Mark Knickrehm, ’91, combines a human-centric approach to strategy with data-driven insights to transform organizations.
- May 09, 2019
Mark Knickrehm’s first love was aviation. As a kid, the Accenture Strategy group chief executive put flying on his bucket list, and accompanied high-school friends who had already decided to become pilots, to their lessons.
“I started young because I wanted to have a long career of flying,” Knickrehm recalled. “Later, when I was consulting, I learned at Los Angeles’ Long Beach airport, with some of the heaviest air traffic in the world.”
Flying, it turned out, combined several things he enjoyed.
“I liked the technology, and it was cool to be part of a passionate and diverse community of pilots,” Knickrehm said.
In order to pilot, he noted, you must successfully balance three tasks—aviating, communicating, and navigating.
And, he said, “you’re kept on edge, until you get it right. It’s like the chemistry equation: pressure, volume, and temperature. You have to manage several things at once, keeping them in balance, and adjusting, with every adjustment causing a change. 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. That’s the definition of a complex problem.”
Knickrehm has applied his problem-solving skills directly to his field of strategic consulting. As a thought leader who has spoken about the future of work at the World Economic Forum’s meeting in Davos, Switzerland, his specialty has become solving multifaceted, complex problems.
Jean Ostvoll, executive director at Accenture Strategy, worked with Knickrehm to build Accenture Strategy’s team. She said he lives by the player-coach model: “He rolls up his sleeves with client work, leading from the front. And he quietly but firmly holds his leaders’ feet to that same fire.”
Knickrehm is looking forward with excitement to May 2019, when Accenture Strategy will release research that focuses on the “new rules” of combining human-led intelligence with data-driven analytics.
“When we started our workforce analysis and research for the World Economic Forum , we tried to understand the human-machine relationship and what was going to happen to the productivity of work and work itself,” he said.
Accenture focused in on the fact that every Global 2000 company they served had a huge need—in every type of job, not just white-collar—for people who understand data and analytics and know how to bring things together to drive growth and boost competitive agility.
“The problem,” he said, “is that these organizations don’t have those skills and often can’t attract them because companies in the Valley are hiring the best [analysts].”
Once his Accenture team figured that out, they started looking at the demand for new skills.
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.
“When this gets added to an organization’s budget,” he pointed out, “it totally changes how they train people.”
Ostvoll sees Knickrehm as a leader who can articulate a vision for a new business and build a unique culture that excites people.
“He knows the brain power of his employees, by creating a culture where articulating and creating provocative, data-based thought leadership was expected; where engaged peer reviews were a given; and where the ability to execute [these new ideas] with clients was the foundation for a career,” she said.
Knickrehm said Booth’s strong emphasis on leadership initially attracted him to the program.
“Before Booth, I didn’t have enough of that ‘How do you lead large groups of people?’ knowledge,” he said. He remembers the well-known professor emeritus of business administration Marvin Zonis, who taught leadership of people, organizations, and behavioral areas, as a big influence.
“[Zonis] is a fantastic teacher of how to lead people,” Knickrehm said. “I needed that. Booth helped me learn to move large groups of people to do things they didn’t think they could do before.”
Knickrehm started in the Weekend MBA Program, which he considers one of Booth’s valuable offerings.
“I don’t think other business schools have this, where even if you start on the weekend, you can take night classes at Gleacher. And for my last couple of quarters, I went full-time on campus,” he said.
He chose the program because he didn’t want to take two years out of his work life.
“I liked the problems I was working on and didn’t want to take a time-out; I just wanted to add business school,” he said. “I liked the combination of the Weekend Program—where you had executives flying in, and a chance to interact with them—with my time being on campus.”
Recently, Knickrehm has reengaged with Booth by meeting with dean Madhav Rajan to discuss what the changes around strategy consulting mean for Booth’s curriculum.
“My alma mater is a fantastic place, and I believe in what Booth is trying to do, which is change the nature of what a business person comes out [of the program] with,” he said. “They’ve added a data analytics push. I think that, looking at what’s needed from a business student now, it’s so different from what these institutions are built to produce. We do need business thinkers who understand balance sheets and P&Ls, who know how to move organizations forward—but they have to be able to do it in a data-analytics, Fjordian, design-thinking way. That’s what clients need and that’s what we [at Accenture] need.”
We have a changing workforce, he said, and there is unlimited demand for super-smart, business-oriented people who understand data analytics and design thinking, and who know how to use those elements to solve organizational problems.
But, he noted, speed is a concern, and it pits consulting firms in a race.
“Something that has changed is the bets executives are making because tech changes are massive—and fast. This digital world upset things quickly. As leaders, you don’t have a decade to get it right. Think about the nimble disruptors that have emerged coming after your business; you only have a few years to react. So that’s how it comes together: 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.”
Booth’s move to adapt delights Knickrehm. “I think Dean Rajan is moving in a smart way at a fast pace,” he said, “to accommodate, facilitate, and thrive in a world where companies and consultants are looking for [something] quite different than in the past.”
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