Accenture's Infrastructure Overhaul: A Single Version of the Truth

By Samuel Greengard  |  Posted 11-10-2011

Accenture's Infrastructure Overhaul: A Single Version of the Truth

Building a robust IT infrastructure is a daunting proposition for any multinational company. But for global management and information technology consulting firm Accenture, which serves clients in 120 countries and has approximately 236,000 people scattered across the globe, it's the foundation for success.

Although Accenture's business focuses on helping other organizations build and manage complex IT environments, overseeing the firm's internal IT infrastructure is an ongoing challenge. CIO Insight spoke with Accenture CIO Frank Modruson about how the consulting firm addresses the complexity of today's business environment, and what his plans are for the company's future IT infrastructure.

CIO Insight: What steps have you taken to build an IT infrastructure that's equipped to handle the challenges of today's business environment?

Frank Modruson: If we go back to 2001, Accenture had what would probably be described as a traditional IT approach. Various countries managed their own systems. We had a variety of tools, applications and systems that functioned together within a 'federated' model. We had a lot of cutting-edge information technology and we were able to run the business effectively. But it wasn't cost-effective. In fact, if you look at the benchmarks for our industry, we were pretty much average. For a consulting firm that's advising others, that's not good enough.

CIO Insight: What changes did you make?

Modruson: By 2005 we had dramatically consolidated and modernized our IT infrastructure. We had consolidated everything into a single platform. In 2001 we had roughly 2,100 applications running across the enterprise. Today, we're down to about 500. We cleaned up IT and became a lot more integrated. Along the way, we saved money. Our per-person technology cost is less than one-third of what it was when we started this initiative and we support nearly 240,000 people instead of 75,000. But that wasn't the biggest gain. We benefited by having better quality information [than we previously had]. When we eliminated duplicate data sources, we got to a single version of the truth.

CIO Insight: What was involved with this transition and how did you get to a single version of the truth?

Modruson: We moved to a single ERP system worldwide. Every financial transaction across the globe goes into the system. So, for example, when an employee submits a Web-based time report, it's there. The beauty of this approach is that we don't have to do any roll-ups or consolidations. Everything is standardized and all the data is available at any moment on a 24x7 basis. Contrast this with the way we were doing things 10 years ago. One of our key metrics is chargeability. We used to get different numbers when running the same report for the same thing at two different locations. Then things would degrade into an argument over which report and data to use. We also have the same recruiting capability and analytics capabilities worldwide. This level of standardization has made things a lot simpler and better [than under the previously system].

CIO Insight: How did you go about upgrading and changing your network infrastructure?

Modruson: In 2001, we were very much a PBX, voice-based organization.  Today, we have an all-IP-based voice, data, and video infrastructure. So all our applications are on the web, all our voice traffic is over IP, and all video is over IP. This was a huge undertaking but now one network accommodates all three technologies. The ROI was about two-and-a-half years. Along the way, we also migrated from Lotus Notes to Microsoft and consolidated mail hosting, we cleaned up storage, and moved heavily into server virtualization. About 90 percent of our servers are now virtualized.

CIO Insight: How has the IP network boosted productivity and changed the way people work?

Modruson: The ability to use telepresence and desktop video has been a game changer. My phone isn't really a phone anymore. It's my laptop. It's the same phone number and it follows me wherever I go around the world. We view each other when we speak to one another. All laptops have high definition video capabilities and we also have about 100 telepresence units scattered around the world. In some cases, we've had meetings with as many as 30 people from around the world--Paris, New York, Mumbai, Chicago, Singapore and from a home office in Raleigh, North Carolina--seeing each other and interacting in real-time. We are also using video bridging that combines groups using telepresence and desktop video. It's the future and it's happening today.

CIO Insight: How does mobility factor into the equation?

Modruson: As we start talking about mobility and social media, the capabilities are magnified. We use Microsoft's Office Communicator/Link for voice, video and desktop sharing. It is integrated with our active directories of all the people in the company. The result is extremely robust cross-organizational communication. People can work anywhere and do voice, video and desktop sharing. We have more than 110,000 people using laptops and around 85,000 using a smartphone.

Accenture's Mobility, Social Media Strategies

CIO Insight: How do you approach mobility in terms of which devices you allow people to use?

Modruson: There are no standards and restrictions about the types of device employees can use. About 40,000 employees have devices we've provided, the rest bring their own to work. There are security requirements and we impose restrictions about how an employee connects to the network. But our thinking is we don't want to inhibit anyone. Today, and looking toward the future, we want to make it as easy as possible to access and share information.

CIO Insight: What are you doing in the area of collaboration and social media?

Modruson: It's an area that's evolving rapidly and it's a foundation for the future of the business. We have our own internal Facebook-type application. You can maintain your profile, tap into blogging capabilities, and use micro blogging and other tools. You can see a picture of the people you're talking to or interacting with, which is always nice. The system allows employees to connect in a far more intelligent and powerful way.

CIO Insight: Looking toward the future, what plans do you have as an organization and what do you see happening in IT overall?

Modruson: In the past, IT tweaked systems internally to get the performance level it needed. But that's rarely necessary today. Things are much more standardized and you have hosting and managed service providers that can reduce, if not eliminate, entire levels of complexity. I think we'll see a lot more cloud computing. For one thing, it's a cost efficiency play. For another, it's a scalability issue. As much as we've standardized, there are additional efficiencies to be gained by going out to the cloud. You can manage a larger number of devices with fewer people. The cloud is also a way to get rid of some mundane operational tasks, including managing e-mail.

Over the next few years, the cloud will change the nature of IT organizations. You'll still have an IT group because you need somebody to oversee the third party providers, plot contracts and oversee service providers that you're using within the cloud. But IT organizations will be smaller and it will become more of an exercise in strategy and IT management. Clouds have the potential to get rid of a lot of the daily noise of IT.

As a result, there will be growing acknowledgment that the power of information systems is in the data. We will see a lot more people focusing on data structures and how to unleash data and use it to build the business, interface with customers more effectively and introduce new products and services that match the needs of the marketplace. Software as a service and clouds simplify data management so they are here to stay. They move an IT department from an administrative and technical focus to a more strategic business focus.

CIO Insight: Any final thoughts about the direction IT is headed?

Modruson: One of the biggest challenges today is the speed at which things are changing. It used to be that longer IT cycles existed. Now, we see old business models colliding with new business models and transitions are becoming more difficult. The problem is getting rid of the old technology. Organizations have to understand--and it's certainly something that we have had to confront--that legacy systems hold an organization back and squelch innovation. They eventually become a big boat anchor. It's critically important to leave the past behind. That means moving to an all-IP network, embracing video and collaboration tools, tapping into social networking, relying on business analytics tools and, as much as possible, enabling mobility. In the end, everything has to come back to being strategic.