Alexis Lecanuet on MENA's unique transformation and Accenture's ambition

23 June 2023 9 min. read
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As the Middle East’s largest economies look to push ahead with their major diversification strategies, Accenture has become a key partner, helping clients define new strategies and operating models, develop new skills, and adopt innovative technologies. We spoke with the leader of Accenture in the Middle East – Alexis Lecanuet – about how the firm is helping clients succeed in an era of constant disruption.

Even though Alexis Lecanuet has been with Accenture for “only 28 years” now, he still finds he is learning every day. One of the things that has been keeping him on his toes after so long is the “constant disruption of the Middle East’s economy” – something that has captivated him ever since he arrived.

“Working with clients across the region, what I see unfold in the Middle East is extremely exciting,” he says in discussion with Consultancy Middle East. “I feel blessed to live in a region – across the UAE and Saudi Arabia – where the ambition around the future is second to none.”

Alexis Lecanuet on MENA's unique transformation and Accenture's ambition

Originally from France, for the first 20 years of his stay with the firm Lecanuet was “a retail guy”, working with global retailers to transform their business. He led many large, complex projects across Europe, MENA and Turkey during that time – an international remit which eventually led to his relocation to the Middle East in 2015.

That marked the start of a gradual transition, with Lecanuet shifting through various senior regional roles, before taking up his current position as Managing Director of Accenture in the Middle East.

Reflecting on what he has seen over the last eight years in the Middle East, he notes, “What I have seen and felt is that this region has always been a bit unique, compared to the trends I saw elsewhere. Sometimes that’s just down to timing. Covid-19 hit us later, so its impact was different. Geopolitical conflicts obviously have hit the region before, including the hostilities between the UAE and Qatar – but then at a different time.”

“These and other differences have helped shape a unique business fibre.” But at the heart of the region’s “unprecedented transformation” is no doubt, the Vision 2030 agenda’s driving strategic topics such as economic diversification, labour market reform, female empowerment, and technological leadership, to name a few.

“Such ambitious goals are unique in history,” contests Lecanuet, “and the fact that visions and plans can be executed so quickly in spite of being ‘out of step’ with the rest of the world is fascinating. All in all, there is no region anywhere in the world which has changed as quickly or broadly as the Middle East.”

For Lecanuet, this is a question of scale and pace, but also of connectivity. This was exemplified when Accenture’s Global CEO Julie Sweet visited the region recently – heading to the Middle East for the first time during her tenure as the firm’s boss.

Speaking to Lecanuet, one of the things Sweet said she found most impressive was the unity between organisations in both Saudi Arabia and the UAE when it came to backing their national programmes for change. Every single entity private or public sector, always “referred their own transformations back to the national context” – something which is “not happening anywhere else in the world”.

“Accenture is at a major inflection point in the Middle East.”
– Julie Sweet, Accenture’s Global CEO during her recent visit to the region

At the same time, Lecanuet identifies “a certain appetite for risk” as something which sets the region apart from the rest. Explaining what he means by this, he points to the hype around artificial intelligence, which continues to rage around the world.

“While CEOs and governments might be talking very excitedly about the technology, the strategy to execution gap is wide. In the Middle East, however, that seems to be very different – with entities, government organisations and businesses all demonstrating they are willing to shoulder some of the risks in order to position themselves as early adopters – and thus runaway leaders.”

Leapfrog and catch-up

This is not to say the region is only racing ahead of the rest of the world on every front. In many aspects, societies which have been deeply conservative over the last century are having to modernise, and so state and corporate players are also working hard to make up ground on other developments the rest of the West has come to take for granted.

Amid this combination of “leapfrog and catch-up”, Accenture has had to roll out a distinctive offering for clients across the region to support them on both fronts.

Illustrating this, Lecanuet notes, “Through the pandemic, we played a crucial role in pushing designing new experiences for companies whose staff and customers suddenly had to stay at home. In one example, we helped one client ensure that its workforce of 60,000 people could work from home – being the digital partner in that workspace was something we are very proud of.”

“We are also helping one of the leading telecommunications firms in the region, and now the world, with driving its innovation agenda. We are a strategic digital partner of Aramco, and in retail, we helped build one of the first data-unicorns in the region.”

“In Europe, for instance, such an engagement would never be on the table – Google and Amazon have already done it. Here, that ‘catch-up’ function means that such type work is still needed.”

From the Middle East to the world

Thanks to such near-matchless experiences, Accenture’s Middle East team is seeing the opportunity to bring more of its services to clients beyond the region. “Actually, it is the other way around,” Lecanuet says with a smile. “I’m being called by colleagues from all over the world to share experiences in the pioneering frontier of our work.”

“There are obviously already several ‘crown jewels’ which can serve as a best practice for other regions, but in the future, I think we can create more opportunities to export what is being built here. Technology, artificial intelligence, multi-industry transformation; trends relating to these segments in the Middle East’s economy can be applied elsewhere – and we can help clients do that.”

Globally, Accenture has over 700,000 staff serving clients in every conceivable area of the consultancy and technology landscape. The firm also offers solutions, and has a massive managed services arm. “We can truly deliver an end-to-end service.”

“Historically in the Middle East, most organisations would only transform or outsource one or two functions. In today’s rapidly changing world, with challenges and opportunities abound, a growing number of organisations are turning to external providers for in-depth knowledge and broader expertise.”

However, in its engagements, Lecanuet says that the particular dynamics of the Middle East and its current social and economic transformations are prompting Accenture to tailor its offerings to the specifics of its clients.

“The Middle East is undergoing a unique transformation. We are proud to help drive the region’s strategic and digital agenda.”
– Alexis Lecanuet

Accenture’s ambitions

Just as the economies of the Middle East are playing leapfrog and catch-up, Accenture also still has a growth journey of its own to undertake in the region. For all the firm’s accomplishments, Lecanuet asserts that Accenture still has a lot of room to advance its agenda and footprint.

Within the firm’s global context, he feels “we are not punching above our weight – and can do much more”. The process to ramp up its capacities and enable that ambition is already underway.

“Our regional organisation has the knowledge and track record to claim market-leading capabilities in topics such as management consulting, artificial intelligence, cloud, security, sustainability and more. At the same time, we have several areas where we have our own catch-up to do [Lecanuet not surprisingly did not want to divulge much more on this point]”, to quickly add, “yet in reality we will push for the leapfrog strategy.”

To this end, being able to build on the company’s global muscle is a welcoming prospect. Take AI for example. Accenture last week announced it will pump $3 billion into the technology, trumping recent investments among its peers.

“Providing the opportunity to build bridges across Europe and beyond is a major opportunity for Middle East leaders, and we starting to construct these now.”

Local talent in the Kingdom

With Saudi Arabia’s growing importance to the world’s economy, the Kingdom forms an integral part of Accenture’s growth strategy. Lecanuet was last year also appointed Chair of Accenture in Saudi Arabia to guide an acceleration in the country, as its Vision 2030 campaign drives excitement throughout the (global) business community.

Lecanuet is keen to note that many of the roles he is currently undertaking for the firm are interim, though – his involvement is more to set the foundation for growth and ensure the efficient development of local talent.

Lecanuet concludes, “Our feeling is that eventually Saudi will be driven by Saudis, just as is the case with Accenture in the US being run by the US, Japan being run by Japan, or France being run by the French. We are no longer an international firm, importing best practices. This was the old world – consulting 20 years ago.”

“Now we are a transformation agent, looking to drive change with local talent wherever we operate. This will help us more in the long-term, as we guide local transformation champions through their projects, with local knowledge to help tailor solutions – but also to give us the ability of learning and feeding back those different approaches across our other operations.”