As a talent-led company, Accenture must look to the future of talent development. Rahul Varma leads that charge.
Accenture is big—more than 370,000 people around the world. It's a complex organization, with five lines of business, including consulting, upon which it built its reputation. The company is widely lauded—earning spots on Fortune's "Best Companies to Work For" and "Most Admired" lists—and learning is central to its success.
"The role of learning at Accenture has always been critical," says Chief Learning Officer Rahul Varma. "We are a talent-led organization and we often say that learning is in our DNA. Learning is a part of what we offer to the world."
Varma should know. He's been with the company for 20 years in some key HR leadership roles. In 2011, he became chief learning officer, which makes him responsible for the talent development of every employee and an annual budget of more than $840 million—one of Accenture's largest investments. "The gamut of what we do in learning and talent development is vast," says Varma.
Talent development touches every aspect of an employee's path through the company, starting when someone decides to join Accenture. Employees then have numerous and ongoing opportunities to develop their functional, technical, industry, professional, and leadership skills, and that's just the beginning.
"We want to help our clients be high-performing and successful, which means we need to be looking forward to where the world is headed. That often means we have to anticipate advances in technology and technology trends, and by direct implication, the kind of skills and capabilities our people need to serve our clients," says Varma. "We've been thinking about how people will learn in the future, how to bring physicality and the human connection into a digitized environment, and how to do that at scale."
With Accenture's clients in mind, Varma's team focuses on strategic learning: anticipating next-horizon skills, building them, and weaving them into Accenture's workforce. Doing this required a complete rethinking of learning at Accenture.
When Accenture went public in 2001, it had approximately 75,000 employees, mostly in the Western hemisphere. In the next 15 years, it would grow to what is now more than 370,000 people across the globe. It also evolved to develop five distinct and diverse businesses—strategy, consulting, digital, technology, and operations—each of which requires its own range of skills.
"There was also the challenge of training capacity," Varma explains. "For many years, having a bricks-and-mortar corporate university in the U.S. was sufficient, but as we became larger and globally diverse, we could no longer bring people from all over the world to one place."
A third challenge was learning technology. "We needed to be able to upgrade our technology infrastructure but also anticipate and take advantage of rapid changes in technology, weaving them into natural ways in which our people would learn in the future."
And the fourth big challenge was cost. "With five distinct businesses and a huge employee base dispersed throughout the world, we could not run learning with the same costs per employee as we could 15 years ago," says Varma.
To innovate through these challenges, Varma's group began a phase of introspection and research. This was followed by a reinvention period and the launch of what the company calls Accenture Connected Learning, guided by the mantra "time away to learn and learning all the time."
Time away to learn refers to immersion in a learning environment that is free of distractions, Varma explains. This is accomplished through a combination of five regional learning centers (Chicago, London, Madrid, Kuala Lumpur, and Bangalore), local office classrooms, and a network of physical classrooms around the globe that are connected digitally. Accenture calls these connected classrooms.
"Connected classrooms represented a massive revolution for us," says Varma. For almost two years his group researched the use of space, technology, and curricula for learning and used the findings to create classrooms around the world connected by many layers of technology. To date there are 56 connected classrooms.
"When you connect whole classrooms to each other, the cultural immersion that takes place and the ability of people from many parts of the world to access the same experts is amazing. It is as if everyone is in the same room."
The practice of learning all the time at Accenture is about weaving learning into the natural fabric of work and the behaviors that people need to master. Two changes support this. The first was to transfer more and more learning to mobile devices so that people could access it on the move, for example, while traveling to work with clients.
The second was to accelerate learning on the job by such practices as changing the mix of people in teams, changing people's roles, and using learning architecture to speed up learning. "With these changes, we have seen people's time to productivity shrink. We have also seen the need for fewer supervisors, which has had a significant impact on our cost of service. We continue to introduce—and scale—new changes," says Varma.
Extensive research into the future of learning led Accenture to create "learning boards," which enable people to learn directly from experts via technology. "The idea of learning boards is to democratize learning and break through differences among learners," says Varma, who sees the boards as a way to get the best learning to people, no matter where the need to learn arises.
The topics covered on learning boards are created and curated by subject matter experts throughout the company, not by talent development professionals. "This helps our people learn from experts on the job. Learning boards allow them to choose what they want to learn, when they want to learn, and how much they want to learn."
Learning boards caught on quickly. In the 16 months between June 2014 and November 2015, the number of learning boards grew from 187 to 902; the number of unique users increased from 6,100 to more than 135,000. "None of the growth was pushed by us," says Varma. "This is people choosing to learn and having a way to do it."
Performance management reinvented
One of Accenture's biggest recent changes has been to reinvent the way the company manages performance. The company is on a journey to redefine performance management to strengthen how it develops and grows its people. To do this, it has done away with annual performance reviews and replaced performance management with an approach the company calls performance achievement.
"We came to a realization that performance management had outlived its utility," says Varma. "It was demotivating more people than it was motivating to improve their performance." That led to a research project to find out what good performance might look like at the individual level, the team level, and the organization level.
The company sought out and considered feedback from multiple stakeholders, including external and internal sources. They identified companies in various industries, including high-tech, that were outperforming their competitors. They talked to thought leaders, management gurus, and neuroscientists. They identified Accenture teams that were outperforming others and looked at what they were doing to drive high performance. At live events, they listened to employees around the world to learn what those employees were experiencing and what they wanted from performance management. They synthesized all of this and came to three key conclusions.
The first was that when people work at the intersection of what they are great at—their strengths—and what they love to do—their passions—great performance happens.
Second, when there is a clear link between roles and goals—what people are focused on and how that maps to what the organization wants to achieve—they are able to quickly change focus when the organization shifts its goals.
Third, employee engagement occurs not at the organization level but at a team level, when people work with others who complement their strengths and skills and when there is a unified sense of mission. These are characteristics of high-performing teams.
The research also revealed that people were spending vast amounts of time managing performance with ineffective practices. "People were documenting performance in a rearview mirror and meeting behind closed doors to talk about people but not with people. We were stacking, rating, and ranking people and explaining their scores to them based on work they had done six months ago. Nobody can improve their performance retrospectively."
The company soon replaced backward-looking reviews with forward-looking ones related to current roles, delivered near the time of performance and including actions for continuous improvement. People who perform above their level or who outperform their objectives and targets may get promotions or expanded roles; people who need new skills get action steps for learning; people who perform inconsistently—sometimes great, sometimes not—get a fresh look at the alignment between their strengths and their roles; and people who lack the characteristics or skills to perform well at Accenture get help transferring to a place where they can achieve their potential.
"Having a deeper understanding of yourself, and being able to leverage that with your team, and focusing on what really matters, having coaching conversations, and taking forward-looking actions—these are what drive performance and engagement. We're moving from the business of managing performance to actually achieving it. That's why we call it performance achievement," says Varma.
In his role, Varma is responsible for bringing performance achievement to life, which connects him deeply with top leadership. He is the performance achievement coach for a half-dozen top executives and their teams, helping them embrace and internalize these new concepts and work out the mechanics of rolling out change. "We take a top-first approach rather than a top-down approach because that's so crucial to our culture. We always have followed the practice of leaders teaching leaders," says Varma.
He sees this work with the leaders of Accenture's businesses to be important from two perspectives. "Talent development leaders have to be relevant in the C-suite. They have to play the role of partners with our business leaders. And second, we have to implement our new performance achievement approach with them so they can model and lead it.
"Our role as talent development officers is to engage the leaders of our organizations in embedding learning and development and its key innovations into the fabric of our business."
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