Accenture: defying the downturn

by 24 Feb 2009

Rigorous attention to learning and development has helped Accenture remain resilient in the face of a global economic downturn. Sarah O’Carroll reports

The economic slump has become so pronounced that many outsourcing and consulting firms are being scaled back. But not Accenture. In the fourth quarter of 2008, the global management consulting com pany booked $US2.24 billion ($3.3 billion) in new out sourcing deals – a figure not that far off its year-earlier quarter, when new outsourcing bookings came in at $US2.5 billion.

It ended its financial year with $US23.3billion in net revenues and it is planning to increase its headcount of 37,000 staff in India to 50,000 by the end of April 2009.

The global consulting firm is not only surviving the downturn, but thriving in the face of it – and not just financially.

Accenture has won a swag of awards globally in recog nition of its employment practices, including The Full Circle Feedback Award for Employer of Choice (more than 1000 employees) at the Australian HR Awards 2008.

The international accolades of being a great place to work and employer of choice are widespread. And it could be said that it is this strength that is largely responsible for their financial stability. The two factors are proving to be inextricably linked. It is the people strategies that have been in place since the company began that have built a company resilient to these challenging times.

Resilience strategies

Accenture has key longstanding policies that have built resilience within the company, arming it with the tools to fight the economic challenges and remain competi tive in a beleaguered consultancy market.

It operates in almost 200 countries with 187,000 employees and the strategies the company have adopted are global. The work ethic and culture they have nur tured has built a global brand, resulting in a service which clients can lay confidence in.

First, Accenture’s learning and development strategy has been paying off in spades and is a primary reason the company has remained relatively immune to plummet ing global growth trends. Often when money is tight for companies, consultants and external advisers are the first to be culled.

But, because of the level of commitment to training within Accenture, customers are confident that no mat ter where in the world they are dealing with Accenture, they are going to meet the same level of professional ism and competency. The average training of each employee is 78 hours a year.

Managing director of Accenture Australia Jack Percy firmly believes this is one of the core strengths that has carried Accenture through competitive markets and car ried the company to where it is today. The emphasis the company places on rigorous training and development has led to a global and brand reputation as the best in the field.

“People are the most important part of business: in terms of the product we provide, it’s all about people,” says Percy. “The HR strategies and tactics we employ on a long-term basis and on a day-to-day basis are crit ical in terms of the success of our business.”

“There is very much a global culture which is kept together by some consistent global concepts and the first is the career model,” says Percy.

The global glue

Accenture has a globally consistent competency and capabilities model of the different career levels that are in the business. That simply means, that if a client has someone at a certain level in the organisation come from another part of the world to work on their project, they can be confident that worker will be able to do what is expected of them.

“If I get a consultant from Ireland coming to work on a project in Canberra I know what I can expect of them,” Percy says. “What cements the culture globally is our approach to training.”

In 2008, Accenture Australia employees did about 100 hours of training, which the company spent almost $10 million on. Workers from almost 200 countries join together regularly to train at three locations – Chicago, Kuala Lumpur and the Netherlands – to build a global network of workers.

“I remember my first training course – it was 25 years ago and some of the people that I met there are in sim ilar positions to me around the world,” says Percy. “So the relationships that get established through training programs are a core part of the global cultural glue that knits our organisation together.”

Percy says that although these global training and development strategies play a key part in retention, they’re not established as retention strategies. They exist, he says, so the company has a globally consistent service to offer clients.

“A lot of our clients are multinational and they really value the confidence that they can have with Accenture. If they have a global system they know they will get the same standard of service in New York, Brazil, Ireland or Australia,” he says. “The strategy is there primarily for very good client service reasons – but it has spin-off. It’s actually really good for our people.”

Winning of a five-year outsourcing contract recently with international stainless steel company Outokumpa is an example of how this accent on rigorous global train ing paid off. Outokumpa based its decision to renew its contract with Accenture based on its global network of professional resources which, it said, led it to extend the scope and length of their relationship.

Getting strategies right

According to human resources director, Lynne Barry, Accenture’s HR team is currently analysing the company’s five-year business plan. She explains how HR strategies and global learning must be directly aligned with the busi ness because, if they’re not, they won’t be worth it.

“There is nothing we can and should do until we understand where the business is headed,” says Barry. “We have to look at the pace of growth that we have in the organisation and look at where the business is look ing to grow from an industry perspective.

“So that means asking questions such as ‘What areas are we growing faster in?’ and ‘Where do we need the depth of skill?’”

One thing Accenture excels at is attracting the best people – and that is because they recognise that people want to grow and develop. According to numerous sur veys of generation Y, employees want the experience they gain within a company to enhance their saleability. And Accenture have got this right.

“We push people as hard and as fast as they can pos sibly go to grow their careers. So the net result of that is after three years, a person coming out of Accenture is worth the same as someone who has worked for six years in other places,” says Barry.

Another reason for Accenture’s sustainability is their ability to keep their core values alive, according to Barry. These are values such as Stewardship, Best People, Client Value Creation, One Global Network, Respect for the Individual and Integrity.

Accent on Parents is one program which Accenture Australia put into place to deal with the issue of losing valuable employees when they have children.

“We weren’t doing the best job we could at retaining our parents, so we decided this was an area we could introduce measures and do a lot better,” says Barry.

“The talent pool in Australia is changing and part time workers are the biggest growing piece of that talent pie.”

What Accenture discovered was that people weren’t feeling as connected to the organisation when they went out on parental leave, so they introduced Accent on Par ents which brought all the people who were planning to go on leave together along with the CEO or senior executive to discuss ways to meet the challenges ahead, such as childcare options and staying in the loop.

“We wanted to get the extremely strong message across that we want them back in Accenture,” says Barry. “And it has been very successful.”

HR's challenge in 2009: Jack Percy, MD, Accenture

Some of the things that HR managers are going to have to think about and deal with over the next few months are things that we haven't as a country had to deal with probably since the beginning of this decade. So I think, as an industry over the last five years, it has been around recruitment and pay rises and getting those right - ie retention strategies. I think it's likely that the global economic situation is going to have an impact in Australia in 2009, and as that happens the focus is going to be less on that and more on getting the best out of what we've got - looking at ways of making the salary bill stretch a bit further. The organisations that are going to really be great in the long term are the organisations that are going to use this time to really get the best team that they possibly can and position themselves well for the turnaround when it comes. And talent management is going to absolutely critical in doing that.

Australian HR Awards 2008: judges' comments on Accenture

Accenture has a broad suite of strategies in place to create an attractive work environment. It was able to demonstrate a forward-looking approach to the environment which they would be facing in the development of their people plans, one that enabled them to proactively plan for that future. Its ability to plan ahead, coupled with the belief that this would pay dividends in the future, really did translate into positive results and enabled the firm to keep ahead of the pack. Its people strategy has a strong business focus, where people are clearly seen as "what sets us apart from our competitors". This is supported by strong leadership from a leadership community that, interestingly, included both current and former executives.

Background on Accenture

Accenture is the world's largest consulting firm and offers management consulting, information technology and systems integration, and business process outsourcing (BPO) services to customers around the globe. The company divides its practices into five main operating groups - communications and high technology, financial services, public service, products, and resources - that encompass more than 15 industries. Accenture, which is domiciled in Bermuda but headquartered in New York, operates from more than 200 locations in about 50 countries with more than 187,000 employees (including more than 5000 senior executives).The company generated net revenues of $US23.39 billion ($36.2 billion) for the fiscal year ended 31 August 2008.