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Accenture predicts post-digital age where trust is the differentiator

The latest Accenture Technology Vision report calls out 'DARQ' technologies as the new must-have for CIOs and underscores the importance of building digital trust.

The latest Accenture Technology Vision annual report has declared that we are entering a "post-digital" age that to some extent breaks away from the core premise of the digital era Accenture predicted in 2005.

Now that all businesses are essentially digital, the main factor enabling companies to take advantage of emerging trends in a post-digital age will have as much to do with building trust as with building a better tech stack, Accenture execs said at a media briefing in San Francisco.

"Leaders must recognize that human values, such as trust and responsibility, are not just buzzwords but critical enablers of their success," said Paul Daugherty, Accenture's chief technology and innovation officer.

Indeed, all five of the emerging trends Accenture identifies in its latest report will require companies to think about digital trust as a core concept.

Five trends, Accenture-style

So what are the five big trends that will ensure success in a post-digital age? At a high level, they include the adoption of esoteric new technologies like AI, along with personalized marketing, workplace automation, beefed-up security and real-time marketing -- or to use Accenture's nomenclature:

  • DARQ (digital ledger, AI, extended reality and quantum computing)
  • Get to Know Me
  • Human + Worker
  • Secure Us
  • My Markets

Early adopters of these practices will reap some short-term wins, Daugherty said, but long-term success will depend on how well companies address the trust issues that have given "Big Tech" a black eye over the last year.

These issues include: concerns about data privacy; big tech’s complicity (witting or unwitting) in election hacking; and the health dangers of digital overload -- a phenomenon being countered by the Time Well Spent movement. The backlash has seeped into popular culture, Daugherty said, pointing to the spate of Super Bowl ads this year that jabbed at big tech. (Two examples are TurboTax's RoboChild and Pringles' Sad Device, which point up the disjunction between normal human behavior and digital assistants.)

"Six years ago, companies were focused on how to use digital to support their businesses instead of how [digital] changed workers' lives, partners' lives and customers' lives," Daugherty said, adding that the impact of tech will become a major board responsibility in the post-digital age.

DARQ: Nerd redux

On the technology front, enterprise IT strategies will have to change in order for CIOs and their companies to be successful, according to Accenture. Over the last decade, IT infrastructure moved out of the spotlight as a competitive differentiator as enterprises adopted virtual infrastructure and cloud computing. But in a post-digital age, CIOs will have to augment commodity technology with cutting-edge and bespoke IT.

"We think increasingly over the next three to five years, companies will need to regain the infrastructure expertise they have lost because they didn't have to think about it as much as in the early stages of servers and so on," said Michael Biltz, managing director of the strategic technology vision at Accenture Technology Labs.

We coined the term DARQ [digital ledger, AI, extended reality, and quantum computing] because we wanted to make a comparison to SMAC.
Michael Biltzmanaging director, Accenture Technology Labs

Moreover, the set of technologies for success has changed. Four years ago, everyone was talking about SMAC (social, mobile, analytics and cloud), Biltz said.

"We coined the term DARQ [digital ledger, AI, extended reality and quantum computing] because we wanted to make a comparison to SMAC," Biltz said.

DARQ technologies include cutting-edge things like neuromorphic chips, biological computing, as well as edge computing. "Think of quantum as a proxy for non-transistor forms of computing. The point is you need to master a new set of technologies in the post-digital age," he said.

As CIOs learn about and deploy these technologies for competitive advantage, however, they will also have to think about how to engender trust in IT services. Digital ledger technology, or blockchain, represents a way for enterprises to computationally build trusted connections with various partners. The mass adoption of AI will require enterprises to find ways to build more transparency into models -- or risk losing the trust of employees, customers and regulators, Biltz said.

Paul Daugherty is Accenture's chief technology and innovation officer. Michael Biltz is managing director of the strategic technology vision at Accenture Technology Labs.
Paul Daugherty, chief technology and innovation officer at Accenture (left) and Michael Biltz, managing director of the strategic technology vision at Accenture Technology Labs.

Post-digital age brings tech ethics to fore

Daugherty said we are living in a world where the amazing applications of advanced technology -- from autonomous cars to virtual realities -- are raising questions about whether technology is good or bad.

The growing concern about the ethics of technology is a radical departure from just six years ago, when Accenture first pronounced that "every business is a digital business." Back then, Accenture had a hard time convincing the boards of traditional enterprises that digital technologies were driving new ways of doing business. Over time, this became an accepted axiom and in 2018 enterprises spent about $1.1 trillion on digital transformation.

Today, a key aspect of the post-digital age is that leaders now have to think about the impact of technology on employees, users and the community, rather than on just the business. "Post-digital is the place where opportunity meets responsibility," Daugherty said.

The "opportunity meets responsibility" mantra will become ever more important as companies use a slew of digital technologies, including mobile and IoT, to provide a pleasant "customer experience," the new holy grail of customer service. An example cited by Daugherty is John Hancock. The insurance company, which used to pride itself on how little it engaged with customers, recently launched its Vitality insurance product that provides discounts for healthy living, using customer data collected from hundreds of touchpoints.

Daugherty said he expects many companies will have 400 to 500 digital customer touchpoints in the post-digital age. Organizations that can show they are collecting and using personal customer data in a responsible way will be rewarded with customer loyalty. "This is not only a good thing to do but a necessary advantage," Daugherty said.

Maribel Lopez is founder and principal analyst at Lopez ResearchMaribel Lopez

Acting responsibly will go beyond simply protecting customer data to treating customers' attention with respect, Daugherty said. He called out his airline-of-choice for the annoying marketing tactics used in its check-in kiosk, which force him to hunt for the button to check into his flight because it's obscured by a big blaring appeal to buy more miles. "If that is the way you treat a high-revenue customer, how much confidence do I have in how they treat others?" he asked.

How do you define trust?

Maribel Lopez, founder and principal analyst at Lopez Research, who was at the Accenture event, expects enterprises to face several challenges in cultivating trust as a practice. For starters, everybody defines it differently. Secondly, companies will struggle to figure out how to educate customers in how they use personal data.

"No one reads EULAs and privacy policies," she said.

A third challenge is data anonymization: How do companies ensure that individuals can't be identified in the data they aggregate. "All of these challenges must be addressed before you can start sharing data with partners," Lopez said.

The digital trust hierarchy

In the 1980s, car companies were forced to create better processes for building more reliable autos -- or go out of business, Daugherty said. Today, as cars have become moving computers, collecting, generating and increasingly dependent upon massive amounts of data, the automotive industry urgently needs to build better processes for managing information.

Building digital trust won't be easy for companies, he said. One strategy is to think about digital trust as a hierarchy of governance, akin to Maslow's hierarchy of needs. At the bottom is IT security and protecting people's data from breaches. Second, is being transparent in how you use people's data and the algorithms needed to process it. Third is fairness, which Daugherty said relates to addressing biases built into technologies that make decisions about customers and employees. The fourth layer is honesty, that is, a good faith effort to follow established laws and regulations. At the top is accountability across the organization for all these aspects of governance.

In addition to working with consumers, businesses in the post-digital age will need to do a better job of building trust with regulators. Part of the problem is that technology is moving so fast, old regulatory models can't keep up.

Dougherty suggested one approach might be for companies to form partnerships with regulators to create new models and practices: for example, drone manufacturers working with the FAA, or autonomous car companies working with the NHTSA [National Highway Traffic Safety Administration]. Another approach might be to create regulatory test beds to see how proposed regulations work in practice. "This is going to become the norm," Daugherty said.

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