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Terra incognita: Mark Wiermans’ evaluations

How can organizations and people remain relevant in the digitized future? Managing Director of the Accenture Innovation Center for Smart Services, Mark Wiermans believes in solutions that put people first. He also believes in continuous evaluation.

“What got you here, will not get you there” is your motto. Why?

“Of all the Fortune 500 companies in 1955, there were only 60 of these left on this list by 2017. Companies must be able to skillfully adapt to change if they want to survive. This means continuous strategic evaluations, and asking yourself, ‘What makes me relevant?’ The same applies to me personally. I am very curious by nature, and everything interests me. This is a good thing; it helps me get things done. It can also be a difficult quality however, so this is why I always ask myself this question.”

You were once responsible for the growth of Accenture’s technology work forces in Heerlen (and Almere). Is it a challenge to recruit the right people here?

“We started recruiting for Heerlen in August 2015, and now have 140 employees working here. I see the potential to expand this to 250 people by 2020. Around half of our growth in personnel is made up of graduates. It took almost a year before we were well-known in the region. People at Maastricht University knew who we were, but achieving the same awareness among higher vocational education students was harder. This situation has improved. What’s really hard to do is attract talent from across the border. In Germany, gross starting salaries for people with a university education are around 45,000 Euros, so 10 to 15,000 Euros higher than in the Netherlands. Although we are taking a more serious approach to the German market, we can’t exactly expect busloads full of new recruits. Belgium is more appealing; there is no language barrier and for many Belgians Heerlen is even closer than Brussels, distance-wise. The crux is in legislation. There is enough talent in the region; the problem is a lack of interesting jobs.”

“we must first grow, together”

Deputy of Economic Affairs Twan Beurskens wants to attract more large, commercial parties to the area. Would that help?

“What we are lacking is a major software player. An auxiliary branch of Microsoft, Google or Amazon would contribute to the attraction of this area. Eindhoven is close, and is a paradise for technical talent. In order to achieve something similar here, we must first grow, together. The government has to actively boost projects that encourage this.”

You once said that organizations “have to try to innovate, together with their partners.”

“The government used to win large contracts on a regular basis. These projects ran so long that you ultimately had to wonder whether or not the right choices had been made. These days, organizations have to formulate long-term objectives and innovate in the short-term. They often don’t know where or how to start. Besides, the current disruptive powers are so substantial that as an organization, by definition you don’t have enough in-house know-how. This is why partnering is so crucial.”

Can the Netherlands learn anything from the United States?

“We offer a great climate for startups and entrepreneurs, and an excellent education system. However, the steps toward digitization that the Dutch government is taking are moving slowly even though citizens are eager to handle things fast, digitally. The American digital health care sector is characterized by a tremendous amount of innovation. The investment power is enormous, and this attracts the attention of venture capitalists (according to research and consultancy firm Mercom Capital Group, the digital health care sector raised nearly 7.2 billion dollars in venture capital worldwide in 2017, 4.9 billion of which was raised by companies in the U.S., author’s note). Of course, a different financing model applies there. I do believe that we could create a similar investment climate here, provided we can draw a sufficient number of large parties to the campus and everything is facilitated, down to the last detail. The Corda Campus in Hasselt (Belgium) is an example of this. It will take a while to achieve this level.”

“We offer a great climate for startups and entrepreneurs, and an excellent education system.”

Is there enough time?

“Great initiatives were rolled out at Techruption last year. It was wise of us all to not first sit down at the table with lawyers to discuss intellectual property. Should we increase our focus on niche markets? Of the three Techruption themes – blockchain, artificial intelligence and climate change – the first two aren’t true themes. Perhaps we should focus more on social topics, or migrate more towards sectors, such as automotive. The question also arises how do we follow through? Will one party be handling any further roll-out, or are we going to launch something on the market collectively? The fact that the earnings model varies for different parties plays a significant role in this.”

Doesn’t this also apply to the interests?

“Yes. Sometimes we are seen as a threat, being such a large company. This is a shame, because we possess a considerable amount of knowledge and have good ideas waiting to be implemented. We also genuinely want to contribute to making other people’s dreams come true at Techruption. I don’t shy away from taking some of the blame; we have to develop even more ideas, together.”

How can you overcome this threat?

“The bottleneck is usually money. At the same time, I have to say that we pay a premium price for this location. It’s a serious long-term investment.”

How would you define responsible digital leadership?

“Developing solutions which place the priority on people. In developing talent, organizations should keep both the short- and medium-term at the back of their minds. AI and robotics require people to be retrained. We also need to find out what our possibilities are when our knowledge and skills are made stronger by new technologies. Responsible digital leadership also implies that we may be held accountable for artificial intelligence; in other words, that we will be able to explain why autonomous systems make certain decisions for us.”

How do you envision this happening? AI expert Tuomas Sandholm says that in the future, artificial intelligence might be justified “at the most by other AI.”

“I don’t know the answer to that. It’s a huge challenge, for everyone.”

“This is why you actually have to experiment as fast as you can in order to map it all out.”

In an article in Het Financieele Dagblad, Melanie Peters, director of the Rathenau Institute, said she thinks it’s a good idea to allow for a period of reflection.

“That’s impossible. Opportunists are everywhere, and they certainly won’t wait. Developments are moving so fast that it is becoming terra incognita. This is why you actually have to experiment as fast as you can in order to map it all out. If autonomous systems are going to start making more and more decisions, how can we make sure they are the right ones? As long as no legislation has been formulated, the question is which ‘rules’ should we be following? Our advice is to use the organization’s standards and values as a starting point. And be on the look-out for unconscious bias. After all, AI solutions are only as good or bad as the data that is used to train the algorithms. Data can become a weak link.”

So how do you make that link stronger?

“Many security issues aren’t technical, but procedural and human in nature. In the digital world, you have to constantly investigate where leaks can arise and be specific about where you have failed. After this, the right leadership comes into play, pointing these things out to people.”

About Mark Wiermans

Mark Wiermans (1969) started working for Accenture 14 years ago after having built a career at PwC and Oracle, among other companies. He was born “near Echt”, and now lives with his family in Buren (Gelderland) for the convenience this offers in terms of logistics. He still believes Limburg is the most beautiful place on earth. “This is where I feel at home. It’s such a shame that the prosperity Limburg experienced in the 1960s has disappeared. This is why investing time and energy in young people is all the more relevant.”

As a Techruption participant, Accenture is involved in the development of the self-sovereign identity framework. Digital identity is already high on the Accenture agenda; the “ID2020 Alliance” hopes to be able to provide digital identities worldwide in the future to people who don’t have one or are unable to acquire one.

Author: Gwen Teo, Translation: Allison Klein