Working to make Limburg a digital European hotspotmarch 24, 2019
Accenture is the world’s largest consultancy organization for the business, non-profit and government sectors. The company is active for its customers in 120 countries, has nearly 470,000 employees and its annual income last year was almost 40 billion dollars. Accenture has had a base of operations at the Brightlands Smart Services Campus in Heerlen since 2016 where it currently employs 150 people. A blockchain specialist among other things, Tom Ghelen (photo) gives us a tour and explanation of Accenture’s Tech Vision, the company’s annual influential publication on technology trends and the future.
Whereas in days long past, government officials performed pension calculations in nice neat formation, these days, it is pool tables but mostly foosball tables that are attracting attention. “It won’t be long before you can play a game against the computer,” Tom Ghelen says, explaining the wires attached to the swivelling arm, and the cameras above the table. “Our people devised, designed and built this themselves. It’s not our core business of course, but is just one of the countless examples of all the things you can do with technology. That soccer pitch is packed with sensors and other electronics.
The computer is self-learning thanks to algorithms and artificial or, better yet, applied intelligence. This is exactly the type of thing we are all working on here at the Campus.”
There are very few reminders left here of pension company ABP’s former open-plan office space. Workspaces are divided up into sitting and standing desks, conference tables are spread throughout the space and an informal atmosphere dominates. “This is just one of the ways to be an attractive employer for young people,” explains Tom Ghelen who has worked for Accenture for 18 years and was involved in the design and expansion of the facility in Heerlen since day one. “This is an important place for us in Western Europe. There are a lot of Accenture clients in this region and we want to be able to serve them in the most personalized way possible. Even though Accenture is an enormous company, we like to work locally. Every office is actually a sort of independent company with its own targets and strategy. This naturally fits in with the total picture, with all the advantages of the parent company’s facilities, but consultancy is a people-oriented business. Our staff are sympathetic, want to know exactly how an organization functions and what it needs to continue. Digitalization is also a tailored activity where people work closely together. Doing your job from huge distances doesn’t work.”
Accenture was one of the first tenants when the Brightlands Smart Services Campus moved into the vacant building on the outskirts of Heerlen a few years ago. “An innovation campus specialized in data; this certainly grabbed our attention. Data is the gold of the future and is actually the next step after digitalization. After all, everything’s already digital; the next era is dawning. How can be smart about how we deploy data? What kinds of things can we do with it? In a strategic sense, Heerlen is an ideal location. It’s in the middle of a region with an amazing concentration of universities and other institutions of higher education. Over 60,000 academic students are swimming in this ‘pond’ which covers an area with a radius of 100 kilometers. It’s at the heart of the manufacturing industry and smart services, a region where knowledge flows, and where there is an abundance of available talent. We wanted to be a part of it all as Accenture.”
The philosophy appeared to be accurate. Accenture does not have a lot of trouble attracting talent. The counter is already at 150, and is expected to at least double over the coming years. “International talent,” Tom Ghelen says, in qualifying this statement. He got his master’s in Computer Science from the Louvain Catholic University in 1999. “We have people of ten different nationalities working for us. On any given day, you’ll hear English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Dutch and German here. We have people here from all over the world who have done their master’s degree in the area and decided to stay. They are looking for interesting jobs, challenges. They find them here, and with the other pioneers at this Campus, at the organizations we work with, such as APG and DSM. We are part of an ecosystem that is working on the technological solutions of the future.”
Accenture provides support in the form of consultants for thousands of companies, government agencies and non-profit organizations active in the fields of ICT, management, finance and logistics, among others. The emphasis in Heerlen is on technology and digitalization. These are areas that fit in seamlessly with the recently published Tech Vision, an annual publication that explores the future and trends. “We didn’t come up with this on our own,” Tom Ghelen emphasizes. “Tech Vision is the upshot of the work that we do with prominent academic institutions, our clients and other associates and what we learn in our networks. 6,600 consultants and executives worked on the 2019 edition of the vision. It shouldn’t be called future vision, but more of a path we are going to follow in the world. We announced far-reaching digitalization a few years ago, and it’s not that hard to see it. It’s mostly about how we can support companies and organizations. We do this by investing in new technologies; we have our own labs, we build our own blockchain and have access to the first quantum computers. We show people what intelligent automation and computer robots, artificial and applied intelligence mean, and what the practical applications are. We hold co-creation sessions lasting two, four or even eight days with customers during which we examine the options. The repercussions may be found in Tech Vision, and other sources.”
This year, the exploration will focus primarily on the post-digital age. Doesn’t this sound like somewhat of a paradox in a time when everything is being digitalized? “Yes, but things move so fast. We are all digital with our smartphones and Internet connection. I actually do not know of a single company in the Western world that isn’t digitalizing. Even bakeries have their own websites, metal manufacturers have robots, and banks have financial ICT. These days, you can even design your own shoes in an Adidas store and have them printed on-site in the 3D printer. There are of course exceptions, but the world is digital. We are now heading toward the phase of using all these digital possibilities which will truly change the world. Companies and organizations will have to deliver what consumers want, and never the other way around. Business models are being turned upside down.”
The use of data is crucial. “We have mountains of data at our disposal, but we use maybe five percent of this, tops. The reason for this is that we aren’t able to introduce order into these mountains yet; we need specialists who can do this. We also need the quantum computer that can generate calculations a million times faster than the current computers. This is just a matter of time, no doubt about it. We are headed towards a personalized world. Marketing is becoming personalized, and data can help you figure out exactly what people want. The technology is there, and blockchain is part of this and will undoubtedly play a huge role in the future. We are going to live our lives differently, more sustainably, and we will produce and distribute food and energy more efficiently. The job market will also experience dramatic changes. Repetitive, taxing work will disappear and make room for challenges, including for people with less education. After all, digitalization makes everything easier. Examples? Driverless cars, personalized medicine, healthcare robots, chat robots, robotics in industry, logistics and construction. 3D printing is another example. Are there disadvantages? Definitely, but also challenges, such as security and privacy. Tech Vision 2019 is basically an exploration of how we are going to meet these challenges, and Heerlen is no exception. It is my dream and ambition to make Limburg a European digital hotspot.”