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Accenture’s Julie Sweet: A.I. can transform companies, creating ‘responsibility and possibility’ for CEOs

November 9, 2021, 10:30 AM UTC
Accenture CEO Julie Sweet.
“By adopting and scaling A.I., companies can transform themselves—and redefine their industries,” writes Accenture chair and CEO Julie Sweet.
Photograph by Christie Hemm Klok

CEOs across industries are showing a new urgency around adopting and scaling artificial intelligence (A.I.). During the pandemic, half of U.S. companies increased their investment in A.I., according to Accenture research. And this is just a start, with rapid growth in A.I. expected in the coming years. To keep from falling behind the competition, organizations will need to adopt a new mindset about A.I.—starting at the top—and gain a deeper understanding of how A.I. can generate value for all stakeholders.  

As a foundation, companies of all sizes must grasp a truism that has redefined the digital landscape: Cloud is the enabler; data is the driver; and A.I. is the differentiator. A.I. unlocks business value by changing what you can do in fundamental ways, from enabling new human-plus-machine ways of working and smarter systems to creating new products and services. How A.I. has quickly gained a seat in the digital pantheon is yet another remarkable story of pandemic-era change.

Two years ago, most organizations were only just beginning to experiment with A.I. Some were using A.I. to transform parts of their businesses like customer service, but few were starting to scale it across their entire enterprises. Then the pandemic hit and fundamentally altered the dynamics of digital transformation. 

Almost overnight, companies that had already invested in technologies like cloud and A.I. and evolved their culture to support it created a sizable competitive gap. These top 10% of companies (“leaders”) have grown revenue, on average, at five times the rate of the bottom 25% (“laggards”) in the past three years. Concurrently, about 18% of companies (“leapfroggers”) on average adopted advanced and emerging technologies and scaled them across their enterprises; they are now growing four times as fast as the laggards. In the U.S., the leapfroggers increased their A.I. adoption by nearly 55%. 

A.I. became an important link in the technology lifeline—for some companies, a way to survive. One U.S.-based retailer set up A.I.-based tools, including localized algorithms, machine learning, and advanced analytics, to map their post-lockdown strategy—where and when to reopen stores, which merchandise to carry based on rapidly changing consumer preferences, how best to revise pricing, and which promotions would be most effective across online or brick-and-mortar sales channels. 

Now, future-looking companies are differentiating themselves by moving beyond what is necessary to what is possible. The leapfroggers, which have invested in cloud and data solutions, use innovative tools and capabilities like A.I. to transform twice as many processes across their functions, from product development to strategic planning. They have joined the leaders in migrating and curating their data in the cloud to gain new insights and adopt innovation-led A.I., driving business value.

A.I. is helping a multinational auto manufacturer visualize more than 100 different versions of four car models, based on what customers want—right on the assembly line. A.I.-powered claims processing has enabled a global insurer to reduce claims intake and setup time by more than 50%. A consumer-packaged-goods company is using A.I. to gain a real-time view of how well a product is performing, predict the market impact of an upcoming shortage, and, if an interruption happens, replan the entire supply chain. 

And A.I. will transform how the world addresses some of its biggest environmental and societal challenges: reducing carbon emissions, identifying human trafficking, preventing devastating wildfires; and protecting endangered coral reefs. This only scratches the surface of the technology’s enormous potential to contribute to the advancement of a more sustainable world.

A revised A.I. playbook

By adopting and scaling A.I., companies can transform themselves—and redefine their industries. How can you join the leaders and leapfroggers? To begin, CEOs need a new A.I. playbook that starts with four priorities.

Strategy to drive A.I. at scale. As organizations create an A.I.-, data-, and tech-first mindset, leaders are shifting their IT spend from maintenance to innovation and infusing A.I. into every area of their businesses. A.I. offers unprecedented opportunity to create top-line growth with intelligent products and services as well as new efficiencies through automation. A.I. must be integrated with your business strategy. Challenge each area of the business to define the role that A.I. will play in its strategy and success. 

Dedicated A.I. teams. A.I. at scale requires a diverse team—A.I. engineers, machine learning experts, data scientists, sociologists and more—along with an environment and culture that will attract and retain them. The most critical of all will be business and technology specialists with “bridge skills” who can translate A.I. into business value. And add external partners—technology, academic, and industry—in areas where your company lacks expertise. 

Rapid, continuous learning and reskilling. This starts at the top. A.I. requires a new type of C-suite leadership, with deep understanding of A.I. and its implications and the ability to make important decisions and tradeoffs on strategy, investments, workforce, and policy and regulation. A new culture and capability for learning is required throughout the organization to scale A.I. adoption, with a focus on reskilling, upskilling, and outskilling to make sure all are ready for the possibilities of A.I. By making technology education a personal priority, CEOs can help scale A.I. across the enterprise.

C-suite governance for responsible A.I. A.I. brings a new set of realities, risks, and rewards, requiring a new approach to ensure its proper use, with a focus on building trust both inside and outside the company. The C-suite must own this, establishing a new governance approach with appropriate principles and processes. This will ensure that A.I. is used responsibly across the organization, addressing issues and concerns such as fairness, transparency, and accountability.

A.I. holds enormous promise for companies that create value in all directions—from market leadership to a more skilled workforce to innovation that contributes to meeting the world’s top sustainability challenges. By tapping into the best of technology coupled with human ingenuity, CEOs can lead business into a new era of responsibility and possibility. 

Julie Sweet is chair and CEO of Accenture.

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