Article: In the digital age, a company’s most important source of competitive advantage is its people: Accenture's CHRO

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In the digital age, a company’s most important source of competitive advantage is its people: Accenture's CHRO

Ellyn Shook, the Chief Leadership and Human Resources Officer of Accenture, in an exclusive interaction with People Matters, takes us through her journey of 30 years in the HR domain while sharing insights on how Accenture transformed its business and culture – and in turn, elevated its people.
In the digital age, a company’s most important source of competitive advantage is its people: Accenture's CHRO

Ellyn Shook is the Chief Leadership and Human Resources Officer at Accenture. She is responsible for helping the nearly 500,000 people of Accenture succeed both professionally and personally. Her global team of HR leaders and experts is reimagining leadership and talent practices to create the most truly human work environment in the digital age, fueling Accenture’s differentiation in the market and ability to improve the way the world works and lives. 

A member of Accenture’s Global Management Committee and Investment Committee, Ellyn is a strong advocate for inclusion and diversity, and Accenture has been widely recognized externally as an employer of choice and for its diversity efforts. 

Ellyn serves on the board of trustees at Harvey Mudd College, the Women's Leadership Board of the Women and Public Policy program at Harvard's Kennedy School, and the steering committee of Paradigm for Parity. She is active in Women in America and Ellevate Women’s Network, and is also a member of the HR50 division of World50. A 2015 article in Forbes.com named Ellyn one of the top 10 CHROs.

Here are the excerpts from the interview.

You have been in the industry for over 30 years serving as an HR leader. How did you get into HR and what have you learned so far being at the helm of an organization like Accenture?

I started my career outside of HR at Marriott and then joined the Accenture HR team in our New York office. I’ve held a variety of roles within HR in the past 30 years and many of them focused on transformational change. The people I’ve worked with have been extraordinary and taught me so much, however, one thing that stands out is – the key to success is lifelong learning. 

In these times of unprecedented disruption and high-velocity change, the path forward is through continuous learning – having the intellectual curiosity to remain highly relevant. Gone are the days when you learned a profession and practiced it throughout your entire career. The new life script is “learn, work, repeat”. We have a saying at Accenture that we grow our people to grow our business – because we believe that organizations that invest in people and unlock their potential are well-positioned to innovate and drive growth.   

One of the major topics of discussion at the World Economic Forum's annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, this year concerned the future of work. How do you envisage the future of work with technology impacting almost all facets of HR?

To first set some context on the future of work through Accenture’s study titled “Reworking the Revolution”, we found that many organizations look to the technology itself as the key differentiator in the digital age and they risk overlooking their most important source of competitive advantage – their people. In fact, our research found that organizational spending on intelligent technology in the past two years increased over 100 percent; yet only 18 percent of organizations plan to significantly increase their investment in training their people. That’s a big gap. 

At Accenture, we believe that the best of technology should be used to elevate human beings. And, that the biggest opportunity comes when intelligent technology meets human ingenuity – humans and machines working together to deliver value and drive better results.

Turning back to how technology is impacting all facets of HR, we’re living that future at Accenture today. We’re on a journey where we’ve automated many transactional tasks, which has freed up our HR team members’ time to take on higher value work, spending more time connecting with and advising our people. Additionally, intelligent technology enables us to have data and insights at our fingertips to design solutions that improve our people’s work experience. Using these technologies strategically has also led to multi-millions in savings which we reinvest back into programs for our people.  

How is Accenture different from other big companies in terms of culture? What are the top things that you follow as part of your culture and how does that impact your business?

In the past decade, we’ve transformed our business and our culture to be innovation-led. We have diverse talent profiles, diverse people, and over 100 acquisitions that have formed our culture of cultures. It is truly a strategic differentiator for us, but it doesn’t just happen. We’ve been very intentional about putting four cultural building blocks in place to create an environment where our behaviors and beliefs, the way we grow responsible leaders, and the way we do business every single day, come to life. 

Our culture is rich, diverse and vibrant, yet we also have common threads that unite us. They are our enduring Core Values, our Code of Business Ethics, and our unwavering belief that our diversity and inclusive environment make us smarter and more innovative. And, we’ve built our whole culture based on an aspiration to be the most truly human company in the digital age – to help our people be successful both professionally and personally. Because in the end, we are an innovation-led business and it’s through our people’s creativity that we achieve our purpose of improving the way the world works and lives.  

Accenture has re-skilled over 300,000 of their total body of nearly 500,000 employees over the last four years, investing around $1 billion annually in training. What was your end-in-mind as you took off this initiative and do you clearly see the results in action (as you said in an interview - 'training has to have an immediate payoff')?

We set a business aspiration to become the leading provider of end-to-end digital-related services, and this required a massive talent transformation. “New skilling” our people was at the heart of that transformation to ensure they remain relevant and at the forefront of both technology and industry. This was also part of our broader promise to help our people be successful both professionally and personally, and this remains a critical part of our talent strategy. In terms of payoff, we reached our goal to achieve 60 percent of revenues in digital-related services, a year early.  

To accomplish this, we have an innovative learning approach called Accenture Connected Learning, which abandoned a “one size fits all” curriculum to instead focus on learning opportunities that are highly customized for the individual and highly specialized based on our clients’ needs. Our learning opportunities enable real-time, on-demand content (think expert-curated “Pinterest-like” learning boards) that is democratized – accessible by all – using the latest neuroscience research to enable deep learning at massive scale.  

To give you a stat that conveys not only the access to world-class learning but also the intellectual curiosity of our people and their quest to remain relevant: our people have completed over 70 million self-directed learning activities in the past three years. And, we dispelled the myth that these innovative learning methods were too expensive. We achieved more with less – lowering training costs per hour by 25 percent and increasing our people’s training hours by 40 percent. The “new skilling” framework that guided our own efforts is an offering that we also use to help our clients across many industries on their journeys to reimagine work and reskill their people.  

At Accenture, we believe that the best of technology should be used to elevate human beings. And, that the biggest opportunity comes when intelligent technology meets human ingenuity - humans and machines working together to deliver value and drive better results

A lot of studies emphasize the power of parity including the McKinsey study which says that $12 trillion could be added to global GDP by 2025 by advancing women’s equality. Women’s participation in the workforce and presence in leadership positions is still off the mark. What's holding us back?

For the past several years we’ve published research on the topic of equality in the workplace and a groundbreaking finding was how big a role culture plays. Accenture research revealed that company culture is the key to unlocking gender equality and narrowing the pay gap. We then went a step further to uncover what it takes to create a workplace culture in which women and men have equal opportunities for advancement and pay, and where all people can thrive. To accelerate change, we identified 14 core factors that are proven to influence advancement. We call them “cultural drivers” and they are grouped into three actionable categories – Bold Leadership, Comprehensive Action, and An Empowering Environment.

What really surprised us is that when you lift women up, men rise too. When these factors that create a culture of equality are in place, men are 23 percent more likely to advance to manager and more than twice as likely to advance to senior manager/director.

Shifting attention back to our efforts at Accenture, we set a goal to achieve a gender-balanced workforce by 2025 and we are making strong progress toward that goal with over 200,000 women now in our workforce. And, we are laser-focused on embedding the drivers that create a culture of equality identified in our research, into our own culture and DNA. 

How does great leadership look like in the digital age? Has it changed in the wake of unprecedented changes and an unpredictable future that businesses are faced with in Industry 4.0? How will digital leaders show the way in the VUCA world?

I believe that the more digital the world becomes, the more humanity and human connection matters. And this extends to how we lead.  

Trust is the ultimate currency in the digital age, and successful leaders need to be masters at building trust – not just with customers but also employees. There’s a stat from the 2019 Edelman Trust Index that is quite insightful: the only institution people still trust are their own employers. What an opportunity that is for savvy organizations who can build upon that trust and unlock people’s potential.  

To do that, leaders need to adopt new behaviors and attributes. As part of Accenture’s business and talent transformation, we redefined our leadership DNA to focus on key expectations that guide how we develop leaders in the “New,” e.g., individuals who experiment, inspire others and help them feel they belong, adapt nimbly to constant change, and lead with compassion – bringing both their heart and mind to work each day. This doesn’t just apply to our 7,000 managing directors – the DNA is infused into our culture of cultures and integral to how we build leaders at all levels. 

As HR becomes more strategic, can they help drive business outcomes? Are there parameters to measure and quantify this? Do large organizations have measures to gauge HR's performance in terms of numbers?

  Absolutely. First, HR being strategic is a given. Today’s business environment requires HR to create a talent strategy that aligns with the business strategy, to transform talent and culture to achieve strategic outcomes for all stakeholders – the business, shareholders, clients/customers, their people, and communities. And, I truly believe that HR has never been more important than it is today. CEOs consistently say that their biggest internal challenge is employees, talent and skills (Gartner’s latest CEO survey from June 2018 confirms this and our research corroborates it.) At Accenture, we directly connect our people results and our business results.

Beyond setting a talent strategy that accelerates growth and value for the business, HR professionals are in a position to make a much larger societal impact. We’re at a critical turning point in history with the rise of AI and intelligent technology. HR sits at the crossroads to help business leaders make decisions that can either elevate people or eliminate them. There is an opportunity and obligation for HR professionals today to not only drive value for the business, people and communities where they work and live but to shape decisions that define a broader societal narrative for the years to come.  

Societal impact is something we think a lot about at Accenture and proactively plan for, promising to retrain every worker impacted by automation. We reinvest 60 percent of the savings generated from automation back into training for our people. To give you just a few examples, we’ve reskilled mortgage underwriters to work in IT as software testers, and individuals who used to process billing transactions have been retrained as tech masters who create bots.

If you were to share three messages to a large group of CHROs and people managers who are trying to bring value to their business, what would that be?

When I took the post of CHRO five years ago, I knew we needed to transform our talent practices to be relevant for the digital age. To do that we needed to look at things differently, through these three lenses: 

1. Hyper-personalization: One-size-fits-all was irrelevant. In the highly-customized world we live in, where people rely on Alexa knowing their preferences and getting curated suggestions on what to watch from Netflix, they expect the same type of highly-personalized experience at work. 

2. Transparency: Transparency builds trust, and with nearly three-fourths of our workforce at Accenture being millennials/gen Z, we knew being open and honest was essential. 

3. Listening & Involving: The last one goes hand in glove with transparency and it involves listening to and actively engaging with your people. It means not assuming that we, as “leadership,” understand what our people want and need. Leaders no longer “manage people,” instead they need to co-create with them. One of the first things we did in our own talent transformation was to crowdsource our employee experience. We invited both employees and future candidates to share what they value most. It was incredibly enlightening. Their input created a roadmap for the future and sparked some of our most important talent innovations – including how we revolutionized our approach to performance management, democratized our learning, and created a Careers Marketplace so all our people could have a transparent view of open roles to pursue new opportunities without leaving the company. 

What are the top challenges for HR today and how do you as a global HR leader see them panning out in next the five years? 

As an optimist, I’m thinking in terms of opportunities, and there are many:

How to use the best of technology to elevate people…through human/machine collaboration where humans do what they do best – be creative, compassionate, etc.

New types of collaboration across the talent ecosystem – business, government, academia, industry associations, etc. – to narrow the skills gap in workers new to the job market and also those experienced workers who are facing career transitions. 

New ways of working…high-performance habits built over time that help people work smarter, not harder in the digital age…where sleep, time to recharge, disconnect from technology, etc. are priorities. 

Rethinking the traditional HR operating model and focusing on Agile HR teams…assembling diverse skills to solve complex problems in real-time vs. CoEs and shared services models that are perhaps beyond their shelf life, enabling HR to keep pace in today’s innovation-focused business environment.

However, given the velocity of change, it’s nearly impossible to know what the next five years will bring. I wish I had a crystal ball. The best advice I have is to stay connected to your people and what matters to them – and to dial up your intellectual curiosity to stay cutting edge, so you are able to seize opportunities courageously and quickly.

Trust is the ultimate currency in the digital age, and successful leaders need to be masters at building trust - not just with customers but also employees

By 2020, artificial intelligence will create more jobs than it destroys, according to Gartner. And then there are survey findings that tell that robots will take away jobs. What's your view on AI's long-term role in business and the economy?

  We agree there will be a net-job gain, essentially, but there’s a pretty long, dark tunnel you need to navigate in order to get to the end. In our future workforce research, as I mentioned earlier, organizations increased their investment in intelligent technologies the past two years by over 100 percent, but only 18 percent plan to significantly increase their investment in training their people. That gap really needs to close in order to get to the bright light at the end of the tunnel. 

Also, we’re starting to see new roles and capabilities emerge in our own organization, and we’ve developed a whole new way of doing what we call work planning. We’ve stopped doing workforce planning. The real value that can be unlocked lies in human beings and intelligent technologies working together. 

What are your top priorities moving forward? Do you have any specific plan on deploying technologies such as AI, IoT, or Blockchain at Accenture?

  As the world rapidly moves toward a post-digital era, organizations need to look beyond ongoing digital transformations. Digital capabilities are going to become table stakes, so future-minded leaders need to look for new points of differentiation that embrace emerging technologies to drive the next chapter of innovation and growth. In Accenture’s 2019 Tech Vision, we prioritize four new technologies that we refer to as DARQ: 

  • Distributed Ledger technology…is expanding networks and capabilities by eliminating the need for trusted third parties. These are best known in the context of cryptocurrencies.
  • Artificial Intelligence…plays a critical role in optimizing processes, augmenting humans’ capabilities, and influencing strategic decision making.
  • Extended Reality…is an immersive technology that creates entirely new ways for people to experience and engage the world around them. 
  • Quantum Computing...is in early days and experimental, but has the potential to frame and solve the most difficult computational problems in new and novel ways.

As my colleague Paul Daugherty, Accenture’s Chief Technology and Innovation Officer, points out, we believe these are the next big technology catalysts for change. 

 

Topics: #ExpertViews, #LeadTheWay, Leadership

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