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Without people technology cannot deliver on its potential

At Perspectives, that opened Automation Fair in Chicago, Blake Moret, chairman and CEO of Rockwell Automation spoke with Jimmy Etheredge, CEO of Accenture for North America about the crucial role people play in the digital transformation.

Blake Moret (BM): Let us start talking about the landscape from a workforce standpoint in terms of coping with the changing demands of our jobs. It is something that we are all dealing with, and I cannot think of a company that is more in tune with these issues than Accenture. And you personally because it is a specific passion, even for the pandemic that you have been heavily involved with. What do you see?

Jimmy Etheredge (JE):  Most of the clients that I spend time with quickly down to talking about the challenges finding the talent that they need to either grow and or for all the changes that technology is bringing. I usually joke with them that the talent war is over, and the talent has won. We are all going to have to be more flexible with how we are attracting talent, how we are developing and how we are retaining the talent.

I have 80,000 employees in North America, we have 720,000 employees worldwide and I have no doubt that within two or three years we will have a million employees. What I see is that we, like a lot of our clients, must continue to look for talent in places we never looked at before. We invest about $1.4 billion a year in training, but the investment in training is going to be critical. And then in terms of retention, I think that the way can build a culture that has a sense of purpose and sense of belonging is going to be very important hanging on to people.

BM: That $1.4 billion spent on training is a figure that is going to stick in my head. I often think what if we train them and they leave. Of course, the answer is what if we do not and they stay, of course, is what have we done instead?

JE: Everyone calls it a hybrid work environment that we are in. But for a lot of people, it is not balanced when we say hybrid. A week ago, when Elon showed up at Twitter and got the standard HR Twitter management 101 request that he had 30 days to complete the training; he had some funny comments to say about that. But I think it goes back to the fact that, for a lot of organisations, they must create content that is compelling and engaging for people to use.

It is ironic that for the manufacturing companies I talked to, the assumptions they had five years ago around their strategy has been turned upside down from just in time to just in case. It has changed from leveraging the advantages of offshore to many of them coming back onshore. There Is so much out there that it is difficult to do, so to develop the roles and skills you must incorporate training.

BM: Training is a form of support that we can provide for employees that ultimately benefits the company and our customers. But maybe an even more basic form of support is around wellness. Over the last few years, I think all of us can attest to the fact that our personal lives have been under siege as well as our business lives. The need for support has been clear, particularly with a company with over 700,000 employees. We see the signs of stress and the silent cries for help. I mean, this is real. This is not just something you mention to show you are in tune with feelings. It is a matter of absolute business criticality. So how do you address that with an organisation of some scale?

JE: Everyone knows a lot of these mental health challenges existed before the pandemic, but just like many companies’ technology investments, the pandemic has been a time machine that has accelerated items including the challenges around mental health. One of the things I talk to clients about a lot is our research that says more and more that being a trusted brand is important to an organisation.

That trust is more pervasive than perhaps we thought before, whether it comes from your employees, your customers, or the government regulatory agencies. They want to know do you care about the environment? Do you care about the mental health of your employees, not just about what happens inside the four walls of your organisation? For the organisations that are going to thrive over the next five to 10 years will be the ones with very good reputations around this factor.

For a lot of companies that have worked in the manufacturing world, they have always been accustomed to being concerned with physical safety. Now they will have to have the same kind of focus on mental health and mental safety. The biggest thing I have seen is how do you make it okay to talk about not being okay? How do you train supervisors to deal with employees that have mental health challenges?

Our research shows that one in five adults have mental health challenges. How do you make it okay for those people then to share things with their supervisor. It has always been taboo. It has never been something that has been as visible as it is today. Any week if we look at something on social media, we’ are going to see implications of mental health issues.

BM: I think your point is so crucial, to be able to talk about the way you feel.  about it. Just in this kind of forum to be able to have a conversation like that. At Rockwell we talk a lot about expanding human possibility and we know that it is about technology, but to achieve that human potential you must start with a solid foundation and that has been under siege over the past few years.

JE: Like your vision ours at Accenture is delivering on the promise of technology, human ingenuity. Blake and I went to Georgia Tech together and it reminded me when one of us was copying off the other’s paper. It looks like we have the same vision so maybe we could have saved some money on all the efforts that we respectively did to come up with that.

BM: We could have travelled a straighter line from a graduating at Georgia Tech in the 80s into where we sit today. We could have skipped some steps. Getting back to the technology and the people, there are a lot of the people that we are talking to who are trying to balance both of those things. One of the stresses is the talk of adding automation. People immediately assume that is going to be focussed on job cutting for employees. While there are labour savings, our point is that by adding technology and working in close concert with people, then you are more successful doing whatever it is that you are doing. You can do more of it, which means you are probably going to hire more people, you are going to have the prosperity to be able to engage in new lines of business. That is a narrative we use, and it is what I believe, but it gets tested sometimes. I wonder if you have had those conversations.

JE: I am sure you and your board and branding people about whether automation was the right term for what we do and the kind of problems that we solve. It does have usually a brand associated with it that it is substitution for labour, but generally, as you know, it is around the more repetitive tasks. It creates more employment opportunities for people, but with a different skill set.

Today the main thing I hear from companies is that it is just a challenge to find new talent. This week in the US is National Apprentice Week. I was with the Secretary of labour and Commerce along with the first lady, here in Chicago, to look at how apprenticeship programmes are copying some of the things from Europe where they are frankly well ahead of the US. It is about being able to use those as ways to go after the millions of workers we need. We did some research with Harvard Business School and there are several million workers that have not returned to the sector since 2018.

If you take Accenture, we started our apprentice programmes five years ago with a cohort of probably ten apprentices. This year 20 per cent of all the hiring I did at the entry level in the US was to apprentice programme and 80 per cent of those individuals do not have four year degrees. They are now doing roles in cybersecurity, data science, data analytics, software engineering and testing. This is another example of where a lot of companies are going to need to look at non-traditional sources of talent.

BM: It is just going to become more important as time goes on to be able to scale these kinds of programmes and to be able to provide the support and the engaging spot to lure people back into the workplace to stay. It is also about creating the broadest possible talent pool of interest to choose from so diversity plays into that as well.

JE: It does. We rolled out an approach we call 360 value a couple of years ago. For any of these large programmes that we were doing with clients, that in addition to the return on investment, when I would talk to the CEO or CFO, I explain that you are dealing with challenging externally visible goals. On DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion), sustainability and talent strategy. If you do not understand how this project is going to move those things forward that is a lot of money to spend, so we now spend a lot more time now looking at those other factors. People talk about resilience, risk, and agility. These are outcomes that more and more clients that we work with are looking at.

The other thing I will tell you is that I sit down with Accenture people before I meet with a CEO or CFO. My team is going to talk to me 80 per cent about the technology and 20 per cent about the people. When I go in to talk to the CEO, we are going to talk 80 per cent about the people and 20 per cent about the technology.

BM: It is interesting how the world gets smaller sometimes, as you go on in careers from a common starting point we are back to talking about people because that is the foundation.

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