Design leads to solutions at Accenture studio

Through an expanded studio in the heart of Washington, D.C., Accenture Federal Services wants to do more for government agencies than simply providing solutions to solve their problems and fulfill requirements laid out in solicitations.

Technology can certainly be part of the solution, through rapid prototyping and feedback loops for instance, but how humans interact with the tools as part of their workflow or experience with government is a large piece of the picture Accenture wants to fill in.

“When we’re going to explore new technologies and it could be something that’s just new to them or new broadly in the marketplace… we’re keeping people in the center, so we’re reducing the risk the adoption’s not going to work right,” said Ira Entis, AFS managing director of strategic solutions and emerging technologies.

Opened in 2016, the Accenture Federal Digital Studio has doubled to 20,000 square feet and now also includes a design and innovation team from Fjord, a global digital design services firm the Accenture parent acquired six years ago.

Between 120 and 130 people work inside the studio, said Randy Rodriguez, digital group design director for Accenture Federal Services. The studio team as it has grown has worked with 27 federal agencies and at least 140 projects in the past three years.

“We knew that there were three things we needed to do to make it successful,” Rodriguez said. “To enable our clients to think differently, work differently and actually execute differently. And they’re all connected, you cannot really eliminate one versus the other.”

The studio’s method of melding thought, work and execution can also be seen in where they bring talent in from across the broader Accenture corporation.

Entis said that in building the studio team, Accenture “sought to bring together folks with federal experience but (also) folks who brought a history of commercial success” -- meaning those who worked on similar engagements with Accenture’s nongovernment customers.

Kathy Conrad, AFS director of digital government, said the studio’s blended teams also bring together people with different job titles to work on projects from different angles. They can include designers, front-end developers, data scientists and business specialists.

“By combining those skills you can understand the problem or the question in a holistic way, take things that are super-complicated and design elegant, simple solutions that are feasible and hit the business outcomes of the client,” Conrad said.

Two key engagements that highlight how the studio has approached the human-centric method since it has opened can be found in two seemingly different agencies -- the Navy and Agriculture Department.

Accenture helped the Navy roll out re-engineered workflows, plus automated data collection and robotic process automation tools over six months in order to refresh how the branch manages its readiness operations.

Within Agriculture, the goal was to move processes in USDA’s animal care group to online formats that include submissions of documents via electronic methods. That project involved continual feedback loops with employees and customers through a self-service tool.

Conrad, a former General Services Administration executive who joined Accenture in 2015, said another key aspect of the overall transformation push inside agencies is how they are thinking about and through risk when it comes to adoption of new technologies or business processes.

Other federal market executives have noted to us in the past that agencies are increasingly embracing the element of risk in innovation but in a paradoxical way.

While not going away entirely, multi-year development programs are becoming less prominent early on in an agency’s innovation journey and are being replaced to some extent by smaller procurements such as data challenges and other types that seek agile, incremental deliveries.

“Agencies have learned the big bang approach actually brings more risk than trying new things in small ways to craft a path forward,” Conrad said. “Adopting new methods like human-centric design and agile, and using rapid prototyping is actually seen as reducing risk because agencies can validate that they’re going down the right path.”

Larger procurements also are starting to include similar phases like data challenges earlier on in the process to gradually move forward upon, according to Entis.

That approach comes as agencies face pressure from citizens to replicate the same kind of digital experiences with government agencies that people can have with commercial sectors like banking and others.

 “We’re seeing agencies sometimes in those challenges, (they) sometimes start small in scale,” Entis said.

“But often as part of large, integrated procurements recognizing that this is a technique that they need to adopt as part of what they’re doing to be able to meet that almost insatiable demand to continue to adapt to the new normal.”

As Rodriguez also put it, the similarities between what agencies want to do for citizens and what businesses want to do for their customers are easy to see.

“In federal there is no difference… we’re helping our clients fill that gap between where the Venmos of the world and Googles of the world and so on who are creating these experiences and the services that are almost real time, and the transaction value between us and the service is meaningful,” Rodriguez said. “We want to close that gap in federal.”

About the Author

Ross Wilkers is a senior staff writer for Washington Technology. He can be reached at rwilkers@washingtontechnology.com. Follow him on Twitter: @rosswilkers. Also connect with him on LinkedIn.

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