An interview with Francis Hintermann, global managing director of Accenture Research, reveals how a $44 billion company uses artificial intelligence and other technology to bring data-driven research insights to clients.
What does thought leadership look like at one of the world’s largest professional services firms, a $44 billion company whose revenue and profits more than doubled between 2010 and 2020? As Francis Hintermann explains it, Accenture PLC’s thought leadership research activities are extensive (300 researchers in 20 countries), focused, and technology-infused, especially with artificial intelligence.
Francis is global managing director of Accenture Research, the thought leadership arm of the global professional services company. Late last year, Bob Buday interviewed Francis, who was working from his home in Paris, France.
Francis has been with Accenture since 1998. Since 2007, he has also been teaching corporate strategy at Sciences Po, a French university that teaches the social sciences. His curriculum has focused on strategy in an age of digital disruption.
Prior to Accenture, Francis directed environmental and sustainability research at Le BIPE, a consulting firm based in Paris. He also worked at the French Embassy’s outpost in London for about a year, where he made recommendations on French exports to the UK. Francis has degrees from Science Po, the University of Paris (political science), and the Paris School of Economics (economics).
Francis’ Entry into Thought Leadership Research
I’m interested in people’s careers before they landed in thought leadership roles. So before we dive into how thought leadership operates at Accenture, tell us a bit about what you did before you joined the company in 1998, and how it helped you prepare for your roles at Accenture.
That’s a good question. I had two major jobs before Accenture. The first one was in the French Embassy in London. I was in the commercial area and built bridges between the private and public sectors, and between UK organizations and French ones. For much of my job at Accenture, I’ve been doing the same thing: building bridges between the private and public sectors, predominantly at a global level.
I’ve been one of the company’s leaders at the G20/B20 summits for past decade. [Editor’s note: The G20, which stands for Group of 20, is an annual forum for governments and central bank governors from European nations and 19 countries outside of Europe, including the U.S.] When I was in the French Embassy in London, I started to work on these topics and see things from both perspectives.
My second job before coming to Accenture was at a research consultancy firm [Le BIPE] where I learned how to do scenario planning and to spot emerging trends. For many years I performed this role for the European Commission and for French clients. Sustainability was emerging as a topic in the late 1990s. It’s where I began to make deep connections between financial data and non-financial data to assess the performance of companies and organizations. There were so many companies that did not understand how to use data related to sustainability.
Interestingly, Le BIPE underwent a radical change a few years ago, where they brought in data scientists at a massive scale to move from being a collection of in-depth subject matter experts to being data driven. It’s what we have been driving at Accenture as well because that’s the way it’s going, in my view.
The Need for Data-Driven Insights
Tell us more about how Accenture is using data-driven insights in thought leadership research. I say that because there is so much more unstructured data today vs. 30 years that can be found online for companies that do thought leadership research – data that artificial intelligence can find and perhaps even analyze.
Some of the things that we have developed with business partners that provide us with data are, for instance, ways to analyze the transcripts of companies’ earnings calls – the quarterly meetings they have with investment analysts who follow their stocks. In my younger years, we used to read them one by one, and then do some qualitative analysis. Now we’ve got data scientists analyzing thousands of them at once, in one hour or less. We can gain much greater insights from this data today through natural language processing than we could do 20 years ago or even 5 years ago.
So to me, the issue is not quantitative data vs. qualitative data. Quantitative data is a building block; you can’t do without it. However, you can glean more insight from qualitative analysis. But you need to get the quantitative building block to be relevant, especially when analyzing consumer behaviors or behaviors of C-level executives.
What drew you to Accenture 22 years ago?
When I joined Accenture, I saw it as an opportunity to not only conduct the research but to also see the recommendations I made come to fruition for the business. In previous roles, I did the analysis, provided my recommendations and then went home.
At Accenture, I was able to work with consultants who needed my expertise in order to implement the recommendations I made. For someone involved in strategic research, it’s an amazing moment when you realize that something is actually happening with your recommendation. So this was my first reason for coming to Accenture.
The second reason is that this was during the dot.com boom, and I wanted to join a company that could help French and European companies adapt to this new environment. Accenture has always been very well-connected in the Silicon Valley innovation ecosystem and other innovation ecosystems around the world.
Thought Leadership Research at Accenture Circa 1998
So you joined Accenture when it was an $8 billion organization. What types of thought leadership research activities were going on in the organization?
It was a collection of small units. I worked in one of those units, in France and Benelux. There were a number of small units in the UK, and a few individuals in the U.S. It was really a collection of individuals around the world.
A few years later, we put everybody together in a global shared service. That was a way to get more critical mass, more visibility, more impact as a team, greater scale to support international clients of Accenture, and to negotiate with ecosystem partners such as our main data providers. And it has offered more exciting career paths to individuals, rather forcing people in small units to do the same jobs over and over.
Making Accenture Research a global shared service also helped get our research activities aligned to the global priorities of a fast-growing company as Accenture launched its public stock offering in 2001 and went into new businesses. We went from serving the strategy consulting business of Accenture only, to serving all of the company’s businesses.
Thought Leadership Research Today
In my prior company, Bloom Group, we worked with Accenture in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Tom Davenport and others were there. I recollect that there was a separation between the small number of people doing research on managerial trends and a much larger number doing technology R&D – developing new software tools and so on. It’s a much bigger group today.
We have about 300 researchers. There is a separate group called Accenture Labs, and they focus on emerging technologies. They work side by side with clients and academia to develop new technologies.
In Accenture Research, we focus on scaling up innovative solutions from consulting projects that Accenture has going on around the world. We help the company scale these isolated projects into programs. This enables Accenture to bring a critical mass of expertise that can impact the business models and business performance of Accenture’s clients.
Accenture Research is focused on the business side of it, as a business R&D engine vs. technology side, which is where Accenture Labs is focused. We work together frequently to assess how emerging technologies are going to impact our clients’ businesses.
With 300 people in your group, what are the main roles? How many do research vs. writing vs. marketing vs. turning research insights into new consulting solutions, and so on?
We have a team of thought leaders and editors who are dedicated to the development of global thought leadership across industries — predominantly emerging themes. They publish books and articles in publications such as Harvard Business Review and MIT Sloan Management Review. And, of course, they help us self-publish articles, blogs and the like.
Then we’ve got groups that are dedicated to industries and functions and geographies. They customize thought leadership into industry, geographical and functional areas. They also deliver research that goes into business development with clients. So that’s a core group and where we’ve got most of the headcount.
And then we have a team that is dedicated to what we call Innovation Services. This group invents new research techniques and new tools that can be put into the field. When we are ready to scale them, we disseminate them and train people to make sure everybody’s adopting them. So that’s why we have people in charge of data science, economic modeling, designing surveys, data visualization — all these groups.
Is that group also responsible for internal training and developing the company’s consultants about how to use these new tools?
Absolutely. As a research team, we always try to be at the tip of the spear – at the front end of innovation in adoption of new tools and techniques. We have become more advanced at regularly training people at Accenture on how best to leverage these tools.
To me, that should be one of the callings of our research. We are not working in an ivory tower; we are part of a bigger company. Thus, I feel it’s important that whenever we develop new tools and techniques, we train others in the company on how to use them. We benefit from the company’s investments in our group for that.
A Higher Calling for Thought Leadership Research
I think this is really important. In my career, I largely have seen thought leadership research groups feed the marketing function – not the service innovation and service delivery parts of the company. The attitude toward thought leadership research seems to be, “Well, let’s do some research, then pump it through marketing and into the marketplace. If it attracts market interest, then maybe we’ll help our service delivery groups create projects tools and techniques.” By that time, your competition could have read your material and turned it into a rigorous service.
That’s absolutely true. It’s a creative tension. And we acknowledge and live through that creative tension when we collaborate with our Accenture colleagues.
It’s what we call “the magic triangle.” We have the business leaders, the marketing leaders and the research leaders working together. Accenture Research has to make sure that whatever it does that it is satisfying for all three constituents of that triangle. And, of course, there’s a bit of discussion.
But what we’ve put in place across the company – and, by the way, this has been led by our Chief HR Officer Ellyn Shook — is a mechanism to ensure what we call “shared success.” At the end of the day, the incentives are aligned so that we all contribute to the success of the company. This helps us avoid the internal disagreements as much as possible.
Making that magic triangle work at Accenture sounds like it’s been crucial to helping the company capitalize on the thought leadership research that your group has been doing over the years. That has to be important in a firm that makes big investments in methodology development and internal training and development, right?
Indeed. Training and development is big here. One of the promises we make to new employees every year is that we’re going to train them and train them and train them. Accenture promises that not only are they going to become highly effective consultants, they are going to be more employable.
The company spends close to $1 billion annually to train its people. Accenture Research contributes to this training. But there is a bigger machine dedicated to it.
The structure of Accenture’s thought leadership activities has changed over the years. What were the most important structural changes?
The one we did four years ago was crucial. We combined two groups: the one doing cross-industry, theme-based thought leadership research, and the other doing industry, region and function-specific thought leadership research.
We did it for three reasons. The first one was that Accenture had been emphasizing what we called “the rotation to the new.” Clients were asking for more innovation in their business processes, products and services. We did not want to be perceived as a fast follower. It was not sustainable anymore. As a company, we needed to be on the forefront of innovation.
So Accenture created what it called the innovation architecture. The company believed thought leadership research would be central to this, and at the forefront of this innovation architecture. That was the first reason to combine the two teams I mentioned previously.
The second reason was that when we used to have two teams — one for cross-industry research and the other for industry-, regional- and function-specific research – it led to a number of disparate points of view. Bringing these groups together has enabled us to have more unified points of view. We do cross-industry, cross-functional and cross-industry studies that we can also customize by those parameters. That means one research process per study, not two processes, which were often very different.
For instance, we have now one global program dedicated to the cloud, with one series of key messages and hypothesis. We customize that to different industries and localize it to different countries. Previously, we would have had the risk of running parallel programs with unrelated messages. It is absolutely critical now as we can see that the new technology waves such as cloud, AI or 5G and edge computing impact all industries and functions at a much greater speed than previous technology waves. The ability to articulate the key impacts of technology disruptions and adapt them to specific industries and environments makes a huge difference.
The third reason was to get a critical mass of researchers in all regions. By doing that, we also got a critical mass of investment. That was important for us because we started to make large investments in big data and analytics, artificial intelligence and data modeling. We needed a critical mass to do it at speed and at scale across the globe.
What Kinds of Research Lead to Big Ideas?
As we both know, not every study leads to a big idea. What key elements of primary thought leadership research improve the long odds of coming up with blockbuster ideas?
I wish I had a magic wand. There are different building blocks that we put in place to have a higher probability of success. One is getting tightly aligned to the company’s business priorities. In fact, we are rigorously aligned with the priorities set by our global CEO, Julie Sweet. That’s the first building block. We have rigor around that to make sure we do not pursue ideas that go sideways.
Say more about that. Does that mean you don’t pursue topics that aren’t in line with an existing service?
Not everything we do is aligned to the firm’s existing services. Our mission, with a capital letter M, is to investigate potential topics of interest to clients. Those topics may not be ones on which Accenture has services today. But they are topics of potential interest to clients.
The second element in trying to create big ideas is being extremely rigorous in the positioning of topics. Nearly 20 years ago, Tom Davenport and Laurence Prusak published a book with the help of my Accenture colleague Jim Wilson called “What’s the Big Idea?” They talked about the “P Cycle” of thought leadership – essentially, the lifecycle of any business idea. It’s important for any company doing thought leadership to make a conscious choice on where they want to be positioned in developing business ideas. On my team, we want to develop ideas based on real cases of where innovation is happening around the world. By doing that, we know our thought leadership will be read because examples are real and reflect the unique experience of our company.
Our challenge then is determining how these isolated best practices could be scaled up at an industry level, at a country level, and so on.
The third building block is about individuals. You know, any process is only as good as the people who are involved in it. Of greatest importance to me is having a diverse team. I do not believe in research teams of people with the same or similar backgrounds.
The fourth building block is what I call courage. By that, I mean the courage to determine whether some existing practices within Accenture are innovative enough. The question comes when you have someone with a genuine reason to publish some thought leadership on a topic that will support the positioning of his or her service.
When we do a review of how someone’s content compares to other content already in market, sometimes we find a fair amount of thought leadership has already been published that is saying more or less the same thing. Accenture is committed to be a global leader in its industry. That means to innovate and be at the forefront of a new generation of business ideas. Hence that means we must focus on publications that will bring new value to clients and stakeholders.
In my career, many leaders of professional services firms look to thought leadership not so much to say something radically new and important, but just to have a “me too” idea. It’s to say, “Yeah, we have a point of view on that too.” I think we both know that’s not good.
It’s always a temptation for everybody. However, at Accenture that’s not the mindset we operate under.
The Role of Big Data in Thought Leadership
When you look at what’s happening with the pandemic, you see that data and modeling have become instrumental to decision making. It’s truly extraordinary. That’s an illustration of what must happen in more and more business decisions.
What does this mean for the way companies do thought leadership research?
It definitely ups the ante in the speed, scale and nature of how we make decisions. But it goes beyond that. I believe it means you can see emerging trends much faster and put them at the core of what you do.
No, that doesn’t necessarily mean companies will drive all their decisions from big data and analytics yet. Yet it will be a growing input to decision-making. It’s fundamentally and increasingly going change the speed, skill and nature of what we’ll do.
That’s going to make a difference in the world of thought leadership in terms of who has the proper data, the right data architecture, the right data factories, the right algorithms, the best scientists, and strong relationships between those data scientists and the company’s business leaders.
Who’s doing this with thought leadership research?
While, of course, no one would ever wish for a pandemic, the COVID-19 crisis created an experiment that demonstrated the need for new macroeconomic and company data. We very religiously track and analyze all the macroeconomic data and, to a large extent, the company data, to help companies make decisions on a daily or a weekly basis. You cannot wait for macro data such as the next quarter’s GDP report.
Making Research and Marketing Click
I’ve seen a number of thought leadership research groups mesh well with their company’s marketing groups. I’ve also seen companies in which the groups clash. Accenture is one of the premier marketers among professional services firms. What does this working relationship look like at Accenture?
At Accenture we’re lucky to have a chief marketing and communications officer [Amy Fuller] who is well convinced that thought leadership plays a key and specific role in the positioning of a company.
We know that thought leadership can differentiate us and frame the market discussion on a big issue.
Here’s a great example: In 2018, Paul Daugherty, our chief technology and chief innovation officer, and my colleague Jim Wilson published a book on artificial intelligence and automation, “Human + Machine: Reimagining Work in the Age of AI.” They helped shift the conversation away from the dire warnings about how technology would destroy millions of jobs in the future, to one about how the technology could improve the way workers do their jobs and create whole new types of roles.
It led to articles in Harvard Business Review, MIT Sloan Management Review, presentations at prestigious conferences, and hundreds of client meetings around the world.
That’s a great example of how thought leadership, at its best, can change the market conversation.