Accenture’s chief AI officer thinks every C-suite needs a job like hers


The notion of selling pickaxes during a gold rush is a business cliché, but what about selling slide decks about gold-mining best practices?

That’s part of how Accenture has landed $600 million in new bookings from the generative AI craze in the first few months of this year, despite a diminished forecast for the consultancy’s year ahead overall, according to its recent quarterly earnings report. One of the executives at the center of this surge is Lan Guan, who was elevated to the position of Accenture’s chief AI officer last year after previously leading the company’s data and AI practice.

Accenture is far from the only company to umbrella booming AI operations under this trendy new C-suite title. In a survey published in CIO magazine last fall, 11% of midsize to large companies said they had hired a CAIO, and another 21% were seeking one.

But what do these AI-devoted execs actually do? And is this a position every company needs to fill? This is the second in a series of CAIO profiles in which Tech Brew looks into these questions.

Riding the wave

In Accenture’s case, Guan said the creation of her perch was an acknowledgement of how much the company could stand to gain from client companies’ appetite for generative AI. Around the same time that she was promoted, the consultancy pledged to invest $3 billion in AI over the next three years and double its AI-trained workforce to 80,000 through hiring, acquisitions, and training.

“We definitely saw an enormous amount of opportunities in front of us to use generative AI together with classical AI to drive a lot of enterprise reinvention, especially post-pandemic,” Guan told Tech Brew. “So I think, simply put, that was the key, direct catalyst to create this role.”

Unlike the subject of the first profile in this series, who sees these roles as more transitional, Guan said she thinks CAIOs are here to stay. She said she has observed a number of larger companies hiring one in the last six months and compared it to the rise of chief data officers in recent years.

“Eventually, everybody needs to have a role like this,” Guan said. “A lot of clients I talk to, they also share the same ambition. They want to have this kind of leadership role directly reporting to the CEO, so that they have the right leader to help them understand their individualized roadmap and what areas within their entire value chain they should start with first.”

A day in the life

It’s hard to say what any one day might look like as an AI leader of a sprawling company like Accenture, Guan said: “There’s never a dull moment, but there are some common patterns.”

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A big part of her day could center on meetings with various clients across different industries about how they can move beyond initial forays into AI.

“Oftentimes, I talk to C-suite clients about, ‘How do you start your AI journey,’ and for those of them who already started doing some experimentation, then it’s my job to help them see the pathway to scale,” she said. “More and more conversations are pivoting to this part.”

She estimates that about 20%–25% of her time is spent overseeing upskilling and holding various training classes for internal workers across different roles to better use this next generation of AI—all in service of adding those tens of thousands of AI workers to Accenture’s ranks.

And finally, she might spend the rest of her day on tasks related to the 150 internal applications she claimed the company has now built around generative AI tech.

A headshot of Lan Guan

Accenture

A lifelong passion

A lot of sources we talk to these days like to point out that their AI expertise predates ChatGPT’s late-2022 release and subsequent explosion in popularity, but not as many can trace their bona fides all the way back to their teenage years.

Guan says she was just 16 years old when she built a robot that was used to teach English to children in China, where she grew up. The project was made possible by money that her parents borrowed to send her to a highly prestigious science camp, which set her on a path to come to the United States and pursue advanced degrees.

She said her own path spurred a focus on expanding accessibility to AI tech. Outside of Accenture, Guan sits on the advisory board of the nonprofit AI4All, which promotes diversity and inclusion in the AI field, and is a founding member of the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence.

“As you can tell from my story, technology, AI at that time was limited to a small group of people because you have to have access to capital, you have to have access to skills, you have to have access to talent on the business side,” Guan said. “And it’s no longer the case.”



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