Accenture Digital CEO: ‘The future is about extending your reality’

21 Jul 2017

Mike Sutcliff, group CEO of Accenture Digital. Image: Accenture

We spoke to Accenture Digital CEO Mike Sutcliff about how the future of digital and IT is all about enabling smarter, more capable humans.

Mike Sutcliff is group CEO of Accenture Digital, helping clients to create and react to digital disruption across industries around the world.

He played a key role in the launch of Accenture Digital in 2013 and continues to lead its evolution, having grown it to be a $10bn business with more than 41,000 employees. His areas of responsibility include Accenture Interactive, Accenture Mobility, Accenture Analytics and Industry X.0 businesses, as well as the digital technology delivery teams to support their work.

‘We think the role of a chief digital officer is a temporary role’

Future Human

A member of Accenture’s Global Management Committee, prior to assuming his role as group CEO, Sutcliff was senior managing director of Accenture’s Financial Services business in North America. Between 2002 and 2005, he created the New Businesses team at Accenture. Before this, he led Accenture’s Finance and Performance Management global service line.

Sutcliff is a thought leader in digital transformation topics including digital marketing; experience design; commerce and content solutions; advanced analytics and artificial intelligence; mobile applications; the internet of things; blockchain; artificial and augmented reality; smart products; and smart manufacturing.

What are the main responsibilities of your role?

The first part of my job is to build an organisation called Accenture Digital, which will be 10pc of our global workforce. It is concentration on the digital native skills around digital marketing, analytics, artificial intelligence – all of the tools of digital that get applied to a business. A key question is: how do we apply this to different industries and geographies?

Accenture Digital is a business unit within Accenture that has these digital native skills.

But the second part of my job is to help all of Accenture go digital and so, in that role, I have to get our consulting and strategy and operations businesses all using digital to do what they do. My job is to help them – that’s more than 411,000 people, and growing.

Accenture advises the world’s top CIOs, but what do you think of the emergence of the chief digital officer role on the C-suite team?

We think the role of a chief digital officer is a temporary role.

What will happen is, they will be absorbed back into the mainstream part of the business. Most CIO budgets are still weighted 90-plus percent to maintaining legacy environments. And the legacy environments are not the new digital tools.

The world of marketing became enabled by technology over the past six or seven years and so, the chief marketing officer (CMO), who has a bigger budget than the CIO, is trying to figure out how he or she is going to get their job done.

The CMO turns to CIO and says, ‘I need you to do X, Y and Z for me’, and the CIO says, ‘That’s interesting, because I’m doing A, B and C’.

And so, they compromise and create the role of chief digital officer, and that will be the person who does advertising technology, marketing technology, commerce, content – all the stuff that you never did in your core business.

That’s when you get to the concept of two-speed IT. There is the core legacy IT, which is transaction processing systems, control systems, reporting systems. They have to be operating 100pc of the time, very reliably and predictably.

You’ve got a CIO trying to control that world and then sometimes you have the CDO, who is trying to keep up with the marketing department and create and enable all these new experiences for customers, and that’s just a different job.

But, over time, those technology worlds will blend. It’s happening now.

How do you blend the legacy IT world with new realms in digital such as blockchain?

You are right, managing this two-speed IT does create friction in many organisations. That’s because you have two different groups of people with objectives who are working in parallel and, in many cases, they now need to come together – that is what creates the friction points.

But you have to pull them together, because what we want to do is to create a better experience. It is about creating better experiences for customers, students, patients … any entity that wants to achieve some intent, get better faster, learn more at school, engage with government more proactively. To do that, you have to involve the people who enable that better experience: the employees, the students, and so on.

If you want to do a better job teaching students, you have to think about the teacher’s experience. If want to create better healthcare, what about the nurse or the lab technician? We start thinking about creating experiences for people and enabling them to compete, whatever that intention is, in a more personalised way.

And so, the battleground that many companies are fighting is the battleground of personalisation. It is about creating an interaction that makes you feel like your bank knows you and when you call to get your mortgage, they remember everything; that you were their customer for 15 years, and treat you differently because they know you.

And so, that need for personalisation and personalised response means I need your customer data.

I could have the coolest mobile app and the best intention but if I don’t know anything about you, I can’t personalise your response and so, guess who has all that customer data? The legacy system. The CIO with the slow, methodical transaction processing and control systems.

That person is in charge of the legacy systems and knows all about your prior transactions with the bank and so, not only does he or she know you, but how you prefer to behave; how often you go to branches, call a call centre, use a mobile phone. And so, in order to create outstanding experiences that really do make you feel that you are being treated well, they need to figure out that two-speed IT question, and that’s what creates friction.

How close to the cusp of digital are you when it comes to working with major players such as Apple or Google or Intel on what is coming next?

Very close. Right now, we are working with Google on a project called Launchpad, which is to help Google experiment with their new products and how they might be used for different markets.

They have a capability around virtual reality (VR), augmented reality and mixed reality, which is called the Tensor chip. The Tensor chip is part of the Android platform, and what they wanted us to do was put it in real-world environments.

For example, we created a virtual showroom with them, and it won the Best Use of New Technology at Mobile World Congress this year.

The idea is to help a car manufacturer take advantage of the many showrooms they have around the world using digital technology. For example, if a customer walks in and wants to see a specific model of a car and you don’t have it in that colour and they can’t visualise it, there is a danger they might lose that sale.

We have taken the Google hardware and software and the Android platform and said, ‘Let’s show you what a VR world looks like through a tablet’, and literally taken a tablet and put a car in front of that customer.

It is mixed reality, using the dimensions, sensing environment and more. You can virtually get into the car, turn on music, hear the engine sounds and change the texture of material on seats, and even see the pebble pattern in leather.

We are doing the same for heavy equipment manufacturers that cannot necessarily fit the equipment in a showroom. We also work with Microsoft on various implementations with HoloLens.

The point is, we work with all of the providers on all of their roadmaps and we understand what they are doing and what that will allow us to do.

For example, with HoloLens, we came up with 160 use cases we could work on. We took 12 of those and we have put them into the market so far, and we have another 10 that will go into the market in the next six months.

If you pick something like SAP Leonardo, which was only announced recently, we are working with SAP in the analytics space and AI and IoT spaces to show we can combine clients’ systems with SAP for core transaction processing engines.

Our clients are asking lots of interesting questions about matching the old and the new, and achieving the vision of what’s possible.

And what is possible when you think about how machine learning and AI are steadily pervading the world around us?

If you look at Microsoft in AI, they have Cortana. It’s surprising how good it is. They have 145m installed Cortana instances. Microsoft’s Bing processes 30pc of all the search queries in the world and every time Microsoft Bing processes a search query, it learns.

At the same time as Cortana is getting better, Siri will get better, Alexa will get better; this AI world will keep expanding.

Our job is to work with IBM, with Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Google and many, many others, and envision real applications in the world that is coming. I would describe us as the team that is keeping up with what is going on and trying to make it useful for clients.

What kind of world is coming?

A smarter world where every smart answer leads to even more smart questions. The future is all about extending your reality.

It is interesting that Wikipedia is still one of the top five websites in the world with access to the world’s knowledge. Even today, it is coming out in more languages every month. At 178 languages, you have to ask, how many do we need? But the point is, what we are doing is hitting the long tail, the people in the world, that small population that just speak this language; and, all of a sudden, you are making the entire knowledge of the world available in this language. That is powerful.

Also, think about the latest capabilities in Skype in terms of dual translation, which are about to be released to the public. You could have a number of people in a conversation typing in different languages – French, English, Spanish, Mandarin – and they are all understanding each other because they are seeing the conversation in their own tongue.

It’s the universal translator!

As with all technologies, we will go through a maturity curve, and it may be a while before we get the right accuracy level but it is really cool, expanding the ability to communicate with people who may only speak one language.

Why is digital different than just computing?

Well, at the heart of it, it is about allowing people to connect, communicate and have better, more personalised experiences to work across channels – call centre, physical branch and online world – in a seamless way that feels very natural. With the ability to extend their reality through AI and AR, what we are doing is expanding what humans are capable of doing and, if we do it well, we augment the capability.

Paul Daugherty, our chief technology and innovation officer, has a great quote: “Our intent is not to create a super-human, our intent is to make a human super.” It is a great quote because it gets to the heart of what we are trying to achieve with digital.

What we are trying to achieve is to create the best experiences in the world and to augment human performance.

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years