We’re used to hearing Olympic champions thank their coaches, families and gods while clutching their hard-earned gold medals, but few have yet offered a word of thanks to the management consultants that helped them bring that precious metal home.

But Great Britain’s Olympic sailors, who brought four golds, one silver and one bronze medal back from China in August, may owe a small debt of gratitude to Accenture. The consulting giant has brought its blue-chip expertise to a new arena as part of a £165,000 sponsorship deal with British sailing team Skandia Team GBR and the sport’s governing body, the Royal Yachting Association (RYA).

Since March 2005, the consulting giant has been working with the RYA to identify areas where its business and technology expertise can contribute to the performance of the GB sailing team. As the team stepped up its preparation for the Beijing Olympics, Accenture initiated a performance management project aimed at maintaining Britain’s position as the world’s number-one sailing nation.

The profiling tool brings Accenture’s corporate performance management expertise to the sporting world, allowing management to set common goals for every member of the team, from sailors and their coaches to support staff. Throughout the training process, team members log their progress objectively using preset values.

The resulting data allows team management to co-ordinate training regimes across the whole team, so that all sailors and coaches follow the same optimised training programmes and so that any weaknesses, be they individual or across the team, can be spotted and rectified quickly.

Trevor Hatton, Accenture Scotland managing director and the most senior advocate for the programme, explains that consistent reporting reduces the element of chance when it comes to choosing and training potential medal winners.

“Unless you’ve got some kind of consistent measure it’s very difficult to know how to get a gold medal winner, and what a gold medal winner should look like,” he says.

Just as a corporate performance management system might aggregate data from all parts of a company, so every possible variable that impacts a sailor’s performance is taken into account, including the boat, sails and mast, diet, exercise regime, physical condition, the rules of each yachting class and even that great unpredictable, the weather.

“It’s all evidence-based, so even where there are subjective measures we’ve tried to put it into a measurable framework so it’s harder to back away from the evidence,” says Hatton.

For the athletes, continuous monitoring helps them focus on those areas of their sailing that will have the biggest impact on overall performance. This allows coaches and support staff to set precise goals and make training programmes as efficient as possible, and to ensure that those sailors who didn’t make Beijing have new targets and don’t simply drop out of the picture.

For management, the project provides accurate tracking for the RYA’s return on investment to the World Class Performance programme, and results can be channelled into funding allocations.

The system also provides a management dashboard view of the team’s performance which meets the quarterly reporting requirements of UK Sport’s Mission 2012 scheme aimed at keeping Britain at fourth place in the medal table at the London Olympics. The dashboard presents its findings as a traffic-light metaphor to warn on areas that require attention before they significantly affect team performance. This instant appraisal, says RYA Olympic manager Stephen Park, lets team management get on with the day-to-day business of training sailors rather than pushing pens.

“In the past we’d have to spend a week out of every quarter preparing the appraisals. Now we just press a button and the report is ready,” he says.

The next stage is to roll the profiling tool out across the whole racing division, from elite sailors to development squads. This will allow team leaders to monitor the young talent coming into the system and ensure a consistent set of performance metrics across their entire sailing careers.

“The new software will give us a complete cradle-to-grave system,” says Park. “We don’t want to take our finger off the pulse in trying to ensure that we spend our time and resources on the things that will have the biggest impact on performance. It’s easy to spend time and money on the wrong things, but you need to concentrate on what makes a difference to the bottom line, which in our case is results.”

Although working within sport is a new experience for many at Accenture, its established practices fit equally well into the unfamiliar environment.

“The process isn’t radically different from a business model,” says Hatton. “The values are quite different of course, but in terms of defining performance categories, weighting them and then reporting them, the whole process and analysis is exactly the sort of thing you’d do for a company.”

Accordingly, Accenture treated the RYA as it would any other client, and found that although the setup was already very professional, the RYA’s management was keen to learn and gain from the relationship.

“They’re very open to ideas from outside, because all they really want is the best results. They’d be fantastic clients in any environment where they’re absolutely focused on results and don’t work from the view that they know all the answers. In fact they’re very open to ideas and approaches and thoughts from outside.

“It’s interesting to see a very competitive, very individualistic sport having such fantastic teamwork. They’re all pushing each other along, and it’s a great environment in which to work,” Hatton adds.

The feeling, says Park, is mutual. “They’re a fantastic partner, and we’ve been able to discuss issues at all levels.

“There was a little cynicism to begin with but as people have got more involved, they come up with more questions for Accenture’s consultants to answer. [Triple Olympic champion] Ben Ainslie was talking to a consultant at a training camp, and three months later they were still communicating, not about the profiling system or any of the work Accenture had done with us, but about general management issues.”

The performance management tool is Accenture’s third such ‘intelligent funding’ project with the RYA, and sees the consultant get deeper under the skin of the organisation. The first scheme was a membership analysis to discover why the RYA was experiencing a 10 per cent member churn each year. Taking another tried-and-tested blue-chip staple, Accenture set to work.

“We took a segmentation approach, treating their members as customers and using our CRM practice to work out what factors in the profile of members were correlated to the amount of time people stay as members,” says Hatton.

“We gave them a whole load of ideas about what they could do to retain members, and worked with their marketing team on how to present information and promote services, knowing that if a member had certain characteristics, the chances are they’d be in a particular sector.”

Accenture looked deeper into the RYA with the second project, a high-level strategic review of sailing as an Olympic sport to discover what the organisation needed to do to keep Britain at the head of the field. By examining the demographics of sailing clubs, where young sailors come from and which factors were right for finding and retaining the best coaches, the two bodies could start to look at the whole process of nurturing future Olympic champions.

That project dovetailed neatly into the development of the performance management tool, and Hatton has no doubt that the relationship will continue as the RYA looks ahead to the London Olympics.

“There are some incredibly talented sailors coming through and the RYA understands that it needs to keep working with the system to get the best results,” he says.

There’s even a possibility that other sports could adopt the same system, and with sailing up there with cycling and rowing as Britain’s best performing sports, it’s certainly one of the examples to follow.

“There’s no reason why other sports couldn’t use the same system,” says Hatton. “I am hoping to see [Team GB performance director] Clive Woodward when he gets back, because he’s very interested in what we’re doing. We’ve talked about what’s been done and our system was in line with his approach to coaching – not leaving anything to chance.

“But Olympic sport is different because the organising bodies of each sport are the best judges of what’s transferable and what isn’t, to the extent that if there are any thoughts that what we’ve done is transferable, we’re very happy to help out.”

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