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Invest in people or risk ‘digital culture shock’, says Accenture

Marc Carrel-Billiard, Accenture’s global director of technology R&D, tells Computer Weekly that companies must invest in people if they want to benefit from innovative technology

Organisations need to invest in their people first if they want to reap the benefits of digital technology, research by Accenture claims.

Businesses are facing what the management consultancy calls a “digital culture shock” as they try to keep up with innovative technology.

But high-performing companies will adapt by using technology to rethink the structure of their organisations, said Marc Carrel-Billiard, Accenture’s global director of technology R&D.

“Digital is not just technology, but is also about people,” he said in an interview with Computer Weekly. “Top-performing companies recognise they need to be more agile and are more prone to change.”

According to Accenture, successful businesses will invest in training platforms that offer staff access to free distance learning courses, known as MOOCs, and interactive video game-style training that they can access on mobile phones.

“They need to think about new types of learning capability, immersive training and video game platforms, so we can teach people how to operate a machine, for example,” said Carrel-Billiard.

For example, the oil and gas industry is equipping its workers with virtual reality headsets, so they can walk into a refinery and undergo training, even before the refinery is built. “People are very excited about that,” he said. 

Meanwhile, Deutsche Bahn, Germany’s former state-owned railway company, is using virtual reality (VR) to recruit engineers, giving employees a chance to learn through 3D simulations.

 The ‘liquid workforce’

As companies focus more on innovation, the nature of the workforce will change, said Carrel-Billiard. There will be fewer permanent staff, and companies will hire people with the right expertise for the right project, when they need them.

“We are going to have to attract talent from outside and inside,” he said. “Companies will need to build a platform to recruit people for each project, and you can have people respond from inside and outside the company.”

And the nature of work will change as companies turn to technology to automate tasks that would previously have required human intervention.

Artificial intelligence should no longer be seen as an add-on technology, but will increasingly be built into IT systems from the design stage, said Carrel-Billiard.

Automation will not lead to fewer jobs

Companies will need to handle the growth of intelligent automation carefully, as there is a widespread misconception that AI will lead to machines replacing people. 

“What we say is the complete opposite,” he said. “Automation will not take jobs from people. Absolutely not. We say it will make jobs more interesting. It will change the way people work.”

Intelligent machines will work alongside employees, freeing them up for more creative tasks, he said.

For example, one university is using robots to teach children maths.

Rather than putting teachers out of a job, teachers have been able to use data from the robots to gain new insights into how children learn, said Carrel-Billiard. And they have been able to use this information to improve the curriculum so that children can learn more quickly.

“Machines bring complementary skills to people and will become digital co-workers,” he said. “People will need to understand how machines will help them do their work and they need to prepare for that.”

Waiting on the platform

The most successful companies will develop technology platforms and expand them to offer new services, Accenture predicts.

In Boston, mobile phone-based taxi service Uber is offering a service that drives doctors and nurses to patients to provide medical assistance.

“They will be able to provide medical services when you need it,” said Carrel-Billiard. “They are really stretching the services they offer.”

New medical services will also emerge by combining medical data from hospital scanners and heartbeat monitors with exercise and other health data that people collect on their mobile phone app, he said.

“You have data from consumers and from big machines. If you could correlate all that data for every patient, you could offer amazing services,” he added.

In the future, farmers will be able to use drones to monitor their crops, and potentially carry out jobs such as spraying insecticide or searching for lost animals.

“The main message is that it’s going to be a fantastic opportunity for non-tech companies to become the next tech giant by building their own platforms and offering new services,” he said.

The only way is ethics

The growth of technology will require companies to develop what Accenture describes as a culture of digital ethics, so they can build a relationship of trust with their customers.

As self-driving cars begin appearing on the roads, for example, auto manufacturers will need to take information security to a new level to reduce the risk of a virus or a programming bug causing an accident.

“To manage all the risk, the companies need to bring security as close as possible to the data, from production through to maintenance of the product,” said Carrel-Billiard. “The product needs to be secure by design.”

However, the company’s internal culture will be just as important in the long run as having the right security technologies in place.

“We call that the digital ethical mindset,” said Carrel-Billiard. “All the security standards will not help you, unless you have a digital ethic in your people.”

CIOs, in particular, will need to develop ‘digital ethical policies’ so that employees understand the impact they can have on security within their organisations, he said.

For example, if a self-driving car detects that it is about to be in a crash with another car, how should it respond? Should it swerve and hit a car with fewer people in, to avoid a car with more passengers ?

“We are going to be able to programme it and make a decision – there is a lot of ethical thinking,” said Carrel-Billiard.

What can CIOs do ?

Carrel-Billiard advises CIOs to look at the technology platforms that competitors in their industry are developing and consider how they can respond.

“They have several choices: they can partner with the platform owner and build new services; they can provide extensions to the platform; they can build their own platform,” he said.

CIOs also have the opportunity to create new services by building connections between existing services. 

For example, it could be possible for a car to communicate with an internet-based central heating control system, so that the car can automatically turn the central heating on as the driver approaches home.

“That is why we say to the CIO: look outside, extend your boundaries, develop new services, create new experiences for your customers,” he said.

But, most importantly, CIOs need to make sure they put people first in their strategy, and that means investing in training, and recruiting the best people for the job.

“You need to put people at the centre of what you do all the time,” he said. “People first.”

Five key technology trends

Intelligent automation

Artificial intelligence, robotics and augmented reality will lead to the development of machines that free up workers for more creative roles. Autonomous robots will be used in retail stores. Financial companies will use natural language processing technology to monitor phone calls and look for signs of fraud.

The liquid workforce

Companies will employ highly adaptable employees, with the ability to learn quickly, and ‘shift gears’ rapidly. Multinationals will behave more like start-ups and will rely increasingly on self-employed experts, who can be brought in as needed to work on specific projects.  The first Global 2000 company with no full-time employees could appear within 10 years.

 The rise of the platform economy

The real innovation behind technology companies such as Amazon, Google and Alibaba are not their products or services, but their underlying technology platforms. Platform-based business models will become part of leading organisations’ core growth strategy within three years as companies adapt their existing technology platforms to offer new services.

 Predictable disruption

Businesses will not be taken by surprise by digital technology, with large companies well placed to predict and take advantage of changes in their sector. For example, GE has moved from building wind turbines to partnering with energy companies to analyse and improve the energy output from turbines. And rather than simply building trains, it is supplying data that allows railway companies to optimise fuel efficiency and their supply chains.

Digital trust

New products and services will need to be ethical and secure by design. Businesses that get this right will build up loyal customers. Apple, for example, is making a strong effort to be transparent in how it uses and secures its customer data. Microsoft is opening datacentres for its customers in Germany that will be operated by third parties, so there is no ‘back door’ for Microsoft to access the data.

Source: Accenture

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