- Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images for Advertising Week New York
- “People are an organization’s most significant source of competitive advantage,” Accenture’s HR chief Ellyn Shook told Business Insider at the Davos 2020 conference.
- Even as more work gets automated, Shook said “uniquely human skills” such as creativity, collaboration, and communication are becoming increasingly valuable.
- Shook said Accenture looks at technology as a way to “elevate humans and not eliminate humans.”
- As companies navigate rapid technological changes, however, Shook also stressed the need to build trust with employees by being transparent.
DAVOS, Switzerland – At the same time technology is enabling companies to become more efficient, it’s also fueling fears that automation will cause workers to be replaced by machines.
Ellyn Shook, Accenture’s chief leadership and human resources officer, sees it differently, however.
“People are an organization’s most significant source of competitive advantage,” Shook told Business Insider in an interview Wednesday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
In fact, it’s precisely because of technology’s growing role that Shook sees humans as so critical.
“Technology will be able to do a lot of work that humans are doing today, but it’s the human skills, it’s the creativity, it’s the collaboration, it’s the communication” that Shook said sets them apart from computers.
One area where the relationship between humans and technology has evolved dramatically is business process services, as companies automate aspects of everything from hiring to payroll to customer service. That means companies like Accenture, which has more than half a million employees and does a significant amount of this type of work, have already had to make changes.
“It became very obvious to us early on, almost six years ago, that automation and other intelligent technologies were going to be able to be applied to the work that a lot of our human beings do,” Shook said.
But as Accenture sought to expand its digital services business, it took a novel approach: It actually asked employees to automate their work.
Shook said the company held an innovation challenge, telling employees that if they automated their work, Accenture would retrain them with new skills and allow them to pick between one of five new career tracks.
Because much of the talk surrounding automation at the time was fairly alarmist, Shook initially thought, “people are going to run for the hills.” Instead, she said, 16,000 employees took the company up on its offer and ended up reporting higher job satisfaction across each of the five career tracks.
“Let’s face it, people do not like transaction processing; it’s not interesting, it’s not glamorous, and you don’t really use your brain,” Shook said.
Through the experiment, Shook said, Accenture learned that it’s the uniquely human skills – such as creativity, collaboration, and communication -that enable people to do work machines can’t.
“When intelligent technologies meet human ingenuity, you get exponential output,” Shook said, adding that “the way we look at technology is to elevate humans and not eliminate humans.”
But those technological changes can be jarring for employees. And as more companies look to consider the needs of all stakeholders, Shook stressed the need to be transparent with employees in order to earn their trust.
“Transparency is what builds trust, and trust is such an important currency when the velocity of change is happening at such unprecedented rates,” Shook said.
Building that trust appears to translate into value as a financial currency as well. Accenture’s own research suggests companies that “achieve high levels of both innovation and stakeholder trust outperform their industry peers financially – with an average of 3.1% higher operating profits as well as greater returns for shareholders.”
If Shook’s assessment and Accenture’s research are correct, that means companies will need to continue to invest in people, not just technology, to remain competitive.