Accenture’s Julie Spillane: ‘We want to speed up the innovation cycle’ (video)

26 Feb 2016

Julie Spillane, head of Accenture's new Innovation Centre in Dublin's Silicon Docks. Photo credit: Luke Maxwell

Julie Spillane is heading up the new €25m Accenture Innovation Centre, which will employ more than 200 people in Silicon Docks in Dublin.

She says that, across the world, the lines dividing industries are being blurred by digital and those who transform fastest will survive.

Spillane gets excited as she shows me some of the architect’s schematics on the new €25m Accenture Innovation Centre at 7 Hanover Quay, where Facebook used to have its original Dublin offices.

She describes the new building as unlike anything Accenture has done before and says that the design of the new building is a multi-disciplinary effort involving Accenture employees in Dublin, the company’s CIO team and the company’s emerging tech team, as well as the architect.

She said the design of the building will be modular to facilitate everything from product design and development to rapid prototyping and described it as something of a “chameleon” that would change shape and colour according to needs.

‘In the old days, a supermarket was a retail outlet. Now it’s also a mobile phone operator and it’s a bank, so industry lines are blurring’

“The trick is to create a building that is going to allow people to be creative and imaginative. It’s an opportunity to collaborate but also a building where we don’t know what we are going to be doing inside three years from now and that’s where the magic of the opportunity is.

“It’s almost a chameleon, it will change with us over time as we continually invest in the latest technologies. We expect we will learn more in a month this way than we would with desk research today. We will have prototyping spaces and if something doesn’t work we will shut it down and think different.”

Spillane said the purpose of the Accenture Innovation Centre is all about speed. “Our perspective is: the world is changing so fast and digital technologies have changed the way our clients need to operate and actually the speed at which they need to change.”

She said all industries are seeing lines blurring because of technologies. “In the old days, a supermarket was a retail outlet. Now it’s also a mobile phone operator and it’s a bank, so industry lines are blurring.

“But it’s also about solving big issues, such as the future of healthcare and a way to bring solutions to the table from strategy consulting to artificial intelligence, internet of things and advanced analytics.

“The challenge for Accenture is how do you bring all of these multiple industries and skills together into one place and make sure we are thinking differently and innovating fast. That is going to be the premise for the centre overall.”

Design thinking at Accenture

Key to the development of the new centre will be people and the kind of skills required will be as varied as the problems that will be solved.

“For example, we will be looking for deep domain experts who understand an industry and have an academic background. But we don’t think that will be enough and we want to put them side-by-side with design thinkers.

“Design thinking is about looking at these things from an end user’s point of view because, as an industry gets disrupted, it is what the end user wants [that matters] and that’s what the focus ought to be on.”

Another piece in the puzzle is prototype development. “We want to speed up the innovation cycle and move more towards creating prototypes and iterating quickly.

“This is a journey for us, but we are really anchored on areas like artificial intelligence and we will be focused on people with advanced degrees, expertise in life sciences for the future of healthcare, and people with advanced analytics skills, which is analytics skills combined with industry skills. We will also be hiring product developers and business analysts.”

Spillane said the quality of Ireland’s highly-educated workforce was a decisive factor in Dublin winning the investment. But, also, Dublin’s unique ecosystem of multinationals and start-ups swung the decision.

“The ecosystem here is amazing. The tech companies and the innovation companies, from a tech point of view the ecosystem here is magic in terms of what we have in Ireland. It is also the fact that it is an easy place to do business.

“Dublin is also attracting talent from multiple countries and has an international workforce and that is something that is really important in terms of getting the best talent with the deepest skills.”

Unlocking the magic of STEM for the kids of tomorrow

Spillane, the mother of two children herself, is passionate about the STEM opportunity for future generations and points to the research Accenture did with last year for Inspirefest 2015 that presented interesting insights as to why girls, for example, aren’t opting for STEM subjects or careers.

A graduate in electronic engineering from NUI Galway, Spillane has always been passionate about education and skills. She was recently appointed to the Department of Education and Skills’ Steering Group to develop a new National Skills Strategy.

“One of the first insights was around who influences girls. It is typically parents and teachers from a primary school point of view. But, actually, the tech environment and the world is moving so fast that it is actually very difficult for parents and for teachers to keep up with opportunities from a career perspective.

“The research also showed us that lots of girls think STEM subjects are for boys. I have an electronics engineering background and studied all the STEM subjects, so it was very interesting to me why they would think that.

“It’s about how we tell the story. Girls and boys think differently and girls need to hear the story about how they can make an impact: how they could make an impact in healthcare, for example, the kinds of people they could work with, more examples of a ‘day in the life’.”

‘As we are hiring now, one of the challenges is that we are just not getting as many female applicants as male applicants. We have to have an onus on telling the story in the right way’

Spillane said that she hopes the new Innovation Centre will play its part in being a beacon highlighting the promise of careers in innovation.

“As we are hiring now, one of the challenges is that we are just not getting as many female applicants as male applicants. We have to have an onus on telling the story in the right way.”

In this way, she believes industry and media have a large role to play.

“Our ambitions are huge,” she said, pointing to collaborations that have already begun with the UCD Insight Centre around applying artificial intelligence to dramatically transform health and sports coaching.

“The key thing about our ambition is getting our hiring right. We are looking for that spark in people who want to bring their skills to the table and the magic that is in them to grow and develop much further.

“It’s the sum of all those collective ambitions – that’s where the magic is for me.”

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