The Dock’s Ryan Shanks: ‘Digital transformation takes courage’

Ryan Shanks is the director of The Dock, Accenture’s global multidisciplinary research and incubation hub based in Dublin’s Silicon Docks. It researches, incubates, prototypes and pilots new technologies with pioneering clients across multiple industries and sectors.

A high-performing international executive with 20 years of experience across several industries such as telecommunications, software, banking and the public sector, the theme throughout Shanks’ career and his expertise lies in the intersection of business strategy, people and technology.

‘The thing that is holding everyone back is the courage internally to make decisions to get around the silos, to empower the frontline to delight customers’
– RYAN SHANKS

An American, Swedish and Irish national, Shanks was based for a number of years in Chicago, Stockholm and Dublin while managing projects across North America, Europe and Asia.

His experience ranges from innovation to corporate operating model design, to digital culture change and leadership development. Shanks is also a global thought leader on talent and organisation strategy who frequently presents at academic, governmental and business events. His recent publications are in the areas of the future of work and human-robot collaboration.

Things are happening so fast, from robotics to AI. How do we humanise tech and help leaders to make the right bets?

What we are noticing with this digital revolution that we are living in now is, things are scaling so quickly. If Uber can go from zero to what it is now in 10 years and Airbnb can also do it in 10 years, there are a lot of capabilities that are going from zero to a massive scale very quickly, and the regulators and other people will never be able to catch up as long as we work at this pace.

An exercise we sometimes do with clients when they come up with ideas is, we run them through a process of intended and unintended consequences. There is an intended consequence for the iPhone and smartphones. There is an intended consequence for Airbnb and Uber, but also unintended consequences that disrupted labour markets, made employment precarious etc. So, as we are coming up with new ideas, the question is: what are some of the unintended consequences?

What is the hardest thing about digital transformation?
Man in grey jacket stands in front of pink metal wall.

Ryan Shanks, director of The Dock. Image: Accenture

If leaders can’t gain clarity, it is one of the reasons why they hold back on the digital transformation journey. What we have to do responsibly at Accenture and at The Dock is to bring that discussion to the table, which is what we are increasingly doing.

The dimension beyond tech, design and commercial is social impact. A strategy will not scale in most organisations if people feel there is something creepy or irresponsible about it. Just because you can theoretically automate a huge amount of work, should you do it overnight?

Leaders immediately get into questions about reskilling and what can I do with this talent, and that’s where Accenture comes in with the future of work. We look at automation possibilities but equally we look at reskilling. We are looking at doing skills analysis to equip people who may be in jobs that have a significant number of tasks that will be automated; how to find and reskill and create pathways into new jobs that we know will be coming in the future. UX, for example, as a career didn’t exist 10 years ago but now, for designers, data is a fabric.

The thing that is holding everyone back is the courage internally to make decisions to get around the silos, to empower the frontline to delight customers. Digital transformation takes courage.

How is The Dock shaping the future of Accenture?

Our purpose is to pioneer the way Accenture partners with its clients, to improve client value, and revolutionise the way the world works and lives. The word ‘pioneering’ is important. I was in Accenture 19 years and there was always work we would have liked to have sold to a client, but the world just wasn’t ready.

This is the place that is always going to be two ticks earlier. We get to work on the smart home and the future airport, for example, and we are making investments upfront into cross-industry topics and applications. We are choosing work that we see is worth our investment and time to experiment in – areas such as cybersecurity and how we will use AI in the near future.

Eventually, many of our assets get industrialised and go out to the rest of Accenture as a brand new asset. There are other things we may take to a proof-of-concept stage, but we don’t build it more fully because we decide that it is not intellectual property we are going to own. Or, we may decide that we are not in the business of making that particular software because there are companies and start-ups already doing that.

We prototype it and package it for the rest of Accenture. We are pioneering. We are scouting for some of the new stuff. These are things that a normal client relationship wouldn’t pay for because of the level of uncertainty … but we believe if we make targeted investments, it may pay off later.

The best way to think of The Dock is as an innovation centre within a professional services organisation.

How well are organisations doing in figuring out the future?

Take smart homes, for example. We have had many utilities companies here as well as telcos and cable companies trying to figure out what to do next. You also have the likes of Google and Amazon who have an interest in, and products in, the smart home. We have also looked at elderly care in the smart home with a global insurance company that is a trusted brand.

They all come to The Dock because each of these industries are individually finding it difficult to make a business case, so they need to come together to figure it out.

We are like a ‘no fire’ zone where you can bring people from across different industries to really get under the skin of something like the smart home, and we are objective.

It’s hard. The vast majority of things we do in The Dock never make it to minimum viable product (MVP) and I’m actually happy about that because otherwise we wouldn’t be innovating. The Dock has been created as a space where that is completely OK.

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