thought has always come from a discussion from the people on the floor who are closest to the work. It has never got super inspired from some other thing. It is always the people on the floor who have the best ideas, and always the thing for us, as a leadership team, is how do I really harness them, and actually create client value from those ideas?
Phil: Well, I think it’s making people secure and excited to innovate, versus to protect and to stay on top of tasks, because the more you can remove the breakages, the link… anything that slows down the business is what you want to move away from. And I feel speed is the new watchword of our industry. It’s how do we move fast? You know? We’re finally seeing deals signed that we… we used to call them, d’you remember, multi-tower deals, back in the day, and things like that, but we’re now seeing these engagements that we could only really dream of, 15 years ago, 15, 20 years ago, so it’s fascinating to really feel them coming into the market.
I think a final question I have for you, Manish, is, as we look out to next year, and I know we’re having a difficult time with COVID… India’s having a really bad time, I’ve been hearing, this week, the last couple of weeks, as well. But as we eventually move beyond this, we vaccinate everybody, we get used to this, do you think that we’ll go back to something like we had before? Or do you think we’re going into a very different environment now?
Manish: I think we are for sure moving into a different environment. I don’t think so it is going to be one way or the other. It is not like all the people will be working from offices, or all of them working from home. As you have rightly said, the situation is very tough, as we speak. I do think that once things come back to normal, it is going to be a mix. I am seeing people really craving an office environment. We can say all the good stuff that we want to say, about the convenience, and everything else, but I think there is some learning opportunity which people are missing, which they get when they are together.
It is like when you talk about our team leader in the organization, you learn by being a leader, in the earlier stages of your career, by watching, by being with the folks, by managing a team, and everything else, and trying to do it virtually. You know, there is stuff that we need to do. I think learning is great, in a virtual fashion, but I think learning, again, has got to be in a class participation mode. I believe the reskilling and the relearning agenda is going to be a topmost thing, whether it is for us or for our clients.
“For us, reskilling and relearning is now a major initiative across the firm, and I think we will see more of that. …Right now, for our clients, we are opening our own academies, so that they can actually participate, whether it is automation, AI, blockchain, or any of those things. I do think that the world will be a mix. ”
For us, reskilling and relearning is now a major initiative across the firm, Phil, and I think we will see more of that. …Right now, for our clients, we are opening our own academies, so that they can actually participate, whether it is automation, AI, blockchain, or any of those things. I do think that the world will be a mix. Hopefully, we will get over this time, and once we get through this, it will be a mix of everything. But reskilling and relearning will be a major part, along with the mixed model that we have of home and office.
Phil: Yeah, I think you are absolutely right. I mean, if you look at even the call center market right now, on average, call centers outside of the US are back up to 70% capacity, and in the US I think it’s, like, 60%. A lot of this is younger generation folks. They want to go to an office, want to actually mix, want to work with people, and if your company is not offering it, they will go and work somewhere else. This is a hot job market. I think it is the older generation who is probably a little more comfortable with work at home – okay, it’s not ideal, but I can live with it, I get more time with the kids, I travel less, I can eat better food, whatever – but the younger generation is helping make decisions for us; they want to be in an office, they want to be in an environment where they can learn. You can’t have this very remote environment working, I think, functionally forever. I think there has to be a hybrid mix between maybe a little less travel, a little more focus on health. I just bought my whole team Apple Watches for doing Q1, blowing it out of the water, but only because they can monitor their health now. But I really believe this is a generational-driven issue that we are going to see more of, as we come out of this. Well, this has been a fantastic conversation. I look forward to sharing this with our readership, and I really look forward to you sharing your views at our symposium in just under two months’ time. So, I will pause here. Excellent.