Two buzzwords have re-ignited the world of global services since “offshoring” became so passé… Digital and Automation.
And the two are inextricably linked – you can’t really digitize your business processes until you have effectively automated them. And if your industry requires you to have that digital interface with your customers and suppliers to survive (and that pretty much includes all industries today), you’re pretty much done for, if you haven’t build that automated process layer as the foundation. And if you need more evidence of this, please take some time to read our recent report on the impact of Digital on business services.
So surely this is the gravy train for ambitious service providers to jump to the needs of their clients to save the day? Or is the business world changing so dramatically that this is simply going to be one insurmountable challenge too far for many enterprises, and they might as well give up now?
So let’s hear from the one service provider that dusted off the “Digital” terminology from the dictionary and reapplied it to the world of services. We managed to get some face-time recently with Accenture’s Mike Sutcliff at his firm’s Global Shared Services Conference (GSSC) in Prague, to hear about how his group is developing its digital capabilities and applying them to the world of business operations and shared services…
Phil Fersht (CEO, HfS): Mike – Good to connect again! Tell us about your background. How did you come to lead the digital practice for Accenture?
Mike Sutcliff (Group Chief Executive, Accenture Digital): I’ve been at Accenture for 27 years. In the early 1990s, I founded the Finance Management Group which developed our shared services business. Then I got the opportunity to establish a new business. I became interested in analytics; I wanted to understand how analytics could bring more value to companies. I studied how enterprises created data as a mass that they then could leverage across the organization. I combined my experience in financial services with my new understanding of these growing fields to form Accenture Digital, which brings together our capabilities around e-Commerce, digital marketing, social collaboration, mobility and analytics.
Phil: “Digital” is the industry’s new hot button; everyone has jumped on this and is coming out with their own digital practices. How is Accenture’s digital practice different from the offerings of other tech-based services firms?
Mike: First, we have history. We’ve been working on various parts of our digital business for a decade, collaborating with our technology partners across the entire ecosystem. Over time we developed our offering that now the marketplace considers digital.
Second, we don’t use digital as a group of technologies. We think about digital as:
- Connecting people
- Creating mobile capabilities
- Embedding real-time analytics into enterprise operating models
We do this across different industries and geographies. When we talk about the digital customer, we think about how citizens engage with their governments, how patients interact with their healthcare providers or how consumers engage with retailers. We try to put together the digital pieces in new and unique ways to change the way the world is working.
Phil: Mike, The consensus at the recent GSSC conference is that shared services operations are ideal to house a digital CoE (center of excellence). In your opinion, can digital services become a genuine innovation engine for business operations?
Mike: Absolutely, Phil. Digital services allow enterprises to house expertise in different types of data; for example, they could create an analytics center of excellence. They could also innovate by doing mash ups, where you combine technology from inside the organization with technology from others in the environment. And these digital technologies can help individuals capture market share–it could be in a call center, agent network or a physical store. The business unit can now think about how digital technologies can enable each business process at every point in the customer interaction. In my opinion, all of these are interesting opportunities for shared services organizations to accelerate the innovation that’s happening within the business.
Phil: Based on your experience, how can operations executives improve their digital capabilities? Is there a big opportunity here or is it too late?
Mike: It’s not too late, Phil! Digital is a fantastic opportunity. Here’s why: There was a cycle of early adoption which required executives to act as general contractors to put together their own solutions as the technology matured. Today solutions have been tested, developed, even packaged as subscription services.
Phil: What is your first piece of advice to people starting out in a digital transformation, Mike?
Mike: Understand you need to design business processes for the mobility environment. Today your employees, customers, business partners and supply chain are all increasingly using their mobile phones as a business tool. Mobility is more than people using their handsets to access information, which was the hallmark of the first generation of mobility. Today organizations have to embed computing capabilities into centers and analytics into devices. Things are mobile as well as people. We can design much more effective business processes if we think about what it really means to untether people from the laptops or desktops. People are no longer just sitting in an office or stuck in a static physical location.
Phil: And what is your advice concerning analytics?
Sutcliffe: Enterprises need to take the next generation of analytics, which includes machine learning, cognition engines and structured text mining, among other things, to take advantage of all the information that exists. That includes the information both within your company and in your business environment. We were not able to collect and amalgamate these in the past. Then use the combined data to do something you couldn’t do in the past. The new digital tools allow companies to discover and act on insights in a more practical way because trends are become more economically visible than in the past.
If companies understand both the mobility and analytics involved, they can start imagining more effective business processes. That can start a revolution internally, a revolution that challenges the existing constraints in current operating processes.
Phil: What do you think is the broader societal impact of digital transformation? Are we going to see real issues arise due to a lesser reliance on humans? Do you see real growth opportunities for professionals or are we heading into a very different future?
Mike: I am an optimist. Yes, technology is destructive. In the disruption there are different short and long-term benefits to different members of the ecosystem. Like other technologies before it, digital will change the way we work. People will have to adjust to the new way or potentially be eliminated in order to make a process more efficient.
Yes, introducing new ways of doing things is a challenge in the short term. But this change is necessary because technology:
- Facilitates efficiency and achievements
- Allows employees to work smarter and faster
- Permits employees to be mobile and work from anywhere
- Enables everyone to interact at a deeper level of detail
Phil: Can you provide a real world example?
Mike: We developed a solution in India for the farming community, which is composed of a lot of small family farms. Traditionally these farmers don’t take advantage of the available science to determine what kind of fertilizers to use depending on their specific land and the crops they want to grow. It was just too expensive to understand the soil content, weather patterns and chemicals that would improve their yields.
Accenture combined digital technologies which gave them access to this information and expertise. The result: they were able to make better decisions. They put the correct amount of the right chemicals in the proper places based on the weather and crop patterns. Indian farmers using this simple combination of technologies significantly increased their crop yields per acre, making them more productive.
Look at how distance learning has changed education. Or the new ways doctors and technology are delivering healthcare. These are all structural changes in the way people do things. These structural changes do more than just make us more efficient. That efficiency enables some of us to work on problems no one has solved yet-like how to tackle new forms of cancer or reorganize cities to reduce congestion. Digital technology has freed us to work on societal issues we all know we need to work on.
Phil: So…you are anointed as Digital Emperor for one week, what two things would you do to change the industry?
Mike: The first thing I would do, Phil, is create a public directory of all known sources of data that enterprises could combine with their own data. This is a good move because many of our clients simply don’t know what’s out there or how to access what they need. I believe we can improve our society significantly if we had a better understanding of how to use the data. For example, looking at energy usage, crop yields and healthcare requirements from a global level allows us to do a better job of feeding, housing and clothing the world’s population. I think this global data amalgamation will mature fairly quickly.
The second thing I would do is engage more aggressively with both regulators and the various layers of government to challenge the current regulations. Are the historical regulatory control structures we have in place now going to be equally valid in this new digital world? I want to determine if what’s in place currently is the most effective. Now that we’ve got access to these digital capabilities we can determine the most effective regulations to put in place. Please note I am not challenging the need for effective regulation. What I’m saying is we need even better regulation. It’s time to start now (it’s not too early!) to start engaging government in this type of conversation. How can we work together to create digital policy to allow more effective regulatory controls moving forward?
I’m sure you’re surprised that I would talk about the importance of regulation as a digital emperor. But I think the pace of digital change is significantly faster than the government’s reaction to that change. Hopefully, early conversations with government regulators would allow the world’s population to gain advantages from the digital technology faster.
Phil: That’s right, Mike. Most governments are still catching up to the impacts of earlier Internet evolutions. Maybe we can help them get it right this time… I appreciate your candid views here – am sure our readers will enjoy reading them.
Mike Sutcliff (pictured) is Group Chief Executive, Accenture Digital. You can download your complimentary copy of “Disrupt of be Disrupted: The Impact of Digital Technologies on Business Services” by clicking here.
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Very good interview. The concept of the “Digital Customer” is a powerful one,
Phil – really informative discussion, especially about how shared services can support digital capabilities. I think it’s very important for shared services professionals to get trained on using these technologies and applying them to their business processes,
@Heather – thanks for your comment. I couldn’t agree more that all business services staff need to be trained on using digital technologies and weaving them into business processes effectively. We need to start thinking about the practicality of processes, such as “it would be very useful if we could track usage data on this workflow”, or “how can we get better data on whether customers are reading files they download, depending on which device they are using” etc etc. There needs to be a desire (culture) from staff to demand constantly better knowledge of the effectiveness of their processes, not just settle for the “it works this way, so we don’t want to mess with it” attitude we see all too much.
Great to get insights into the digital path that Accenture is adopting. Loved this interview and thanks Phil for arranging this.
Definitely amongst the earliest to enter the space with Accenture Interactive/Digital, so way ahead of the others in experience and capability, I think.
My sense of the challenges with transformation, to the point above. Clearly the most important suggestion is to re-look/re-design the processes from the mobile user perspective. There are three critical considerations further to this –
1. Not every function or process needs mobile products/apps. Strategic selection of where you need digital solutions for improvements in efficiency, in incremental benefits and wherein you need to consider deeper transformative opportunities is a critical part of the journey. Laying out the road map carefully is important.
2. Technology design/selection is a very important consideration given the proliferation of choices and issues to consider- in-house dev. tools, packaged software, devices, issues around security, BYOD, third party integration, distribution etc.
3. Many things, the user feedback, training etc. all impact the adoption cycle. The processes have to settle down. Shared operations/outsourcing strategies may not be a good fit for all situations, more so in the context of significant business transformation/disruption with digital – where the new solution maybe only touches a few points of the legacy processes or just is a whole new model.
So for some customers it maybe bit early to consider using a third party provider for all digital operations, it maybe more effective to actually build up capability in-house first, while using external partners for discrete engagements.