As part of my series about the “How Businesses Pivot and Stay Relevant In The Face of Disruptive Technologies,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Manish Sharma, group chief executive for Accenture Operations.
Manish Sharma is group chief executive for Accenture Operations. In this role, he oversees Accenture’s comprehensive portfolio of operations services across business functions, such as finance, procurement and supply chain, marketing and sales, as well as industry-specific services, such as banking, insurance and health services. He leads a team of over 145,000 professionals, charged with developing, selling and delivering intelligent operations to drive transformational value and productivity for clients. Manish is also a member of Accenture’s Global Management Committee.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Certainly. What most might not know about me is I’ve spent most of my career building Accenture’s delivery footprint into what it is today. Seeing the transformation of this process, particularly in villages across India and the Philippines, has been especially rewarding for me as I’m very passionate about helping people in remote regions of the world without the same chances to succeed.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
It goes without saying we all experienced the unexpected as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded. Uncertainty is a part of everyday life. At the beginning of my career, I learned a similar lesson. As a deadline approached, three key leaders on our team suddenly became unavailable, due to circumstances outside of their control. As you might guess, we failed to meet the deadline. Obviously, things can go wrong and when they do, those experiences breed solutions. Learning the lesson of expecting the unexpected has been so valuable for me. It taught the importance of industrializing knowledge within a team to ensure we’re able to flex and adapt to change.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
At Accenture, our strength is found in the collective teamwork of the more than half a million employees who make up our business. It’s true purpose-driven businesses are becoming more successful, and we certainly take that to heart. Our vision at Accenture has always been to deliver on the potential of technology and human ingenuity for our clients. This value certainly fuels our drive to succeed.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you tell our readers a bit about what your business does? How do you help people?
Accenture is, of course, quite a large business, however, each of our service groups have a unique role to play in guiding our client’s business decisions. Within Accenture Operations, we’re dedicated to bringing digital transformation to our clients while simultaneously changing the perception business operations simply need to keep things running smoothly. Operators are now revenue generators and businesses need to adopt this mindset; especially as global markets begin to emerge from the pandemic.
With this in mind, we’re acutely aware transformations can be difficult. As new technology continues to make its way into the enterprise, there will always be disruption. This is where Accenture Operations comes in. While businesses continue to adapt to an increasingly digital environment, we know only 7% are considered “future-ready” (defined by Accenture as its highest level of operational maturity). There’s a lot of work to be done in helping businesses adapt to disruptive tech through digital transformation.
Which technological innovation has encroached or disrupted your industry? Can you explain why this has been disruptive?
It’s important to remember technology disruption has always been a large part of not just our industry, but all industries. Specifically, artificial intelligence (AI), including automation, has been a key response to maximizing ways of working in an increasingly digital environment. Like other industries, the pandemic accelerated shifts to automation, with organizations quickly moving to remote working and responding to increased demand for resilient systems, deeper remote capabilities and faster innovation.
While businesses are progressing to future-readiness, most are still juggling new opportunities and disruptions. According to our findings, most (90%) organizations have deployed automation across some functions; however, only a few (5%) have scaled capabilities across the entire business. AI requires new ways of working, employee training and more diversified skillsets to foster a human-machine workforce where automation continues to grow.
For example, a consumer packaged goods giant, and Accenture client, set out to digitize its organization and transform procurement on a global scale — standardizing, simplifying and industrializing its processes. Moving to an intelligent procurement function, the company deployed intelligent automation leading to increased efficiency and let team members focus on higher-value activities like analytics and insights.
What did you do to pivot as a result of this disruption?
Several years ago, we anticipated the need for digital transformation to offset technical disruption. We responded by upskilling our people into specialist roles enabling greater use of critical thinking, creativity, empathy and judgement. We did this while simultaneously advancing digital maturity and automating transactional tasks as we pivoted from traditional outsourcing to distributed hubs of specialists.
At Accenture, we see automation as a means of augmenting the highest-value strengths of people, recognizing it’s not technology surrounded by people that drives success but emphasizing the human skills distinguishing us from machines. Doing this right creates a culture where automation is seen as an enabler and not a threat and empowers employees to embrace human-AI collaboration in ways bringing together the speed and intelligence of technology with a human’s ability to direct and refine ideas.
As we’ve witnessed, the pandemic was a flashpoint in the acceleration of digital transformation and quickly sorted companies by the strength of their digital capabilities. Among a small core (7%) of future-ready leaders, human-AI collaboration enabled their organization to change on a dime with fluid, flexible work processes that quickly scaled or adapted with change.
For example, a leading semi-conductor company and Accenture client found its manual supply chain processes weren’t keeping pace after a period of extremely rapid organic growth. To meet evolving customer expectations, the company needed to shorten lead times, especially for spare parts. By moving to an intelligent supply chain operating model, integrating data, digital technologies and talent, the company transformed its spare parts planning process, making planning more predictable while mitigating the risk of stockouts. Now with 75% of the repetitive spare parts planning processes automated, the company has added US $3 million to the bottom line, increased efficiency and freed up teams to refocus on critical activities — creating innovative products.
This is just one of the ways we’ve pivoted to assist our clients, ensuring they are able to quickly ramp up activity with an eye toward future growth. From the introduction of AI to an increase in automation and ultimately, a re-designed workforce, change will be inevitable. Ensuring your organization is ready for change is at the core of future-readiness.
Was there a specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path? If yes, we’d love to hear the story.
Some of our most compelling ideas have come from the brilliance of our people. A journey that began, in 2014, with an employee asking me, “Why are you making us do this kind of work? I know how to do this work better and faster, and don’t even need to be involved.” These questions helped shape my thinking around the question — am I fully maximizing human potential? This was really my ‘aha moment.’
This inspired me to create a program to reward employees who found ways to automate their jobs, often with a promotion. The idea being to incentivize progress by rewarding ideas aligning with the future. As we began to realize the merits of automating transactional work, a natural next step was upskilling our people so they could take on more strategic and specialized roles, making our people part of the process.
We know technology shines brightest when it augments or elevates human ability. As this happens, “future-ready” organizations will see their talent blueprint expand and shift into equal parts — specialists, robotic solutions and transactional talent. In other words, you will typically need more people — not less — but the type of work being done changes.
As we pivoted to working as distributed hubs of specialists, we also saw high demand from a global digital landscape necessitating new skills. The reality: with greater human-AI collaboration, you typically need more people (not less) but the type of work typically changes. According to the World Economic Forum’s findings, the shift in the division of labor between humans and machines over the next four years is expected to create 97M new roles by 2025 (while displacing 85M). The goal should be to equip existing people with the skills they need to move into the future.
In my own area of expertise, this shift has created significant new and better opportunities for our teams. As a few examples, we’ve seen growing demand for business advisors, who can find ways to optimize inventory and working capital; data scientists who analyze data and find new ways to extract value; and tech engineers (AI, cloud, security) who continually scale and advance the maturity of capabilities. For example, this diverse team working together to create an algorithm to predict which vendor will pay and when.
These are just some of the fascinating shifts we’re also seeing across our clients’ workforces as new technologies (think: automation, AI) take hold and necessitate a variety of new skills.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this pivot?
Through the pandemic, we’ve seen rapid growth in the variety of AI solutions employees might manage at work (e.g. bots, agents). This has also inspired businesses to explore how to empower employees to build or customize their own tools. For example, this could include easy-to-use, bot-building programs or using “low code no code” approaches to automate certain tasks. With growing familiarity comes more accessible solutions to the average user. This growing trend also puts control in the employee’s hands to determine how to apply to add value.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during a disruptive period?
Leaders need to keep the end goal in mind. It’s easy to lose track during true disruption like we saw during the pandemic. In wake of the rapid change 2020 brought about, it will be important to keep human needs at the heart of your choices. Namely, leaders should make decisions with responsibility in mind, protect people’s interests on the path to recovery, and maintain a permanent pulse check on behavior.
Disruptive technologies should be embraced, but not at the expense of the human workforce, meaning leaders need to show why their businesses should adopt these technologies and how they will improve workers’ lives.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
As a leader, I firmly believe you must make work a fun place, encourage big thinking, press teams to stretch their imaginations — all while taking care of your people. You must lead by example and not be afraid to get your hands dirty. It’s important for leaders to take on big challenges and show people how it can be done. For example, in the early days of setting up shared services for the pharma industry, it became clear we needed people who were certified in clinical data management. I did that certification myself, took the exams and showed up on the floor every day — and it mobilized our teams to do the same. Leading by example is key.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Bring your people with you. The fact is automation must be seen as an enabler — not a threat — if you want to succeed. You do so by equipping your people with future-ready skills through reskilling and training programs. You also make your people part of the process by incentivizing progress and rewarding ideas aligning with the future.
Can you share the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make when faced with a disruptive technology? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
A common mistake we see from businesses is not thinking big enough. Typically, organizations are focused on solving current problems with current solutions. Disruptive technologies can actually be a boon to a business.
Take AI, for example. Common businesses fail to scale AI capabilities to align with business needs effectively. We know that only 5% (per Accenture data) have scaled AI appropriately across their entire business. This goes to show businesses are still struggling to embrace AI.
It is also critically important to familiarize your people with these disruptive technologies. A human + machine workforce is the future, and businesses prioritizing upskilling or re-skilling their workers to utilize disruptive technologies will have a leg up on the competition, especially as hybrid workforces grow.
Ok. Thank you. Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to pivot and stay relevant in the face of disruptive technologies? Please share a story or an example for each.
As I’ve mentioned throughout our conversation, disruptive technologies are nothing new. It’s important to remember they change with the times–there will always be smarter, shinier, and more successful technologies. Business leaders know at any given moment their entire business model could be upended by a new technology. With this in mind, I’d recommend business leaders do the following:
First, think big and be willing to go beyond incremental change. Business leaders should set their aspirational goals then consider what advances in operations, technologies and future skills help them close the digital transformation gap.
While integrating disruptive technologies seems simple, leaders need to account for how their current and future workforce will use them. Prioritizing training and upskilling programs will assist leaders in bringing their workers up to speed. Embracing its strong growth mindset, one leading technology firm wanted to showcase how real-time insights could improve decision making. According to the Chief Sales Officer stated, ‘it’s critical to increase the skills of our workers for their better future.”
Second, put cloud at the core — as knowledge workers can only succeed if they have a seamless flow of information to work with. Leaders who are cloud-first are able to explore new areas to scale and maximize value.
Third, make data a competitive advantage. The importance of having actionable data at your fingertips cannot be overstated and real-time data supporting decisions is the only way for data to translate into employee productivity.
Fourth, automate to augment. As mentioned previously, it is very important when looking at the bigger picture to scale automation, AI and integrated solutions with leading practices. Today, only 20% of what can be automated is done so — meaning we’re missing an important opportunity to drive new sources of value. As our research shows, nearly five times as many company executives expect operating models to run end-to-end digitized processes by 2023. We’re beginning to see companies form partnerships to achieve this milestone, as they look for ways to adjust, adapt and integrate more disruptive tech into their operating models.
Fifth, create an agile workforce and complementary ecosystem relationships, to enable your organization to flex and adapt to demand changes and market disruption. While an agile workforce provides an expanded talent pool to tap into when and where they need them, complementary ecosystem relationships bring together complementary skills and sources of value. Thus, fostering continuous evolution instead of one-off projects and improvements.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“The great danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high & falling short; but in aiming too low and achieving our mark.” — Michelangelo
How can our readers further follow your work?