Inventing the Future of Business Technology

Accenture Labs' test building in Silicon Valley falls somewhere between seeing the future and inventing it, researchers suggest.

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

May 14, 2007

6 Min Read

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.

A lab project that may make it to market sooner is the Technology Investment Radar, which might be described as a news analysis engine grafted to Google Trends. Its purpose is to tell Accenture clients when to invest in a given technology. This turns out to be a non-trivial issue since investing too soon or too late can doom a given technology initiative to failure.

The Technology Investment Radar counts mentions of certain technologies (i.e.: WiMAX) in news articles and in online documents like job postings to determine where that technology is in terms of market acceptance and adoption. It attempts to determine whether a given technology is Pre, Potential, Emerging, Growing, Mature, or Dying.

While assessments of this sort can be done deliberately or intuitively, Accenture's research aims to systematize the process. As this sort of data mining technology becomes more common, Kass foresees companies becoming more cautious about what they post online. He reasons that information that might innocuous in isolation, like a job posting, might be valuable business intelligence to a competitor when aggregated in an automated system.

Systems like Business Event Advisor and the Technology Investment Radar that attempt to automate the collection of business intelligence may have a hidden cost, however. They may encourage the creation and publication of business misinformation, just as keyword searching and search indexing gave rise to spam blogs.

"There will be gaming," said Hughes, "but there will also be some truth in it."

Accenture Labs is also working on other projects such as the Virtual Corridor and Teledining. The Virtual Corridor is a twist on video conferencing. It's simply a corridor with an always-on video connection. Because of its location and the fact that the system uses an always-on video connection, it encourages impromptu collaboration rather than periodic scheduled meetings.

Accenture researchers passing through the Virtual Corridor are apt to encounter their Chicago colleagues and socialize. Initially, it wasn't that way however. It used to be the researchers in Chicago avoided the cameras in their lab because they could not see around the corner in the Palo Alto corridor, making them uncertain about who might be listening to their conversations. With the addition of new cameras and video screens to provide a sense of peripheral vision, the Virtual Corridor became more psychologically inviting and now the system gets frequent use.

Teledining, as its name suggests, envisions a way to dine with distant friends and family. By using a flat screen monitor situated next to participants' dining tables and video cameras, the system can create a sense of togetherness when physical presence isn't possible.

"We're trying to recreate digitally the richness of the physical world," said Hughes, who foresees the technology being used to enhance the ability of the elderly and dispersed families to socialize.

Hughes views the system as a way to reverse the separation that advances in transportation technology made possible during the 20th century. Instead of pushing us apart, technology "now can bring us together," he said.

Just try not to damage the screen when your distant date asks you to pass the salt.

About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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