Busy globe-trotting CEOs often complain they can't be in two places at one time. But last week, Accenture CEO Pierre Nanterme was -- at least digitally.
On Monday, Nanterme went to an Accenture broadcast studio in Paris, where he is based, and in a moment that seems more Star Wars than C-suite, had his image beamed to suburban Chicago, where 500 of the company's top executives were meeting. At the same time, the professional services firm's human resources chief, Ellyn Shook, was beamed in from New York, and the resulting three-dimensional "holograms" of the two executives chatted with each other about things like the company's new performance reviews and recent acquisitions, while answering questions from the audience.
It was the second time Nanterme had appeared before employees via hologram, and the first time the company had simultaneously beamed in two executives to an event at the same time. The company says it has built seven studios with the capacity to capture holograms across the globe, and plans to expand its use.
"We're still pioneering this," Nanterme says. But he believes the technology could help underscore Accenture's global management philosophy, highlight its digital focus, as well as simplify communication logistics for a company with 373,000 employees.
"There's no way I could visit them all -- I wouldn't have enough time," he says. While in-person meetings are always important, there are other times when "I don't need to move my body. I need to move my ideas."
Nanterme's holograms are not a first in the business world -- former Cisco CEO John Chambers talked with holograms of two executives onstage at an event in India a few years ago, for instance. In the entertainment industry, the late rapper Tupac Shakur was virtually brought back to life at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in 2012 using technology from a company called Musion, which also played a role in a hologram of Hugh Jackman doing a news conference for the film "Chappie" last year. Thanks to the technology, the physicist Stephen Hawking made a virtual appearance on the Sydney Opera House stage last year.
But holograms are still exceedingly rare in corporate settings, says Adam Preset, a research director at Gartner. "Accenture really is on the bleeding edge here," he says. "We still see enterprises even struggling to do company-wide town halls with video."
Preset says that's largely because the technology is expensive and such 3D images require vast amounts of bandwidth. Accenture has spent years developing highly equipped broadcast studios; creating the holograms requires top-quality, high-definition cameras, a controlled lighting environment and network for transferring the images, and special equipment to project and screen the resulting hologram.
Accenture's Nanterme grew interested in the concept for several reasons. For one, Accenture is an unusually dispersed global company that has no formal headquarters. Nanterme is based in Paris. His chief financial officer is in Atlanta. The chief operating officer is in Brussels. Top group chief executives are based in Bangalore and Singapore.
As a result, connecting digitally is a communication necessity -- not only because of how remote team members are, but because of Accenture's size. With employees in 120 countries and 6,000 managing directors, Nanterme actually banned large meetings that bring together that group, adopting large-scale webcasts and more than 100 sites with "telepresence" video conferencing, which presents remote meeting attendees with remarkably high-definition images.
Still, he felt there was something lacking in those experiences that made it less personal. With a hologram, he says, "you're getting rid of the interface, the distance, of the screen."
In addition to those logistical considerations, the technology could help the company with sustainability goals, cutting its carbon footprint, Nanterme says. Asked if holograms could one day become a business Accenture sells to its clients, Nanterme says "maybe."
Finally, he also wanted to push the company's tech team to stretch its capabilities -- the technology behind the holograms is not an off-the-shelf product, but something they built from multiple hardware and software components -- helping to underscore the innovation and digital strategies that have been key themes of his tenure. Andrew Wilson, Accenture's chief information officer, says Nanterme "tends to be one of my most enthusiastic early adopters," and that the assignment was a "way to demonstrate that we're leading with the new inside the company."
Gartner's Preset says that investing in such futuristic technology makes sense for a technology company like Accenture that has such far-flung employees. But he thinks the days of CEOs beaming in via hologram are still a ways off for most. When it comes to internal presentations, he says, "what you really want is the leader to present a message with authority and authenticity and emotional impact, and you get that today with video," he says. "Holographic technology is kind of gilding the lily. It’s useful and interesting and we like to see people do that, but it will be a while before you see even incremental adoption in large enterprises."
When it comes to workplace collaboration, he thinks it's more likely companies will exploit virtual or augmented reality technology first, such as the Oculus Rift or Microsoft HoloLens headsets. That's also where Cisco, which has held one-off events with Musion, says it is focused.
Accenture's Wilson says the two technologies have complementary uses, and he has heard interest from fellow CIOs about the company's use of holograms. Meanwhile, Nanterme next intends to push his team to beam his and other executives' 3D images to several locations at one time. If the technology gets advanced enough that he can use it more often, he believes it could help executives be more productive.
"I could spend all my time on a plane visiting multiple countries and I would never visit enough," he says. When it comes to making a quick appearance to help galvanize employees at a meeting or kick off a town hall with a 15-minute introduction, Nanterme says, "I believe my hologram might be as good as me."