The rise of digital has transformed the environment in which companies operate. Accenture's MD is helping them adapt to this changing world.
Accenture’s Fenchurch Street offices are everything you’d expect from a firm in the City – from the outside. Inside, though, it’s all very different. On the seventh floor, I’m met by UK managing director Olly Benzecry and we walk to a screen where Benzecry’s face is scanned. A door opens, revealing a dark room buzzing with technology.
To an outsider, it looks like an operations room with a touch of the film Minority Report. To the management consultancy, it’s the Innovations Centre – designed to showcase what is now possible with technology and to get clients in the mood to brainstorm.
There’s a long table with interactive maps showing worldwide Twitter activity; a cinema-sized touchscreen wall; smaller screens showing other applications for facial recognition; and a 3D printer off to one side. Then there’s an area with animal-print seats that might seem too trendy for such a firm – and a more traditional round-table area, jazzed up by the potential to write on both the table and the surrounding walls.
“Businesses have a lot of the same challenges they’ve had historically,” says Benzecry. “They want to grow, they want to cut their costs and they want to serve customers better. But the means by which they do that has changed dramatically with this thing called ‘digital’.”
The challenge for Accenture is to prove it has kept up with technology and the implications of digital, while being “just as good at the industry knowledge and business change stuff as it’s always been”, he says. The Innovation Centre is one way of doing that – but Benzecry emphasises that the room is as much about the “breakthrough conversation” it prompts as about the technology itself.
With clients in various sectors requesting services that fall under Accenture’s Strategy, Digital, Technology and Operating banners, Benzecry is well placed to see how business demands have evolved with market fortunes. But he argues that it’s too simplistic to say that when the credit crunch hit they were first focused on cost, then on regulation and risk, and now on growth again – all three were, and remain, common priorities.
The need to handle competing pressures is one of the reasons that Accenture’s business is so buoyant, says the MD. “There is no theme of the day.”
He adds that the best way he can explain current business sentiment is “confidence meets leadership meets necessity” – where necessity can be about responding to anything from regulation to customer needs. More often than not though, it comes back to the digital agenda. “Digital gives them the opportunity but, to some extent, no choice.”
Benzecry points to retail, which is affected by the relentless move to multi-channel sales. In terms of customer experience, companies can’t simply benchmark their performance against those in the same sector any more, he adds. One utility company says it now competes with John Lewis on customer service, for example. “You wouldn’t have heard that five years ago.”
All these changes mean that some of Accenture’s “most exciting stuff” is in the customer and digital space. Examples include BT Sport and free-to-air digital television service YouView – for which the firm provided the technology platforms to support content delivery. For consumer goods giant Unilever, Accenture built a digital social platform in 12 weeks to connect global marketing teams in 190 countries. And, returning to Minority Report, the firm is working with the Metropolitan Police on a gang analytics program – using an algorithm to anticipate future offences.
It’s all a far cry from when Benzecry started at Accenture in 1992, when he didn’t even own a mobile phone, and people laughed at the company’s digital predictions for retail. But the pace of change, and the corresponding demand for its services, have put the firm under pressure to hire 2,000 staff this year – including more than 750 in Accenture Technology, 100 in Accenture Digital, and 700 at an entry level.
However, Benzecry seems unfazed by the challenge of this mass recruitment exercise. “We have it easier than some,” he says. “Our brand works well and the proposition to our staff works well. By that, I’m not just talking about how we reward people – I’m talking about the types of work they get to do and the environment in which they do the work.”
The company is working with the Metropolitan Police on a gang analytics program - using an algorithm to anticipate future offences
Part of this environment is the Innovation Centre, which he says is intended as much to impress staff as clients. And Benzecry’s focus on the working environment doesn’t stop there. Over the past three years as MD, he has been steadily redecorating, selling off the artwork that had nothing to do with the company and replacing it with works by members of staff, posters of employees and their projects – including augmented reality links so people can find out more – and quotes to make them think.
The latest floor to get the Benzecry treatment has a contemporary vintage flavour, including traditional London street signs, library wallpaper and comfy leather seats. It’s as if it has taken its influence from up the road in Shoreditch – but it seems that is Benzecry’s point, as he aims to attract the right talent.
“I’m keen that we impress our people,” he says. “They need to feel that they are part of a genuinely leading organisation, so it must feel agile and collaborative, and as if it uses technology in the right ways.”
The fact that many people joining Accenture arrive via references from the company’s own staff suggests that he’s getting something right – as do accolades from The Times and The Sunday Times, naming it as one of the top 50 employers for women and one of the top 25 big companies to work for. The company is also ranked fourth in Stonewall’s workplace equality index.
The employability agenda
Benzecry is also quick to add that Accenture’s business “works on talent” – it’s set up to attract, retain and develop talent, and has a £50m budget to do so. “In impersonal jargon, it’s our supply chain,” he says.
The company is also a source of talent for the rest of the country, he adds. “The business is a great talent generator for the UK.” He celebrates the fact that alongside Accenture’s 9,000 UK employees, probably an equal number whom it has trained have gone on to set up their own businesses or work for its clients. He is, of course, less keen on those who have gone on to join the competition.
The company’s traditional recruiting ground remains the universities, but Accenture now has one of the largest level four technology apprenticeship schemes in the country.
This apprenticeship scheme stems from the firm’s Skills to Succeed initiative, whereby it uses expertise in talent development to provide people who are disadvantaged in some way with the skills to either get a job or start a business.
Skills to Succeed focuses on talent demand as well as supply, says Benzecry. “It was important we did both, because we didn’t want to just impact the supply of talent; we wanted to also impact the demand.” So far, the initiative has helped more than 500,000 people – and its target is to reach 700,000 by 2015.
On this initiative, the UK acts as a hub for activity across Accenture’s international offices. For example, it is putting into practice what it preaches by using digital technology to amplify the scheme’s effects with the Skills to Succeed Academy. This allows the scheme to reach more people than it could through mentoring, he says.
However, Benzecry wanted to take the scheme further. Helping people to get jobs with other people “felt good, but not good enough,” he says. “We wanted to start using Skills to Succeed as a way of giving people access to our organisation.”
If businesses don’t step up to help, they will be the losers, because they are the ones with the vacancies.
So the firm decided to set up the apprenticeship scheme, based in Accenture’s Newcastle office. The process took more effort than expected. “While apprenticeships are talked about a lot, when it came to level four apprenticeships with technology, there’s almost no one doing them,” says Benzecry.
But the firm now has the relevant partnerships with the universities in place, 40 people were taken on in the first year, and he says the scheme is incredibly effective. “I met the apprentices when they joined and they were a little timid, but now they feel part of Accenture and they do good things,” he says.
During this process, Benzecry had to challenge his own approach to hiring. “Normally, with Accenture, the academic bar to jump is high. In this case, the bar was aptitude and attitude [for digital and technology]. I was told it would be fine – and it has been.” In fact, one person who joined as an apprentice, who had “little to no qualifications”, now trains other recruits in Java. And to Benzecry, this approach also makes great commercial sense – training younger people up is cheaper than fighting over a limited pool of older talent.
Yet he is not one to stop there. He has also got Accenture involved in Movement to Work – an initiative started by Marks & Spencer’s Marc Bolland – which aims to provide training and work experience to 100,000 of those not in education, employment or training.
Accenture again focused on all things digital with the first Movement to Work group it took on, and helped them to secure experience at SMEs in its supply chain, so they could practice what they had learnt. The second group will have more of a link with the apprenticeship scheme, he says. “The next version, which is starting now, is still about providing digital and technology experience, but more aligned with what we need for our apprenticeship programme – it effectively becomes the pre-apprenticeship piece.”
If it’s not clear already, Benzecry believes that businesses have a role to play in tackling youth unemployment. “If businesses don’t step up to help, they will be the losers, because they are the ones with the vacancies.”
The Benzecry CV
April 2011: Named managing director of Accenture’s UK & Ireland business.
1992: Joined Accenture’s Strategy practice
Previous roles: Worked for Conoco, and as an aeronautical engineer with British Aerospace
Other roles: Member of CBI President’s Committee; board member for Business Disability Forum and e-skills UK