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Accenture: Exploring All the Angles

The scale of capability development efforts at Accenture plc is vast. It has to be: the company has 257,000 employees globally. Yet the way it approaches learning is quite uniform, according to Dan Bielenberg, the company’s director of capability strategy.

The learning function serves between 65 and 70 different business units, with a focus on specialization and driving the right kinds of skills to ensure employees remain relevant.

To do this, Bielenberg said the learning organization’s operating model has to align closely with the business. It does this through what it calls capability development leads — employees whose main function is to remain in sync with the business.

“They understand business strategy, have strong relationships with leaders, and they’re able to translate those business needs into skill needs and make sure that we have the right kind of solutions in place,” Bielenberg said.

The company’s actual learning strategy operates on two levels. First, there is the Accenture-wide learning strategy. This details the business imperatives that guide learning, the toolset of learning architectures and standards, as well as customized solutions and strategies related to measurement, training delivery and competency modeling.

Second, all of those things are applied to the different business units or entities. Bielenberg said this allows for flexibility and agility, and this strategy is designed to examine the business and learning landscapes three years in advance.

“We’ll go through a process where we look at a variety of data sets and inputs from our business stakeholders,” he said. “And we listen to our employees pretty seriously. We’ve got an engagement survey. We look at that data. We look at what our business sponsors tell us in terms of their satisfaction with learning. And then we look into the rest of the industry — at emerging trends and capabilities, new technologies, what are our competitors doing? And that’s all [put] into our learning strategy refresh.”

This annual refresh feeds investments and guides what programs are developed and what delivery infrastructures are built. For instance, the company is building more virtual and state-of-the-art classrooms in different locations around the world to enable local office training.

“Accenture is fundamentally a people business,” Bielenberg said. “We succeed to the extent that our people have skills that our clients value. Our leaders know this, and they understand the linkage between the skills people have and our ability to charge billing rates and so forth. Our job in capability development is to help keep that link very material and make sure the skills we’re talking about building in capability development are skills that tie directly into what’s important to the business leadership.”

Essentially, learning becomes an instrument to fulfill the business strategy. For example, Bielenberg said a few months ago the CEO conducted a business review and determined that the Asia-Pacific region would be a primary area of focus for global expansion. This sparked an examination of the company’s talent situation and associated development needs in that region.

Bielenberg said because learning is on the CEO’s immediate radar, it facilitates leadership commitment. This flows down to the individual units. Part of the challenge, however, is there is ongoing tension between people taking time out to learn and people staying on the job doing billable work. The partnership between the capability development leads and the business units helps to mitigate that tension.

Metrics also help to push the learning agenda. Accenture has done studies showing a high correlation between how well-trained people are, how chargeable they are and how long they stay at the company.

Last fiscal year, the company compared data from the past three years for some of its more successful and profitable client contracts. The study examined the people working on a project, leadership and what kind of training people took right before joining and during the project.

“We found if there was a certain penetration of training within the project team, the likelihood of the project succeeding and being profitable was much higher,” Bielenberg said.

That gets business leaders’ attention. The data can then be used to identify the contracts that may be at risk because people have not been adequately trained.

Moving forward, Accenture is looking to enhance its analytics capability as well as its efforts in mobile learning. The company is also exploring where massive open online courses — often referred to as MOOCs, when universities or colleges offer online versions of their courses free to the public — might offer opportunities to enhance its curriculum.