Entering the design-conscious, harbour-front offices that Accenture shares with Google in Sydney, it’s surprising to learn that the professional services company is actually a child of the 1950s. Opening its doors originally as an accounting partnership, Accenture developed its consulting business in the 1980s, and floated as a public company in the early 2000s. Today, the image of the professional services company is of a fast-growing, forward-thinking business, always on its toes.
Andrew Woolf, global head of human capital for financial services at Accenture, laughs as he admits he is something of an anomaly not just at Accenture but in the industry, having been at the company for 23 years. When he started work at the firm in London in 1993, some of his work colleagues would still have been in nappies. What has kept him so loyal?
“Lots of people always ask me, ‘Why are you still there? You’re a bit of a dinosaur, aren’t you?’ But it’s interesting work, interesting clients and the fact is, that as an organisation, we constantly evolve,” says Woolf. Remaining with the same employer for most of your career never used to be out of the ordinary, but times change. What that means, though, is that Woolf’s knowledge – having witnessed and been a part of company transformation over a long period – is unusual.
“In 1993, we were a 30,000 person organisation; in 2015, we number 373,000. That’s an amazing journey to have been a part of. Change is constant in our organisation.”
Experts in helping other organisations implement high-impact change programs, post-merger integrations, shared services and more, Accenture bought an analytics research business, Change Tracking, a few years ago, to put science behind the art of change management.
“One of the many interesting data points we learnt from that acquisition, is that high-performing organisations don’t pause when the level of change increases. They can cope with it,” says Woolf. “This whole myth that too much change is going to be detrimental to your organisation, for high-performing organisations, is not the case. When there’s change coming, the theory is you need to bring people on that journey to be committed to the change that you’re undertaking. Again high-performing companies don’t follow that rule and that’s really down to the business leadership that’s in place.”
Woolf says that if trust in leadership already exists, if there is a successful track record, employees will just ‘go with the proverbial flow’. “You’ve got your committed employees and leadership and that allows them to continually outperform their peers,” says Woolf.
With such importance resting on getting the best leadership in place, what qualities should Australian businesses seek out?
“What I’m seeing is – certainly in the digital age – the way in which you lead needs to be quite different [from the past]. The hierarchy is flattening and a leader needs to move from command and control to an ability to share what you’re thinking. Teams expect, from the most junior person to the most senior, to have a perspective, to have a voice, to have some input and, why not? We’ve got the tools and the techniques to facilitate that now – through collaboration, through social, through use of digital tools.”
The concept of getting real-time feedback is another one that’s running hot in the marketplace at the moment, says Woolf, who thinks that’s equally applicable whether you are a CEO or a line manager.
But perhaps it’s not so surprising that organisations that are already performing well and have high levels of staff engagement find change easy to handle. What about those (the majority) that aren’t, and don’t. Woolf says that he’s found in those that have struggled with change, there are inherent problems.
Getting into shape, “building up that change-management muscle” is as important as transformation itself. “Looking for people who will embrace change naturally and are comfortable with it [is important], but it also depends on the way in which you interact with your employees,” says Woolf.
It’s not just about leaders having a clear idea of where the business is going and how to get there, the so-called ‘North Star vision’, it’s a willingness of leaders to learn and alter course as they go. “People relate to that as something positive, that will then increase their commitment to change.”
In the past year, Accenture has been going through some pretty dramatic changes itself. In March 2015, it signed a deal said to be worth up to $25m with the NSW Department of Justice, to provide performance-based technology services; unveiled a joint venture with Amazon in October and, in the same month, sealed a four-year contract with Cricket Australia to deliver its digital transformation work. And that’s just in Australia. Worldwide, the company recruited around 100,000 in 2015 and invested millions in learning and development. Given the need for people who are agile and change-resilient, what’s their modus operandi for identifying the right candidate?
“How you do that varies depending on the seniority of the individual that’s coming into the organisation. But I think it’s somebody who can articulate how they’ve dealt with change, things that’s haven’t always gone the way in which they would like. Somebody who demonstrates a passion for innovation and new ways of working and is prepared to show that they’re willing to challenge themselves and the organisation as well,” says Woolf.
Unlike Woolf’s generation, however, younger people aren’t so attracted to coupling up with big conglomerates whose collective image has taken a hammering after the various banking and environmental scandals. Accenture’s own workplace in the future research reveals that only 15 per cent of graduates want to join a large company.
As a long service employee, Woolf admits he was amazed by that particular statistic and acknowledges that they have to improve the way they promote themselves to young, talented people. “We have a mantra: “Think big, act small”,” says Woolf. “Yes, we’re a very big organisation but the way in which we’re structured and the team environment, consultation as a priority, promotes that idea that you can be small and you can be nimble but all within the construct of a very large organisation.”
It’s these younger, digital natives who are most in demand by businesses grappling with the impact of fast-changing technology. Woolf believes that the biggest transformation he has seen during his whole career at Accenture has happened over the past 12 to 18 months – an indication of the pace of change that digital is having on businesses right now.
“Digital is all pervasive in everything that we’re doing. The rise of HR cloud technologies and the analytical capability that sits around that is fundamentally changing the way in which HR will operate within organisations,” says Woolf. Where he sees a kind of revolution occurring is in the empowering of line managers and other employees to take on a lot of the administration, particularly around recruitment, career development and compensation. In the past he thinks this has been “sold” as just a bigger workload for line managers.
“But now there’s a new generation coming into the workforce who, frankly, expect to operate in that way and will embrace managing their own data.” It will free up HR to to interpret and personalise the data, he says, to build profiles of what makes people tick, their ambitions, etc. “I genuinely think we’re on the crest of a tidal wave of transformation in the HR space.”
Surrounded as he is by digital natives, how has Woolf adapted to Accenture’s changing work practices and culture? Discarding old ways of working isn’t just about responding to the needs of millennials, he insists. At all levels in organisations, people want to be able to have conversations and be involved.
Taking performance management as an example, Woolf says there are sound financial reasons as well as cultural ones for adopting real-time feedback. One technology organisation he was working with was spending eight million working hours on their performance management process each year.
“It’s not necessarily a new concept; good line managers have always known that providing feedback in the moment is a good thing. But do they care enough to make the time to do it? That has always been a very different question.”
Learning and adapting are key to what keeps Woolf engaged at Accenture as well as key to what he thinks they offer their clients. “We’ve done a lot of research around brain science and the way in which you learn and the idea that you’ve got to create new, neuro pathways. Again, that’s not rocket science either, but it’s about learning by doing, and learning by doing in bite-sized chunks over a very focused period of time.
Accenture’s approach is to offer a 30-day challenge to encourage change in behaviours among its own staff and for clients.
“At the end of it, if somebody has been actively involved in doing something new, whatever that might be, it might be a new piece of technology, it might be a new process, it might be just a new performance management process, but the brain has processed it by that point and it becomes an embedded behavioural change. That’s one crucial way you drive culture. That’s how you drive change.”
This article is an edited version. The full article was first published in the February 2016 issue of HRMonthly magazine as ‘The Industrial Evolution’. AHRI members receive HRMonthly 11 times per year as part of their membership. Find out more about AHRI membership here.