Julie Sweet has had plenty of experience with change. Having taken the helm of global professional services powerhouse Accenture just months before the beginning of the pandemic, the new CEO oversaw the biggest shift in working culture of the digital era – not just for the company’s many clients, but also for the 600,000-plus Accenture employees stationed around the world.
“The top 10% of those who’d adopted digital technology to drive their business were performing twice as well as the bottom 25%. (Two years on,) that gap has widened from two times to five times.”Julie Sweet, Chair & CEO, Accenture
Shortly before the pandemic, Sweet’s team had conducted research looking at how different companies had embraced tech-focused solutions.
“At that time, the top 10% of those who’d adopted digital technology to drive their business were performing twice as well as the bottom 25%,” she revealed. Two years on, an even starker divide: “That gap has widened from two times to five times.”
Many other companies sprung from weaker positions before the pandemic having under-invested in technology to achieve astonishing growth over the same period. “There’s a new category of companies and we call them leapfroggers,” she explained. These leapfrogging companies shifted their budgets away from ‘business as usual’ into innovation, embracing cloud, security, and AI technologies. They are taking on two times the processes of others who are “transforming” and they are willing to do things differently, not just to catch up, but to lead.
“We do believe that e-commerce is going to continue to grow. But there’s also a different trend that we think is a part of that, and that is leading companies are not just going to be talking about omni-channel and e-commerce and bricks and mortar, but really about being omni-connected.”Julie Sweet
Sweet suggested keeping a close eye on these forward-thinking companies: “It’ll be very interesting, in 18 to 24 months… to see the impact of the leapfroggers on their industries.”
The future of business is omni-connected
The pandemic has driven more retail activity online than ever before. But Sweet believes there’s more to this trend than meets the eye.
“If you take the US, about 23% of all retail is now online, which is a significant change from pre-COVID when it was around 16%,” she revealed. “We do believe that e-commerce is going to continue to grow. But there’s also a different trend that we think is a part of that, and that is leading companies are not just going to be talking about omni-channel and e-commerce and bricks and mortar, but really about being omni-connected.”
Sweet cited the Rakuten Ichiba e-commerce platform as a prime example of a holistic, omni-connected user experience through which customers can not only shop, but make frictionless payments, earn loyalty points, and even open their own shop.
“Back in 2013, when digital was not well-known, we said every business would be a digital business…Today I believe that every business not only must be, but will be a sustainable business.”Julie Sweet
“What we’re seeing is not only this shift online, but the leading companies are shifting to, How do I connect with people? Not just, I have different channels,” she explained. “And those connections are built in stores and online. We do think that for those who make that shift, there’s going to be a different growth trajectory.”
Every business must be a sustainable business
“I am extremely optimistic that one of the enduring changes from the pandemic is the demand from consumers [for more sustainable options]. In fact, about 70% of consumers now say that they expect companies to be more sustainable and to provide practical things they can buy that are more sustainable,” Sweet shared with Mikitani. “And I believe that trend in demand will be enduring.”
Sweet pointed out similarities between the modern-day sustainability drive and the great digital push of the 2010s. “Back in 2013, when digital was not well-known, we said every business would be a digital business,” she recalled. “Today I believe that every business not only must be, but will be a sustainable business.”
“Diversity is of course the absolute right thing to do, but it’s also absolutely essential to innovation and to success.”Julie Sweet
This belief is at the core of how Accenture’s does business, and Sweet recognizes the demand from clients who want to be more sustainable but need help finding their way. The company is collaborating with other organizations to evolve the culture of software engineering so sustainability is embedded by design.
“This is critical because right now in the IT sector, it’s about 4% of the world’s emissions. And it’s going to rise to 14% by 2040 unless we do things differently.”
Managing over 600,000 global employees, ‘phygitally’
Sweet is a strong advocate of workplace diversity, but she stressed that her principles weren’t just ‘diversity for the sake of diversity.’
“Diversity is of course the absolute right thing to do,” she declared. “But it’s also absolutely essential to innovation and to success.”
Sweet has worked for the better part of a decade to transform Accenture’s corporate culture from one of being a fast follower to one of being an innovator. “We believed that we could not be more innovative if we didn’t change the face of Accenture.”
In spite of a global pandemic keeping the company’s vast global workforce at home, Sweet remains proactive about Accenture’s corporate culture.
“Last quarter we hired 54,000 people. That’s a lot of people,” she told Mikitani, in something of an understatement. “We spent a lot of time thinking, How do we care for those people personally and professionally? How do we get connected [when] hiring is done completely remotely and people are starting working from home?”
Despite a long push for digital adoption, at the end of the day, Sweet said, we all live in the physical world.
To tackle this divide, Sweet shared Accenture’s innovative approach: “We have this idea of phygital, which is the convergence of the physical and the digital.
“Pre-pandemic, when you started a new job, what was most exciting? You would go and you would meet people,” she continued. “What we realized was that we were hiring all these people and they were basically closing one computer, then the next day opening a new computer. There was no connection physically to Accenture. And we all thrive on physical connection.”
“As you think ahead, [you need] that willingness to challenge the status quo, to build back better in the pandemic by building in educational opportunities to learn digital technologies, and to be more sustainable.”Julie Sweet
New hires now receive swag-filled ‘welcome boxes’ containing, in addition to the new computer, a range of Accenture goodies to decorate each employee’s workspace. And the welcomes extend beyond physical space.
“We just bought like 60,000 Oculus [VR] headsets,” she revealed. Why? “Well, first of all, the science says that virtual reality helps you learn. But also, if you can’t be with people physically, it’s harder to create those experiences that connect you.”
Challenging the status quo to empower change
For Julie Sweet, the time for change is now.
“As you think ahead, [you need] that willingness to challenge the status quo, to build back better in the pandemic by building in educational opportunities to learn digital technologies, and to be more sustainable.”
Failing to question yourself and challenge the status quo leaves the door open for someone else to step in and do just that, Sweet stressed.
“When as a company you’re thinking about changing, one of the most important things is to question how,” she told Mikitani. “At Accenture, when someone says to me, Oh Julie, it’s always been that way! That is a red flag for me, and I say, well that means we have to look there for change. Because things that we say are always that way – they tend to be areas where someone comes in and sees the possibility to disrupt.”
To view Julie Sweet and Mickey Mikitani’s full session from Rakuten Optimism 2021, click here.