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The appliance of science to business

Accenture, the world’s largest consultancy, walks the walk and talks the talk. It makes things. For example, it used radio frequency identification (RFID) to invent a talking medicine cabinet which warns you if you take out the wrong medication. It used the same technology to create a talking gas cylinder which can recite its life history and make it less likely the cylinder will be filled with the wrong gas or delivered to the wrong customer.

These were developed in Accenture’s research facilities, laboratories where the emphasis is on harnessing tried and tested technologies to new applications rather than basic science. “Fundamental research to us is just demonstrating new capability,” says Glover Ferguson, Accenture’s chief scientist. His is a comparatively new position, created in November 2000 by the consultancy’s then chief executive, Joe Forehand. The idea was to bring together for the first time the company’s disparate research and development groups: “It’s so much better now,” Mr Ferguson says emphatically.

But what does chief scientist mean at a company like Accenture which makes its money devising and advising on corporate strategies? It has laboratories in Chicago, Palo Alto and France staffed by some 150 scientists and engineers but it doesn’t pursue research for its own sake. “We are an applied laboratory,” the energetic Mr Ferguson muses. “We don’t invent the technology. We try to invent the applications.”

It recruits the best researchers from around the world - “people who have published, who can hold their own in academic conferences,” Mr Ferguson says, but who want to tackle real life problems.

“It takes us forever to hire a researcher. We can’t have somebody who has the academic technique of applying assumptions to a problem until it’s small enough to swat. Our clients can’t do that with their businesses.”

Mr Ferguson has been at Accenture - it was Andersen Consulting then - since graduating with a master’s degree in industrial engineering from Stanford University in 1974 and in the Chicago laboratories since 1976. Among other accomplishments, he has been a specialist in CICS, IBM’s legendary transaction processing monitor developed at the computer giant’s Hursley, UK, research centre.

He was also the guiding spirit behind the company’s own Foundation computer-aided software engineering (CASE) tool programme in the 1980s. At the time, he thought case would be the future of programming. These days he is happy to concede he was wrong.

Today, however as he edges towards retirement later this year, his role is two-fold: internally he is the labs’ technology talent spotter: externally, the evangelist for his laboratories.

“The role of the labs and my role is interpreting weak signals. You see something in the market: perhaps it’s a one off-and you wonder: ‘Is that going to turn into something serious and what would that imply?’ So interpreting those weak signals and finding the patterns and connections to be able to focus our research in the correct direction is my internal role.” Externally, it’s explaining what we have found and what we see in terms that a business person can relate to.”

“We maintain a running five year vision as to what we think is going to happen in the economy, so everything that happens every day is either a test of that, augmenting it or changing its direction a little bit - it would be nice to think it’s done by committee but its more like a gestalt room with lots of yelling back and forth. When we find something we agree on, we try to find the best way to articulate that vision.”

How does Mr Ferguson communicate his own vision to his team? “Metaphor, story telling, whatever gets the message across,” he says. “I use pictures rather than words and Powerpoint presentations. I want an image to stick in someone’s mind.”

Every head of a laboratory has the problem of keeping him or herself up to speed with what’s happening at bench level: “Some of it is just management by walking around. And in the earliest stages of research, there are some things I don’t want to know about. As an engineer, I would probably press the kill button way too soon. So I try not to look at developments in their earliest stages, but when a researcher thinks they have a business proposal I look at it. And if I think it’s stupid I keep quiet and come back in a couple of weeks when it might look different.”

An example of the kind of development emerging from the Accenture labs is an infinitely scalable touch screen the size of an office wall. More than one person can touch the screen at any time opening new possibilities for interactivity. Mr Ferguson accepts that at first sight the screen is simply “eye candy”, but the actual research is concerned with how people might use it as a genuine business tool.

Mr Ferguson says: “We figured out that we had invented a new medium for advertising. What if your store window was a interactive wall. It becomes a very interesting way to get your message across and to engage the consumer. If you have these screens in a whole chain of stores you can change the advertising messages overnight.”

The big business problem today, he thinks, is “refiring the boilers of innovation” after several years of tight budgets and retrenchment: “Our clients weren’t interested in the future, they were interested in surviving until tomorrow. Now they are worried that they haven’t been innovative enough and that their own innovation processes are broken. We can bring ideas to bear that are not even in their peripheral vision.”

He points out that once infrastructure is in place - a local area network, for example - the marginal cost of new and innovative applications is close to nothing. So Accenture is working hard on those applications.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

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