Mark Knickrehm, ’91, combines a human-centric approach to strategy with data-driven insights to transform organizations.
- May 09, 2019
Those are the problems I like to solve, where it’s not so simple that you can move just one thing—you have to simultaneously adjust parts that move independently but are interdependent.
“I’m a believer that technology will enhance work and create opportunities for people over time, and not destroy jobs,” Knickrehm said. “We’re not being Pollyanna-ish about the fact that some tactical jobs are better suited for machines. But there are a whole series of job paths that must be done by people. The problem is, there aren’t many people trained to do them yet.”
The importance of training is a major finding of Accenture’s research, and Knickrehm recommends that leaders ask themselves, “‘If the world isn’t producing what we need, how do we train and equip our own people to do it?’”
Knickrehm found that within a single organization, teams that successfully bridged these gaps weren’t siloed. Instead, they operated in cross-functional teams able to synthesize—and act—quickly. These groups are made up of various disciplines but their work overlaps: for example, a supply chain consultant who knew how to bring diverse technologies together for business impact, in order to get things done in the digital world.
“It’s these cross-functional teams that are changing organizations and challenging the old, siloed mentality where people function in those big departments,” Knickrehm said.
This technological shift also applies to the kind of strategy consultants that businesses increasingly need. The upsurge of cloud computing, Knickrehm said, has created a growing demand for a new kind of strategist who knows technology and understands the data.
“Our clients increasingly expect strategists to understand technologies behind their options: it’s not just ‘What’s my strategy?’ anymore,” he said. “Clients now ask us, ‘What’s my digital strategy?’”
Today’s strategists should also prepare to share their executional strategy with clients.
“Ever since I was a young consultant,” Knickrehm said, “clients would say, ‘Can you help me execute? Don’t just give me the PowerPoint. I don’t just want to put something on my shelf; help me take it and get it done.’
“That’s more intense now, where companies don’t feel that they have the digital skills to get it done in a new way, and they are looking for help, for strategists who execute inside of a strategy.”
Knickrehm stressed that strategists should adapt their approach to “ingest, enhance, and explore.”
“That’s the language of the strategist now,” he noted. “Start with huge amounts of data, enhance it and add to it, and then explore with new tools.”
He noted that this proves particularly important in consulting services, because clients look at very different criteria now than they did in the past.
“You have to come with a strong capability to do the analytics, and not just of the company’s data; what data are you bringing that enhances what the company has? . . . Our clients are expecting us to tell them what tools we’re going to use, principally artificial intelligence tools, to get more insight from the data.”
The key, he contended, is hiring people who can do that. Knickrehm mentioned that speed also plays a big role in what clients now expect from strategists.
“The game has changed,” he said. “When I was a young consultant there was an ‘analyze’ phase that lasted several weeks, there was a ‘figure-it-out’ phase, and then a ‘what are we going to do about it?’ phase. But the whole process to analyze and collect data, which used to be weeks, is now days. And they expect us to bring data and insights from the beginning. Tech allows you to do just that.”
Knickrehm noted that making a plan executable involves more than just data—it requires thinking about the people involved.
To address this human element, Accenture acquired leading design agency Fjord, creating a design and innovation capability that reimagines and redefines people’s relationships with the digital and physical worlds. Now, Fjord boosts the impact of Accenture Strategy’s design processes, Knickrehm said.
“Human-centered design is a totally different skill set,” he said. “It’s people who understand humans and how they operate. . . . When you add it to the data-based insight part of a strategy project, it really enhances the probability of impact. It’s why we’re such an exciting place and different from other consultancies, because we built up and have access to Fjord-ians and to a huge group of data scientists whose skill sets combine to create a brand new, human-centered approach to strategy.”
Fiona Czerniawska, the cofounder and director of Source Global Research, agreed with Knickrehm’s perspective.
“Strategy consulting has been facing unprecedented pressure,” she said. “It’s underperforming the market as a whole: we estimate that strategy consulting grew by 7 percent in 2017–18 globally, compared to 8 percent for the total market and 10 percent for technology consulting.”
Her group, which researches the consulting and professional services industry, focuses on how client behavior evolves, and how firms respond to new challenges such as the impact of new technology. They have found that demand for consulting support around large-scale digital transformation programs eats into budgets that would otherwise fund more conventional consulting work, including strategy.
“In 2017, we estimated, 45 percent of what would have been traditional strategy work 5–6 years ago is now being labeled by clients as transformation,” she said. “Demand for that [traditional] work is, in fact, shrinking.”
However, she said, Accenture spotted this issue ahead of many competitors.
“[Building] Accenture Strategy was, in my view, an attempt to stake out a position in high-value markets. It’s to Mr. Knickrehm and his colleagues’ credit that they focused on creating a team with a background in major strategy firms, and made clear their intent was to form a genuine strategy business. By also leveraging Accenture’s technology and analytics capabilities, he’s built a firm that’s as well placed as the major strategy firms to compete in the strategy market.”
Knickrehm’s research highlights some good news for leaders: their employees probably aren’t as hesitant as they believe them to be when it comes to adding AI to their roles.
“One fascinating thing we found,” Knickrehm said, “was that executives were worried that employees were fearful about adopting new technologies. But what we generally found in the employee population (not senior management or upper management but the employees) is that they see these changes coming and disrupting work, and are eager to do something about it.”
Knickrehm’s group found instead the resistance came from senior team members: “They were either afraid that they would upset the workforce or not know what to do,” he said.
Further, they discovered that corporate training budgets have been under pressure for decades.
“[Training] has long been a place to go to strip out money,” Knickrehm said. “Training budgets have been going down and becoming very task focused. We told the chief executives at these organizations, ‘You’re the only ones who can change this.’”
He recommended to leaders that they create budgets with greater investment in training—but not just any training.
“You have to reorient to train more and use cross-functional teams and data and analytics and this ready-fire-aim mentality of changing processes and getting things done,” Knickrehm said.
Accenture’s strategy practice does that by helping companies reimagine who they’re training—and what they’re training them for.
You have to solve previously unsolvable problems and make huge bets that must pay off over a short period of time, which increases the risk of all these things. It’s an exciting time to be a strategist.
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