The CEO as Hologram

09 Sep 2011, Jouy-en-Josas, France --- Pierre Nanterme, Chief executive of Accenture's Financial Services operating group, attends the French employers' body MEDEF union summer forum on the campus of the HEC School of Management in Jouy-en-Josas, near Paris, September 2, 2011. REUTERS/Charles Platiau (FRANCE - Tags: BUSINESS HEADSHOT ) --- Image by © CHARLES PLATIAU/Reuters/Corbis
Photograph by Charles Platiau — Reuters/Corbis

I spent an hour yesterday afternoon with Pierre Nanterme, the Frenchman who runs Accenture, the global consulting giant. For those who haven’t noticed, Accenture (ACN) has been on a tear recently, growing much faster than its competition and performing well enough to earn Nanterme a spot (No. 32) on Fortune’s Businessperson of the Year list. Accenture was also on our Best Companies to Work For list (No. 98), our World’s Most Admired list (No. 49), and the Global 500 (no. 374), making it one the year’s Blue Ribbon Companies.

How has he done it? Nanterme says Accenture was earlier than its competition to “acknowledge that something big was happening” in digital technology, and aggressively pursued acquisitions to take advantage of that revolution. (Yesterday, it announced the acquisition of Beacon Consulting Group in Boston.) The company now employs 375,000 people in 120 countries. Nanterme sees three big waves of change: the digitalization of the consumer, which started first; the digitalization of the enterprise; and more recently, the digitalization of operations – also known as the “Internet of things” and the “industrial Internet” – which he sees as the biggest of three, and still very much in its infancy.

Accenture has worked to keep ahead of its clients in digitalizing its own company, creating a truly connected global business without a physical headquarters – Nanterme is based in France, his CFO is based in Atlanta, and his chief marketing officer, Roxanne Taylor, is in New York. He recently spoke to a gathering of 500 employees in Chicago as a hologram, from Paris. (“I hate to travel,” he confesses.)

I asked Nanterme why, given the revolution in business technology, productivity statistics continue to look so dismal. He said he thought part of it is a measurement problem. But he also said the business models to support fully digitalized businesses “are still to be built. We are in an period of transition, with the old and the new together,” and as a result “we don’t yet get all the benefits.”

Nanterme believes most companies, under pressure from shareholders, aren’t investing enough in their digital futures. “Short-term-ism” is an understandable response to a unstable world, he said. But larger investments will be needed to take advantage of the long-term possibilities.

Speaking of an unstable world, the GOP candidates held another debate last night, focused on foreign policy. A lively performance all around, but it’s not clear that it did much to resolve a very unsettled race.

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