Debate: Remaking IT at Accenture

By Frank B. Modruson Print this article Print

A decade-long effort to create a world-class IT organization became an accidental test of the tweak-versus- trash technology debate.

When the time comes to upgrade IT equipment and systems, is it better to repair what you have—patching and tweaking systems and software to keep things running—or replace the old technology entirely and start with a clean slate? That was the dilemma facing Accenture CIO Frank Modruson.

I recently faced a decision familiar to any homeowner. My furnace was nearing the end of its useful life, and my choices were clear: replace a few critical parts at a modest cost in the hope of extending its service for a few more years, or replace the entire system at a considerably greater cost.

As I examined these options, a key consideration was the fact that an entirely new heating system would allow me to take advantage of the latest and greatest advances in home heating technology and efficiency. That would be impossible to do if I were just going to refurbish the current furnace.

As mundane as this decision was, my furnace choice exemplifies a dilemma familiar to many CIOs. When the time comes to upgrade IT equipment and systems, is it better to repair what you have—patching and tweaking systems and software to keep things running—or replace the old technology entirely and start with a clean technology slate?

Of course, the IT “tweak or trash” debate is far more complicated than replacing a furnace. IT’s operational imperative to ensure uptime and avoid downtime at all costs creates a natural bias toward risk avoidance. A philosophy of “it works, so don’t touch it” nurtures the growth of hybrid IT environments in which multiple systems coexist, documentation and qualified programmers are hard to find, and it appears safer and cheaper to make tiny patches rather than risk transformational change.

Over the last decade, we in Accenture faced a series of decisions more momentous than, but not unlike, my furnace call. Looking back to the year 2000, when we were essentially a new company (having recently gone public), we had embarked on an accidental experiment—even though we didn’t realize it then.

We inherited legacy systems from our former parent and needed to build separate technology capabilities. We had no idea that Accenture would today have more than 244,000 employees or revenues of $25.5 billion. But we had ambitious growth strategies and knew we needed the IT infrastructure to support that growth. While we did not plan it in advance, our efforts over the last decade to create a world-class IT organization effectively became an accidental test of the tweak-versus-trash debate.

Set a Coherent Strategy

Our first task was to set a coherent IT strategy and build an independent capability. Then we concentrated on running IT just as we would any other business, with a focus on efficiency. We centralized, rationalized and standardized, cutting our global applications from 600 down to 267 and local apps from 1,500 to 255.

We migrated from multiple country-specific platforms to a single-instance global ERP. When we came up against the
tweak-versus-trash decision, we opted for trashing what we had, mainly because innovations in IT kept making the newest available solutions much more powerful than any legacy systems.

By the middle of the decade, we had our IT shop in order and were in a position to tackle even bigger changes. These included a complete network transformation, which gave us the bandwidth to build out one of the world’s largest high-definition video conferencing networks, as well as enabling us to introduce an entire suite of powerful collaboration tools. These tools have already had—and will continue to have—an enormous effect on our evolution as a virtual enterprise.

Take video conferencing as a case in point. I recently thought about how my business travel had changed over time since we started using video conferencing to replace travel. My sense was that I was traveling less, so I took a look at my mileage records for the past five years.

Although my air miles for client meetings had remained roughly constant, miles traveled for Accenture management meetings had been reduced 35 percent because we now do so many of our internal meetings via video conference. I benefit, my family benefits and Accenture benefits.

As our universe of 45,000 Webcam-enabled Accenture professionals expands and we continue to bridge our video network with client systems, we expect these benefits to multiply.

This article was originally published on 2012-02-27
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