Accenture Technology Labs is easy to overlook. Located on Page Mill Road in Palo Alto, Calif. in an attractive but modestly sized building, it's just stone's throw away from the research facility of one of Silicon Valley's most storied garage-to-riches innovators, Hewlett-Packard.
But the world's largest consulting firm has unique insight into how major companies around the globe do business. And Accenture spends an average of $250 million annually trying to figure out how to do business, better.
"We hear all their business problems," explained Luke Hughes, director of research at the Palo Alto lab.
Accenture maintains four research labs. The other three are located in Chicago, Illinois, Sophia Antipolis, France, and Bangalore, India.
Accenture Labs' mission falls somewhere between seeing the future and inventing it. For example, Accenture in 2005 began a pilot program with St. Louis, Mo. transportation agency Metro St. Louis to predict equipment failure in its buses using data analytics and sensor technology.
During the pilot test, the system identified a part that was overheating within the bus's transmission system. This enabled maintenance personnel to mitigate the problem before a more substantial and costly repair was required. Metro St. Louis is apparently still evaluating whether to roll the system out to its entire fleet.
Hughes said Accenture is focused eight significant business technology trends over the next five years: 1) virtualized infrastructure; 2) seamless IT interoperability; 3) process-centric (modular) IT; 4) closed-loop analytics; 5) fluid collaboration platforms; 6) Web 2.0 as a mass participation platform; 7) mobility; and 8) industrialized software development.
More immediately, Hughes and his researchers are working on software that, in essence, aims to automate Google. The goal of the Business Event Advisor is to "spend less time Googling" by automatically seeking answers to business intelligence questions.
The system tries to answer the question: "What are my competitors doing that might impact my position in the market place?" It then makes answers to that question available to the user through a Web-based executive dashboard.
Think of the Business Event Advisor as semantic Google News Alerts in a dashboard page. Rather than just matching keywords, it can match concepts. In a demonstration, Hughes showed how a manufacturing company like Ford might use the system to track industry relevant events like a car recall issued by a competitor and to plan a response to capitalize on the competitor's predicted loss of sales.
"No more death by RSS," said Hughes, referring to the tendency of knowledge workers to track more syndicated news feeds than they can actually manage.
But the Business Event Advisor is more than simply a response to information overload. It's also an effort to translate news events into actionable information using limited computer intelligence. For instance, a news report about the resignation of a supplier's CFO might indicate looming financial trouble for that supplier, an event that might argue for a review of alternate supply arrangements.
If this sounds like a Web 3.0 scenario in which metadata adds meaning to unstructured online content, it's more like Web 2.5, the semi-semantic Web. "Web 3.0 is a nice fantasy," said Accenture researcher Alex Kass. "I don't think the Web will be like that."
Hughes expects the system to hit the market in three years. The basic technology to do this is available today, he said, but specific data modeling has to be done for each industry segment and text analytics is still maturing.