If there is one thing Penelope Prett, CIO of Accenture, is passionate about, it’s demonstrating that every IT worker can harness technology to change the world.
Even before COVID-19, Accenture’s global IT organization was at the forefront of innovation, providing the infrastructure and services to meet the needs of more than 500,000 employees worldwide. Working remotely has always been natural in consulting, and the company has continuously invested in emerging technologies, infrastructure, and a collaborative culture over the years.
Having adopted an “anytime, anywhere” approach to how people work and how to serve clients, Accenture was already well positioned when the pandemic forced the rest of the world to set up millions of home offices with just a week or two of notice. What COVID-19 did was increase the demand for scale to reach across continents and into individuals’ homes, creating a new normal.
“We’ve been using technology for some time to transform how we work on a massive scale quickly,” says Prett, who has held various roles at Accenture during the past 25 years. She points out that the company has operated the business for decades as a virtual team with top leaders spread across the globe. The tools to support a collaborative workforce are in place; for example, Accenture is the largest enterprise user of Microsoft Teams in the world.
“Our Teams audio usage  increased by 282 percent from our typical 350 million minutes per month to nearly 1 billion minutes per month since the crisis began,” wrote Prett in a blog about creating the new, elastic workplace. Cloud, networking, and collaboration tools are all going to be front and center in meeting the demands of a more flexible workplace in the future. IT organizations must be prepared to scale quickly and adapt dynamically to changing business needs based on global and local conditions.
Enabling and Enriching the Workforce
Prett, who assumed her current role just before the pandemic, sees the events of the year as a blessing in disguise when it comes to transforming the workplace. With basics like security and connectivity already in place, her job now is to enable teams around the globe to collaborate and innovate in non-traditional ways. Meeting the needs of a remote workforce with today’s technology presents both opportunities and challenges.
“There is a difference between enablement and enrichment,” explains Prett, whose job is to do both. A phone is enough to enable people to work remotely; adding video, which allows people to pick up visual nuances, enriches the experience. “A lot has happened since March,” she says. “Social and business do not marry as well in the virtual world as in face-to-face interaction. We’re still figuring out the future landscape, but the majority of people might well choose to continue working from home. What counts is that now, people know they have a choice.”
Accenture aims to deliver on the promise of technology and human ingenuity, and Prett’s main objective as the company’s CIO is to create the right ecosystem for building proprietary technology to help capture market share.
“We carry the burden for employees,” says Prett. “We give them opportunities to plumb the depths of data, so they can make smart decisions.” According to her, the average Accenture employee might do 100 things per day, of which 20 are done in systems. Having to switch between systems fractures the employee’s experience. The binding factor is data and experience. By unifying the two and providing collaboration hubs, IT helps create a unified experience for employees that is fast, intuitive, and easy.
Words of Advice
Having been in the business for a long time, Prett has had many different leadership roles and plenty of experience managing teams, driving change, and helping customers find solutions to problems. The common thread throughout has been the evolution of technology and its impact on humankind.
“I spent my entire career with tech at the center and have always been fascinated by the way humans interact with technology to deliver outcomes,” she says. She has also been active in Accenture’s diversity and inclusion efforts, working on a range of programs including LGBTQ+ initiatives and the integration of veterans and other non-traditional talent into the workforce.
Because humans are all different, they react differently to different challenges. Prett likes to tell a story to illustrate the value of diversity: while running a workshop in the field a decade ago to figure out a way to build a new system, the team started working on a very complex solution to the challenge. At that point, a junior member who had been quietly taking notes throughout piped up and said, “But that’s not how it works in real life,” forcing the team to rethink their approach. “Everyone has an area of expertise and sees things through a different lens,” Prett explains. “Sharing those viewpoints is what makes diverse teams better at problem solving.”
There are three critical skills Prett recommends for anyone who wants to succeed in the new world of work. The first skill is to remain intellectually curious. Change happens at a rapid rate and no one is going to spoon-feed you what you need to know, so you need to seek it out yourself. The second skill is to remain adaptable. Knowledge of old-world tech is not good enough for the new age. Change is the most dynamic, powerful source of progress, so it’s best to embrace it. And, finally, Prett is a true believer in the power of storytelling and how it can build human resilience.
“There are no schoolbook solutions to the challenges of our times,” she says. “We need to write the stories that will inspire people to change and grow.”
The Path Forward is a series featuring trailblazing women in leadership and their inspiring insights and experiences.
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