April 23, 2015

Accenture Interactive's new innovation center

Accenture Interactive R&D Director Alexandre Naressi talks to a robot (photo: Accenture)
Cute conversation: R&D Director Alexandre Naressi chats with a robot (photo: Accenture)
If you like conversing with robots and your watch, but hate driving behind the wheel or shopping in stores, then the future is just for you. This might be one conclusion drawn from a number of thought-provoking presentations given by Accenture managers at the opening of the IT & management consultancy's Innovation Center in Sophia Antipolis last week.

Company experts are clearly convinced that the teething problems of new consumer technology such as wearables, driverless cars, the "internet of things", and delivery drones will soon be resolved. Talking robots are also about to enter call centres and shops in order to deal with customer enquiries. Welcome Brave New World?

Nestling between Nice and Antibes in France's glamorous answer to Silicon Valley, the centre is operated by Accenture Interactive, a part of the firm's digital business unit that provides digital marketing and commerce services to companies. Accenture is an innovation partner for seven of the top 10 global retailers, including Tesco, and major fmcg companies such as P&G, Nestlé or Unilever.

The interior of the new 500m² complex is designed to reflect the structure of the human brain: a "rational" half for the development of Artificial Intelligence etc. and an "emotional" half with meeting rooms for workshops and creative brainstorming sessions.

The star turn at the opening ceremony was, of course, the robot. The latest generation of robots goes beyond speech. Voice recognition technology, combined with facial expression and body language interpretation systems, enable our metallic friends to analyse human emotions and adapt to our moods.

This seemingly improbable advance was demonstrated by Accenture Interactive's R&D director Alexandre Naressi who chatted with a dinky little robot (humans find them less threatening when they are small and have childlike features) about his favourite colour.

As an excellent party trick, the robot, whose name we did not learn, turned its eyes and even the lighting red when Naressi revealed that this was his favourite colour. So one up for robots on man's hitherto best friend: the dog.

Anatoly Roytman, Accenture eCommerce Head (photo: Accenture)
Anatoly Roytman: "Humans are still smarter than machines, but this won't be for long" (photo: Accenture)
"Humans are still smarter, but they will soon be beaten by Artificial Intelligence. In fact, there is very little about the human brain that can't be reproduced and optimised," says Anatoly Roytman, global MD of Ecommerce at Accenture Interactive. "The only question is what our clients are to do in the interim."

Accenture certainly can't be accused of twiddling its thumbs and is currently working on a whole range of projects from the development of new apps to online delivery services which anticipate rather than just react to customer orders.

One of the company's main strengths, however, is the development of software and digital technology platforms to enhance marketing performance. These aim to optimise service quality and thus the experience of online customers. At call centres, for example, voice analysis technology can help staff judge a client's mood.

Provided callers have given permission in advance, operators can also see their latest comments on social media such as Twitter and Facebook.

Mark Curtis, CEO Fjord (photo: Accenture)
Mark Curtis: "Technology can help deal with customer complaints in such a way that they become big marketing chances" (photo: Accenture)
Combined with the data a company already has on a customer, this can prove an invaluable tool for achieving client satisfaction. A very impressive Mark Curtis, co-founder of Accenture design & innovation subsidiary Fjord, is convinced that this will help call centres move "from orders to solution-oriented conversations" at numerous "emotional interfaces".

Curtis also emphasises how near Customer Relationship Management (CRM) is to professional marketing. "If a customer complaint is dealt with quickly and professionally by means of enhanced technology, it does more than avert a possible crisis, it can gain a company valuable marketing brownie points."

Curtis therefore predicts that the roles of Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) and Chief Information Officer (CIO) will become increasingly blurred.   

Customers can also be ranked according to their relative stature as "influencers". Is the company, for instance, talking to one person only or to someone who has 2,000 followers? Inevitably, this type of hierarchy gives rise to a number of moral questions concerning Web 2.0.

Humans make problems

In fact, every technological advance seems to bring a whole new set of human problems with it. This has been recognised by Accenture which regularly appends a discussion on ethics to its research papers.

How, for instance, will the blind cope with quiet electric vehicles? Will driverless cars lead to a higher rate of alcoholism among the middle classes because everyone can drink what they like when they go out for a meal? And, despite collision avoidance technology, could delivery drones start dropping from the sky or pose a security threat?

Most people are probably more worried about their job. Will artificial intelligence create a legion of unemployed and thus cause social unrest? In the UK, for instance, it has been estimated that one in three workplaces could be taken over by a computer or robot within only 20 years.

While admitting the problems, Roytman is optimistic about the potential for good: "Robots could free human beings from drudgery and enable them to do more value-added, creative work."

Rob Harles, Head of Marketing, Accenture (photo: Accenture)
Rob Harles: "If you don't shape your whole corporate culture towards customer satisfaction, then your competition will do it for you" (photo: Accenture)
Perhaps surprisingly for an IT-driven consultancy, Accenture is not a tech fetishist. "The main problem for many companies is not technology itself, but how they are organised," says MD Robert Harles, who is responsible for social media solutions at Accenture Interactive.

What, for instance, is the point of social media monitoring whose insights are not channelled to the right people within the organisation?

Due to silo-shaped hierarchies, numerous managers will often deal with individual client aspects, but it is rare for one, preferably top-level, person to be responsible for the overall customer experience. "The whole corporate culture must be shaped towards providing customer satisfaction. If you don't do this, then your competition will do it for you," Harles warns.

Meanwhile, as technology advances exponentially, one must ask whether most businesses are ready for the huge changes ahead? After a visit to Sophia Antipolis, the answer is almost certainly: no.

Podcast microphone (photo: Gerhard Seybert-Fotolia)
(photo: Gerhard Seybert-Fotolia)

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Our German B2B newspaper, Lebensmittel Zeitung, in print & digital
Read in German: 'Spielfeld für Innovationen' by international editor Mike Dawson on page 42 of
Lebensmittel Zeitung, no. 17, 24.04.2015

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Comments for this article are closed.

  1. Tim Harrap
    Created 23 April, 2015 18:57 | Permanent link

    In Search of Authenticity - Humanising the nature of innovation

    "The Machines are Coming" by Zeynep Tufekci in this past weekend's NYT is relevant to this discussion. Her concluding paragraph sums it all up: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/19/opinion/sunday/the-machines-are-coming.html

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