Interview: Accenture boss David Thomlinson puts one foot in tomorrow

From civil engineering through social engineering, Accenture's UK managing director David Thomlinson has been part of some major projects in his time.

From civil engineering through social engineering, Accenture's UK managing director David Thomlinson has been part of some major projects in his time.

"I started in civil engineering, doing big multi-storey buildings," he says. "I studied civil engineering at Sheffield. After that, I joined a civil engineering firm where I worked on engineering projects such as the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank. I then joined Accenture in 1986. A lot of people say that it must have been a big shift to go from a civil engineering firm to Accenture, but really the two firms were both very impressive with good bright people.

"Ultimately there was a commonality between them in that they were both about doing difficult and challenging projects. Look at some of the projects that the civil engineering firm did, such as the Sydney Opera House, and you can see that it was all about big, complex projects. The attraction of coming to Accenture was that of helping clients to do complex and challenging things. It was the appeal of bringing many different people with different skills together as a high-performing team which could do remarkable things.

"The power of Accenture is not about individual capable people as much as people coming together to do remarkable things. I joined the firm after working in a different industry At the time, that was perhaps unusual, but now we can effectively integrate people from competitors and from various industry sectors when they have the right skills.

"We have always had a real commitment to industry knowledge, across all the industries in which we work. One of our strengths as Accenture has been to bring in bright people. A large part of our organisation has been based around IT, but today it is more balanced across a whole range of skills. Ultimately what we are looking for is intellect and an ability to solve problems."

IT graduate pain

But are the necessary skills to produce Accenture employees in ready supply in the UK? Or has the "skills crisis" that has been talked about for so long taken its toll?

"My eldest son graduated recently, so I have some personal experience of how graduates are feeling at the moment," he says. "I am just coming up to my 23rd anniversary at Accenture. Throughout that time we have had a well-deserved reputation as an employer of choice and we regularly come out in surveys as one of the most attractive companies for graduates to join. Getting good graduates is not an issue for us."

Thomlinson takes an active role in trying to nurture new talent. "I sit on various government and industry bodies which look at the development of technology skills. I am a member of the E-Skills board - which is a government body which is about attracting and developing new skills in information technology," he says. "'I am a member of the Council on Social Action which was set up and chaired by Gordon Brown. It is a group of around 20 business leaders and social entrepreneurs and government people who are looking at what we can do in the UK to make a difference in society. How do we build an opportunity and seize it? From a company point of view, we have a real commitment to making a difference, but it is also a tremendous personal interest. I get a lot of personal satisfaction from it."

But aren't many such committees (particularly with politicians at the helm) set up with the best of intentions but then fail to deliver actionable results?

Thomlinson argues that the will to deliver genuine results is there. "Accenture is a company that gets involved and has a great commitment to and passion for results. We don't just write a cheque to an organisation and wish them luck.

"We are very much into working alongside charities and so on to get results. One of the real pleasures of my job is to see what we do that makes a difference. Ultimately, that is what it is about. How do you make a difference? How do to create and scale up social interaction? There is now with social networking technology a tremendous vehicle to do that. It will be an enormously powerful force."

There must be a danger that such good intentions will give way to commercial necessity and corporate expediency in light of the economic meltdown. Perhaps doing good and saving the planet can wait until the day after the recession?

"I think that's an overly cynical view," says Thomlinson. "My last job before becoming UK country manager was running our global resources industry practice, which was responsible for things like alternative energy sources and improving the environment, so the green agenda has been very much at the heart of the work that I have been doing for many years."

Green agenda

"My sense is that the green agenda is now very much more embedded in the discussions that people are having and the decisions they are making every day. The result is that the green agenda is not so hyped up as it has become an everyday commitment from people across the whole industry.

"Of course, business people do obviously have some very important short-term things to think about right now and need to make the right operational decisions. That said, I have not detected people not having the same commitment to green matters. I think it is inevitable and unstoppable.

"If I look just at Accenture, we have a UK and a global commitment to green," says Thomlinson. "In fact, one of the clear pressures comes from the people we employ and who expect us to have a clear environmental position that we hold to. I would not want to have a choice anyway, but even if I did I don't because the expectations of our employees would require us to maintain our commitment."

Challenges of the downturn

But the current economic chaos must have caused many organisations to forego longer term planning in favour of short term strategic thinking in the interests of simply surviving?

"Clearly in the face of the current economic challenges, the UK is going through some extremely challenging and turbulent times," says Thomlinson. "But there is an opportunity there to be proactive and develop ideas around cost reduction and improvement of service. If we have a well-structured proposition, then we can get the attention of senior executives across all the industries in which we work. The best way we work with clients is when we work together to develop the proposition.

"Both long-term and mid-term plans are important. The ultimate test is about delivering value - and by that I mean money. In the current climate, if I went to a CEO and we talked about all the nice things that could happen, I wouldn't expect any business. Having a hard idea of what you can deliver in the short term is incredibly important. That plays to our strength. We can show how you can improve the performance of IT in the short term through our technology consultancy and we have our outsourcing capabilities, which are about 'show me the money'.

Future outlook

"The future leaders of companies are going to be those who chart their way through these challenging times and who look at what products they should be produce and what markets they should be in. Part of the problem is the challenge - or the opportunity - that is the fact that we are in a multi-polar world.

"There is true globalisation in industry. We have people working on major clients in the UK, but they will have access to large teams of people in our offshore delivery centres. That is just a fact of the global economy. Some may see it as a threat, but we can turn that to our advantage. The education system in India, for example, is very good. But no market can escape the recession. Our method is about having one foot in today and one foot in tomorrow."

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