Accenture CIO On Global Collaboration, Metaverse And How Vendors Should ‘Open Their Kimono’
‘We at Accenture one thousand percent believe that it is going to fundamentally change how people interact with their companies, how companies interact with their customers and how companies interact with the world,’ Accenture’s Penelope Prett, chief information and data and analytics officer, says about the metaverse.
Accenture’s Penelope Prett believes it’s a fun and exciting time to be the company’s chief information and data and analytics officer.
From harnessing the power of data, people and collaboration and putting forth that force into the business world, the tailwind the Dublin, Ireland-based company is seeing is unstoppable.
“There’s a much more entrepreneurial feel to how we embrace new technology and evolving technology in today’s business world to solve business problems,” Prett told CRN. “The combination of those two things, better technology because we have a better stack to run it on and a much more open-minded approach to that technology, is leading all of us to places where we can we stop asking ourselves, ‘What can I get done right now?’
“We start talking about what’s the art of the complete possible in this space, and it’s revolutionary against how our business thinks,” she added. “It’s allowing us to transform, fundamentally, the way we do business. It’s a great time to be a CIO, I’ve got to say.”
Accenture is standing at the edge of opportunity, from how businesses operate post pandemic, to the metaverse, to harnessing the power of AI to better serve operational outcomes, and Prett seems to be in the middle of it all.
Over her more than 25-year career with Accenture, she has held multiple leadership roles and has gained significant experience with platform and industry ecosystem partners.
“How do we bring tech to bear for this hybrid space to make it so people can work where they want to work, and engage in ways they like to engage, and the productivity outcome is completely the same no matter what form you’re using,” she said. “That’s a big challenge, but for somebody like me that’s a fun challenge.”
Along with her technical roles, Prett plays a huge part in Accenture’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts working on a range of programs including LGBTQ initiatives, women in the workforce and the integration of veterans and other non-traditional talent.
Check out CRN’s interview with Prett on a host of topics including opportunities surrounding harnessing data, work in a post-pandemic world and bringing in non-traditional talent to bring Accenture to the next level.
What does work look like in a post-pandemic world, and how are you helping customers with that?
What’s really different and what’s really empowering is that clients came to the realization, during the pandemic, that cloud is here to stay. It’s a way of life. It’s going to drive a tremendous technology capability in the future. Cloud was like every other tech investment. You had to go argue with the board and the CEO and get funding. If you couldn’t show a ROI it was difficult. But now people understand that having a globally distributed business is the launching pad for all the net-new tech that’s here.
I think we were having fewer discussions about what I call the core foundational tech stack required to do some of this stuff, and a lot more fun discussions about what we run on that tech stack. In that space, what’s really different is that the world has leaned hard into the idea that technology is evolving faster than it ever has before, and that answers change and you have to have speed and velocity over perfection to capitalize on today’s technology opportunities. That was not the case before. If you’re going to make an investment, you have to analyze the heck out of it. There’s a much more entrepreneurial feel to how we embrace new technology and evolving technology in today’s business world to solve business problems.
The combination of those two things, better technology because we have a better stack to run it on and a much more open-minded approach to that technology, is leading all of us to places where we can we stop asking ourselves: ‘What can I get done right now?’ We start talking about what’s the art of the complete possible in this space and it’s revolutionary against how our business thinks. It’s allowing us to transform, fundamentally, the way we do business. It’s a great time to be a CIO, I’ve got to say
Accenture CEO Julie Sweet
In regards to that, what is your biggest ask from customers?
The biggest ask from customers is to value business return over perfection. There’s two things I think that are important to working with business customers. This was true before the pandemic, but it’s especially true now that things are moving so much faster. Number one, you have to have a shared set of values. Our CEO [Julie Sweet] during the pandemic worked with all of us to come up with what she calls the 360 Value Wheel, which talks to us about the things that we view as the core fundamental value set of our company’s performance. This is how we measure whether Accenture is doing well or not. When you have that common language, everything you start talking about with your business customers gets very easy because you’re not talking about what you want or I want, you’re talking about how what we do together is going to serve a value perimeter bigger than both of us. It’s about value, it’s not about my wants and needs or your wants and needs. It’s about what we can do together for the company.
Couple that with what I just talked about, which is that entrepreneurial mindset. We’re able to deliver value outcomes to the business at a pace we never could have envisioned. I would never say the pandemic is a good thing, but it certainly did change some foundational beliefs about how people approach technology. It’s opened a path for us to roll value back into the business from IT at a pace we were never able to achieve before.
So what is your biggest ask from your vendors? What do you want more of from them?
Our vendors are no different than us in that they’re evolving at a speed that was not previously thought of. We’re all moving at this speed. The number one thing that I asked for vendors, from the big, big ones we work with to the teeny tiny new babies who are just coming up in the field and looking for a place to call home, I ask the same thing, which is open your kimono. Show me where you’re going. Let’s talk about what your future looks like. I know what you’ve got right now and I’m going to consume it and use it and move on. That is the least interesting part of what we can discuss. The most interesting part is where do you desire to evolve to in terms of the spaces you want to solve, and how you want to solve with your particular kind of technology so that I can be there with you about two years ahead of where the mass market is.
If you think about it, in the professional services sector we’re only credible when we can talk to our clients about what’s coming and something they don’t know. So if I can deliver capability to Accenture as its CIO, two years ahead of where most clients are going to be ready to have the talk, then I have 750,000 people trained on the tech. They understand how to consume it and what it means and they have a very natural, very credible dialogue with clients. That’s how you get market share. So for me and for ecosystem partners, it’s where are you going to be in two years, what’s coming that I can clasp now, begin to roll in, rollout, teach people and then turn around and help take that to market with you.
Aside from vendors, what is your biggest challenge?
I think you’re going to hear this from any CIO you talk to, it’s talent. It’s not just talent as in how do I get people, what do I do? It’s deciding as a CIO in a world where we’re now truly cloud based and I can consume just about anything. I don’t have to do it, I can consume it and give the outcome to my company. What do I want to consume and what do I want to do myself? And for the things I want to do myself, that’s where the talent thing comes in. So you have to have a very strong sense of what is going to be truly, competitively differentiating for your company that cannot be consumed from the market, because the market isn’t ready. Then you have to move proactively to those spaces and make sure that you can acquire the talent to address those spaces, which are generally not well defined and the talent that’s needed is not well understood.
So some days I feel like an HR director in terms of how I’m thinking about the talent structure that I’m going to need to serve my company’s agenda. That is the single factor that is more out of my control than anything else, because there’s macroeconomic indicators going on and there’s huge competition. So if you ask me about the one thing that I spend most of my time thinking about, and it’s more out of my control than it is in my control, it’s having a good plan for how to capture and use that talent.
Accenture is doing a lot with the metaverse. How do you think customers will be harnessing the benefits of the metaverse in 10 years?
When you bring a new tech forward, typically what we see with uptick patterns is there’s a huge flush of, ‘This is fabulous.’ And then there’s a period of, ‘What do you actually do with this?’ Then it settles out and we really start to see market growth and a lot of people building it into the everyday fabric of how their companies do business. Metaverse is in that, ‘Okay, what do we do with it?’ period. We at Accenture one thousand percent believe that it is going to fundamentally change how people interact with their companies, how companies interact with their customers and how companies interact with the world. But it’s getting the large enterprise use cases that you need to introduce the tech to a broad set of large companies and get them to consume it so that they can see the possibilities. The uptick in the market really happens when the customers are exposed to the tech and they start thinking for themselves, not you telling them what they will use it for.
We want to introduce a set of use cases in the large enterprise around metaverse that are practical applications of this fabulous tech to the future. I think through the application of these use cases, we’re going to begin to move up in terms of large enterprises understanding what they actually can do with it. You’re going to see the adoption take off. We’re not quite there yet, but it’s coming and we want to be on the forefront of that.
You said it in a good way that a lot of people are hesitant about it. When I talk to a lot of MSPs or smaller vendors they almost clam up and don't want to talk about it. Why do you think that is?
If you can’t talk about it in a way that’s practical, then it falls into the realm of super cool technology that nobody actually wants to put any money in. I think a lot of companies are hesitant to put the first foot out there, and for that first foot to not have the right stickiness in the market and not to make that first impression that’s so critical, then to have your business glom on and say, ‘I want more.’ But what I would tell them is the metaverse is all in the experience. It’s something you have to touch and be a part of. You cannot explain it. So my counsel to other companies who are fighting with it is, don’t spend a billion dollars, spend $10 but get an experience for your company that it can relate to. Get that first small use case and move in and live there. Live there a while and when you fully grasp and understand what it can do, then I think that whole path will become a little easier for you to talk about and that hesitation goes away.
It’s just new tech. People are going to have the same kind of reaction on GenAI. Once they get under the covers and they start thinking about things like litigation and IP, corporations are going to go, ‘Wait. The tech itself is sound and the opportunities are unlimited.’ But get those first core, tangible, touchable, confined business cases, put your population in them, let them feel it and get that natural buoyancy..
That’s a perfect segue into my next question: What technology trends are you watching right now?
When I think about the technology that’s going to impact us the most, what I think about is collaboration. The core to our business, whether it’s B2B or B2C within a company and serving an individual client, the ways that we collaborate and the ways that we share data and spur each other’s creativity is the secret sauce of how a company like Accenture can provide value to clients. We talk about a ton of technology trends and they’re all good and they’re all fun to play with, but the one that I have to unlock for my industry is the concept of global collaboration. How do I create a truly interactive experience that allows us to do the types with our clients in a way that contributes to the outcome of the product, but doesn’t get in the way of the human connection. This is a very tricky space. What I mean by that is everybody in the world is struggling with this right now. What is the right amount of in-person time, because we just went through a two-and-a-half year period where we had none. We found out that the world didn’t end and we’re all okay, we got work done. It wasn’t always the best, but it got done. So now we’re sitting here from a world before, which is you and I had to be face-to-face all the time, to a world where we never were. How do we bring tech to bear for this hybrid space to make it so people can work where they want to work, and engage in ways they like to engage, and the productivity outcome is completely the same no matter what form you’re using. That’s a big challenge, but for somebody like me that’s a fun challenge.
Accenture offers data and analytics services using the power of AI. As the data and analytics officer, what can we expect to see from Accenture in that space? What services can we watch out for next?
There’s a couple of big services that I think will be helpful to clients as they’re coming up in the field. Number one is just making sense of the data a company has. The good news is that we tend to be data hoarders, so most companies, including mine, have 50 or 60 years of data at their fingertips. Now we have to figure out what to do with it. The wonderful news is that much data coupled with today’s macroeconomic data will give us incredibly powerful predictive models, but you have to be able to harness it. The first thing in talking to clients is how do you harness the power of that data. How do you figure out where all that data is and how you get it into a form that’s actually meaningful against how your business runs. It’s bringing it into some kind of structure that parallels how your business actually runs. That’s the first layer.
The second layer is then how do you take that data and use it to answer business questions about how you as a company are performing. You have to know what questions are important to ask. Then you have this whole layer. We have to create the answers to those questions through complex AI modeling. The third tier of services is what I’ll call governance, stewardship and ownership. A lot of companies struggle with who actually owns data and how is it cared for. My personal viewpoint, which I talk about with my peers, is that data has to be the provenance of the business. It belongs to them. As a CIO, what I want to do is bring to bear all the tools, capabilities, processes, governance techniques and everything else that I can to put the data in their hands and let them do with it what they need to do with it to run their businesses, but not let them hurt themselves or each other.
I want to switch to something different. I read your bio and you're very active in DEI initiatives within Accenture, including LGBTQ programs and attracting veterans and non-traditional talent to the company. Tell me more about that and what you’re working on the rest of the year in regards to that.
I will date myself a little bit when I say I started in an era where women didn’t wear pants at work. We have come a long way as a world, as an industry sector and as a company. I’m very proud of how the whole human population has advanced in this sector. But it’s equally true that that advancement has been very rapid for certain segments of population, and then there are parts of the population who have incredible skills to bring to the table. It’s not always strict tech skills, sometimes it’s leadership skills, particularly in the military veterans segment. Or it can be the disenfranchised part of the population. Women in India who left the workforce young to go have children are now, for whatever reason, needing to re-enter the workforce and have missed the years of career-building experience and training. But they have the core fundamental techniques of technology and I need to jump them from point A to point B in a matter of weeks. So by looking at these non-traditional channels of talent, we’re unlocking capacity into our workforce and bringing in differentiated points of view that are adding to the comprehensive whole in ways that we hadn’t thought about before.
I’m working with a program that we have in India and the purpose of the program was, after the pandemic, a number of people, particularly women who had been out of the workforce for a long time, found they needed to enter the workforce. They needed to be skilled up very rapidly to do productive work so that they could earn a living wage and they could not go back to college. They don’t have four years. They could not go through a six-month training program, they didn’t have six months. They had 12 weeks and they needed to be a wage earner. So what we did is take the power of low code/no code and create a very distinctive training program and put them through that. So in 12 weeks they’re capable of actually generating applications that serve the business for productive work to be a wage earner. Then we unleash them on the firm. So it just takes discipline and looking at those underserved segments, figuring out what it is they bring to the table that’s new and different, and then how you can best introduce that into the flow of people.