In pursuit of frictionless digital engagement with HR

by Claudia Quinton, Head of Workplace Transformation

What do I mean by frictionless engagement? And why is it relevant to today’s HR function? People like to book their holidays, make doctors’ appointments, shop and bank online. There’s no real need to talk with a travel agent, a GP’s receptionist, a shop assistant or a busy bank cashier – unless you want to, that is. This is the sort of ‘frictionless’ world that a large proportion of the modern workforce is used to – where everything is automated, clever and personalised.

And they expect a similar frictionless experience in the workplace. Only it seems they’re not getting it. A new survey report from Sopra Steria in partnership with Management Today reveals that employers have been slow to understand and implement the automation, analytics and other technologies that can facilitate a better workplace experience. And less than half (45%) of chief executives and directors were prepared to say their organisations had a clear, specific strategy for improving the employee experience.

Investing in robotics and artificial intelligence

I believe they’re missing out on a huge opportunity to transform the way in which employees engage with the business, especially with the HR services that help to define a good employee experience. In a new paper[1] discussing the survey findings, I take a look at how some companies are achieving frictionless engagement. Sopra Steria, for example, has developed a clever chatbot – we’ve named it Sam – that uses robotic process automation (RPA) and artificial intelligence to facilitate a range of HR services, such as booking holidays – all with no human intervention.

I question why more companies aren’t investing in greater automation and why the HR analytics that would drive a more personalised employee experience continues to be lacking in so many organisations. Failing to adopt the type of digital enablers employees are familiar with outside work is giving the wrong impression. It suggests a business unable or unwilling to invest in its people and to give them the tools and processes that will enhance their experience at work. That’s a dangerous impression to create, especially in today’s business climate where it can be difficult to attract talented people, and even harder to retain them.

Adding value at board level

I understand that changing entrenched processes and moving to new technology platforms, such as a cloud HR solution, can be met with resistance. Will automated process take away my job? I’ve done it this way for years, why should I change? How will I be able to monitor progress and quality when there’s no human intervention for key HR processes? There will always be fears and uncertainties like these. But what I am certain of is that only with investment in automation, analytics and AI, along with changes to IT infrastructure that equip employees to self-serve from anywhere, at any time, can today’s HR leaders remain a trusted and valued presence on the company board.

[1] For more on this, read my opinion paper ‘How can HR stay relevant in the 21st century?’

Ready Steady Cook

by Software Engineer Graduates, Alistair Steele and Gregg Wighton

Two from our February 2017 Graduates cohort discuss their recent Graduate Project using Chef Technology to solve the problem of setting up a machine (laptop) adhering to company standards. Their aim was to introduce a working example of DevOps and learn more about that sphere. This post talks about the problem they sought to address using Chef, what DevOps is and the experience they have gained from their Graduate Project.

The Problem

During a new starter’s induction day, a considerable amount of time and effort is spent on setting up a Development machine (laptop). Tasks involve downloading software and creating a folder structure which adheres to the guidelines set out by the company. This manual process is time consuming and tedious, plus it allows room for human error. The same issue occurs for a current employee who has to rebuild their machine. A third issue can be seen with employees who have forgotten the company guidelines.

Company time, in particular for new inductions, would be better spent in various other ways. Allowing the new employees to read company policy or familiarise themselves with the office building and appropriate contacts.

A key aspect of this project was to eliminate user interaction and cut down on the potential human error. To achieve this, three technologies were considered, Ansible, Puppet and Chef. We chose Chef as it is serverless, scalable and Windows compatible.

With the technology selected we looked at how best to use Chef and what it’s capabilities were. This required a lot of research – and trial and error. Understanding the problem enabled us to create three main goals: Silent Installs of required software, Folder Structure and Environment Variables, all of which were to be automated.

Our objective was for the user to simply download Chef Client, connect to the repository on InnerSource and then run a single command on the command line. The Automated process will then kick off and deliver the finished product. So what will it achieve?

  • Ensures standardisation throughout the company
  • Saves the company valuable time
  • Speeds up Induction process
  • Silent installs of software, folder structures and environment variables

Using DevOps to tackle the ‘Wall of Confusion’

In the traditional flow of software delivery, the interaction between development and support is often one of friction. Development teams are wired towards implementing change and the latest features. Support teams focus on stability of production environments through carefully constructed control measures. This divide in culture is now commonly referred to as the “wall of confusion”.

DevOps looks to break down this culture by improving the performance of the overall system, so that supporting the application is considered when it is designed. One method of doing this is to start treating your infrastructure as code so that it can be rebuilt and validated just like application code.

One area that would benefit from provisioning infrastructure would be the configuration of development environments. Setting these up can often be tedious as they rely on specific versions of software, installed in an exact order with particular environment variables and other project specific configurations – all of which can cause delays to working on a project and are prone to human error.

Automation, Automation, Automation

Chef is a powerful automation platform that uses custom Ruby DSL to provision infrastructure. A key feature of Chef is that it ensures Idempotency – only the changes that need to be applied are carried out, irrespective of the number of times it is ran. While it is intended to configure servers, the flexibility of the platform means that it can be used to set up local development environments.

Diagram described in the text belowOur diagram shows the architecture and workflow for the project. A developer writes Chef code on their workstation, then uploads their code to a Chef repository hosted on GitLab, and installers kept in an S3 bucket on AWS. This code can be pulled down to a developer’s machine to be configured and run in Chef Zero. This is a feature (usually used in testing code) where both a Chef Server and Chef Client are run at the same time. This approach ensures that development machines can be quickly and reliably configured for a project. This also introduces portability into development environments so that testing and support teams can recreate these environments should they need to.

Ready for the Cloud

Chef is tightly integrated with Amazon Web Services through AWS OpsWorks. This means that the Chef code used to automate physical servers or workstations can be used to configure AWS resources. This ability to standardize both physical and cloud environments means that it is possible to create a smooth workflow for both Development and Support teams.

Our Grad Project take-aways?

From experiencing work in a support team, we can see the benefits of embracing a DevOps culture and workflow. The ability to standardize environments means that Development teams are free to implement new technologies that can then be easily transferred and controlled by support teams. Having completed Phase I of ‘Ready Steady Cook’, we aim to embark on Phase II- developing an automated setup for a specific aspect in the support team.

We have both gained valuable experience in working through a project’s complete lifecycle, from inception to development to testing and production. Throughout the project we utilised Agile methodologies such as working towards fortnightly sprints and daily stand-up meetings. This project has also widened the scope of our graduate training in that we have gained certifications in Chef and are working towards certifications in other DevOps technologies.

Sopra Steria is currently recruiting for the Spring 2018 Consulting and Management Graduate Programme. If you, or someone you know, is interested in a career with us, take a look here.

AI, VR and the societal impact of technology: our takeaways from Web Summit 2017

Together with my Digital Innovation colleague Morgan Korchia, I was lucky enough to go to Web Summit 2017 in Lisbon – getting together with 60,000 other nerds, inventors, investors, writers and more. Now that a few weeks have passed, we’ve had time to collect our thoughts and reflect on what turned out to be a truly brilliant week.

We had three goals in mind when we set out:

  1. Investigate the most influential and disruptive technologies of today, so that we can identify those which we should begin using in our business
  2. Sense where our market is going so that we can place the right bets now to benefit our business within a 5-year timeframe
  3. To meet the start-ups and innovators who are driving this change and identify scope for collaboration with them

Web Summit proved useful for this on all fronts – but it wasn’t without surprises.  It’s almost impossible to go to an event like this without some preconceptions about the types of technologies we are going to be hearing about. On the surface, it seemed like there was a fairly even spread between robotics, data, social media, automation, health, finance, society and gaming (calculated from the accurate science of ‘what topic each stage focused on’). However, after attending the speeches themselves, we detected some overarching themes which seemed to permeate through all topics. Here are my findings:

  • As many as 1/3rd of all presentations strongly focus on AI – be that in the gaming, finance, automotive or health stage
  • Around 20% of presentations primarily concern themselves with society, or the societal impact of technology
  • Augmented and virtual reality feature in just over 10% of presentations, which is significantly less than we have seen in previous years

This is reflective my own experience at Web Summit, although I perhaps directed myself more towards the AI topic, spending much of my time between the ‘autotech / talkrobot’ stage and the main stage. From Brian Krzanich, the CEO of Intel, to Bryan Johnson, CEO of Kernel and previously Braintree, we can see that AI is so prevalent today that a return to the AI winter is unimaginable. It’s not just hype; it’s now too closely worked into the fabric of our businesses to be that anymore. What’s more, too many people are implementing AI and machine learning in a scalable and profitable way for it to be dispensable. It’s even getting to the point of ubiquity where AI just becomes software, where it works, and we don’t even consider the incredible intelligence sitting behind it.

An important sub-topic within AI is also picking up steam- AI ethics. A surprise keynote from Stephen Hawking reminded us that while successful AI could be the most valuable achievement in our species’ history, it could also be our end if we get it wrong. Elsewhere, Max Tegmark, author of Life 3.0 (recommended by Elon Musk… and me!) provided an interesting exploration of the risks and ethical dilemmas that face us as we develop increasingly intelligent machines.

Society was also a themed visited by many stages. This started with an eye-opening performance from Margrethe Vestager, who spoke about how competition law clears the path for innovation. She used Google as an example, who, while highly innovative themselves, abuse their position of power, pushing competitors down their search rankings to hamper the chances of other innovations from becoming successful. The Web Summit closed with an impassioned speech from Al Gore, who gave us all a call to action to use whatever ability, creativity and funding we have to save our environment and protect society as a whole for everyone’s benefit.

As for AR and VR, we saw far less exposure this year than seen at events previously (although it was still the 3rd most presented-on theme). I don’t necessarily think this means it’s going away for good, although it may mean that in the immediate term it will have a smaller impact on our world than we thought it might. As a result, rather than shouting about it today, we are looking for cases where it provides genuine value beyond a proof of concept.

I also take some interest from the topics which were missing, or at least presented less frequently. Amongst these I put voice interfaces, cyber security and smart cities. I don’t think this is because any of these topics have become less relevant. Cyber security is more important now than ever, and voice interfaces are gaining huge traction in consumer and professional markets. However, an event like Web Summit doesn’t need to add much to that conversation. I think that without a doubt we now regard cyber security as intrinsic to everything we do, and aside from a few presentations including Amazon’s own Werner Vogels, we know that voice is here and that we need to be finding viable implementations. Rather than simply affirming our beliefs, I think a decision was made to put our focus elsewhere, on the things we need to know more about to broaden our horizons over the week.

We also took the time to speak to the start-ups dotted around the event space.  Some we took an interest in like Nam.r, who are using AI in a way which drives GDPR compliance, rather than causing the headache many of us assume it may result in. Others like Mapwize.io and Skylab.global are making use of primary technological developments, which were formative and un-scalable a year ago. We also took note of the start-ups spun out of bigger businesses, like Waymo, part of Google’s Alphabet business, which is acting as a bellwether on which many of the big players are placing their bets.

The priority for us now is to build some of these findings into our own strategy- much more of a tall order than spending a week in Lisbon absorbing.  If you’re wondering what events to attend next year, Web Summit should be high up on your list, and I hope to see you there!

What are your thoughts on these topics? Leave a reply below, or contact me by email.

Learn more about Aurora, Sopra Steria’s horizon scanning team, and the topics that we are researching.

Have you heard the latest buzz from our DigiLab Hackathon winners?

The innovative LiveHive project was crowned winner of the Sopra Steria UK “Hack the Thing” competition which took place last month.

Sopra Steria DigiLab hosts quarterly Hackathons with a specific challenge, the most recent named – Hack the Thing. Whilst the aim of the hack was sensor and IoT focused, the solution had to address a known sustainability issue. The LiveHive team chose to focus their efforts on monitoring and improving honey bee health, husbandry and supporting new beekeepers.

A Sustainable Solution 

Bees play an important role in sustainability within agriculture. Their pollinating services are worth around £600 million a year in the UK in boosting yields and the quality of seeds and fruits[1]. The UK had approximately 100,000 beekeepers in 1943 however this number had dropped to 44,000 by 2010[2]. Fortunately, in recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in beekeeping which has highlighted a need for a product that allows beekeepers to explore and extend their knowledge and capabilities through the use of modern, accessible technology.

LiveHive allows beekeepers to view important information about the state of their hives and receive alerts all on their smartphone or mobile device. The social and sharing side of the LiveHive is designed to engage and support new beekeepers and give them a platform for more meaningful help from their mentors. The product also allows data to be recorded and analysed aiding national/international research and furthering education on the subject.

The LiveHive Model

The LiveHive Solution integrates three services – hive monitoring, hive inspection and a beekeeping forum offering access to integrated data and enabling the exchange of data.

“As a novice beekeeper I’ve observed firsthand how complicated it is to look after a colony of bees. When asking my mentor questions I find myself having to reiterate the details of the particular hive and history of the colony being discussed. The mentoring would be much more effective and valuable if they had access to the background and context of the hives scenario.”

LiveHive integrates the following components:

  • Technology Sensors: to monitor conditions such as temperature and humidity in a bee hive, transmitting the data to Azure cloud for reporting.
  • Human Sensors: a Smartphone app that enables the beekeeper to record inspections and receive alerts.
  • Sharing Platform: to allow the novice beekeeper to share information with their mentors and connect to a forum where beekeepers exchange knowledge, ideas and experience. They can also share the specific colony history to help members to understand the context of any question.

How does it actually work?

A Raspberry Pi measures temperature, humidity and light levels in the hive transmits measurements to Microsoft Azure cloud through its IoT Hub.

Sustainable Innovation

On a larger scale, the data behind the hive sensor information and beekeepers inspection records creates a large, unique source of primary beekeeping data. This aids research and education into the effects of beekeeping practice on yields and bee health presenting opportunities to collaborate with research facilities and institutions.

The LiveHive roadmap plans to also put beekeepers in touch with the local community through the website allowing members of the public to report swarms, offer apiary sites and even find out who may be offering local honey!

What’s next? 

The team have already created a buzz with fellow bee projects and beekeepers within Sopra Steria by forming the Sopra Steria International Beekeepers Association which will be the beta test group for LiveHive. Further opportunities will also be explored with the service design principle being applied to other species which could aid in Government inspection. The team are also looking at methods to collaborate with Government directorates in Scotland.

It’s just the start for this lot of busy bees but a great example of some of the innovation created in Sopra Steria’s DigiLab!

[1] Mirror, 2016. Why are bee numbers dropping so dramatically in the UK?  

[2] Sustain, 2010. UK bee keeping in decline

Are your HR processes truly fit for purpose?

by Claudia Quinton, Head of Workplace Transformation

As digital transformation programmes begin to make an impact, new IT service delivery models, such as cloud, will increasingly be the norm. Yet while employees themselves enjoy a highly connected life outside work, too often their expectations for a connected digital experience in the workplace are not being met.

This word ‘experience’ is key. It’s how employers can gain competitive advantage with a more engaged, energised and productive workforce. But in a recent research project conducted for Sopra Steria and Management Today, 51% of respondents said their organisations cared less about employee experience than the quality of service they gave to their customers.

This is so wrong. As the white paper discussing the survey findings (‘Engaging Generation Me: creating competitive advantage through excellent employee experience’) points out, “With the economic uncertainty of Brexit and possible talent crunches and skill shortages ahead, employers ignore at their peril Generation Me: employees who demand the same quality of experience as customers.”

20th century thinking for a 21st century business

I believe that part of the problem lies in the failure of HR processes to keep up with the demands of the modern workplace. In a recently published opinion paper*, I describe the missed opportunity for HR to review and update its processes some 30 years ago. At that time – and driven by the CIO – there was a shift of legacy IT estates to on-premise ERP and other big corporate IT systems. And while HR’s IT was migrated across, its entrenched processes didn’t follow suit. There was simply a ‘lift and shift’ of existing, largely paper-based practices onto the new system.

Fast forward three decades and HR faces a big problem. While there has been a growth in HR operations, this failure to update processes and ways of engaging with employees has become a barrier to HR becoming a true business partner. But I believe digital has now put us (as HR professionals) in a position to transform this situation altogether. How? By using all the latest workplace tools, systems and approaches needed to give employees a truly differentiating workplace experience.

From chatbots to RPA

Of course, there must be an understanding of what processes might be enabled by new technology. In my paper I describe some of these enablers, such as digital engagement tools like chatbots that help to speed and facilitate employee interaction with HR services, for example booking holidays. Or the use of artificial intelligence to monitor employee behaviour and better predict their career or wellbeing needs. Then there is robotic process automation (RPA) that takes over repetitive tasks requiring minimal human intervention. This frees up HR professionals for more strategic value-added activity, such as succession planning, which can be further enhanced with the very latest data and analytics tools.

All of this makes today an exciting time to be an HR professional. With processes and technologies that are fit for purpose in a modern digital enterprise, HR can play a crucial role in attracting, nurturing and retaining the very best talent around.

For more on this, read my opinion paper ‘How can HR stay relevant in the 21st century?’.

A Digital Future for Joined Up Local Services

Originally published as a guest blog on techUK Insights

We now view the world through a digital lens, with social media, smartphones and the internet creating a complex future that we must all embrace to survive. We see disruptive technologies, not just changing, but in many instances totally replacing the previous world order. For councils this is leading not only to an immediate need to adapt the way essential services are delivered, but it also raises additional questions about how councils provide community leadership, local democracy, economic growth and cultural change in a constantly and rapidly changing environment.

Councils have a long and successful history of adapting to meet the regular challenges placed before them. In recent years we have seen councils rise to the challenge of delivering crucial and critical services in times of deep austerity. These financial challenges still continue and the world around us is changing with citizens’ needs, demands and expectations increasing, often driven by new technologies. To meet these new challenges the ‘council of the future’ no longer just needs to change the way it delivers traditional services but it also has to reconsider its very role and purpose.

Councils are beginning to forge new rules of engagement, realising that when we talk of a digital future it is not just about technology change but also about social, cultural and business change. The ‘council of the future’ must provide the local leadership to successfully navigate these rocky waters on behalf of and alongside their individual communities.

At Sopra Steria we observe digital change across all sectors and would make the following observations as to the key factors that will support the ‘council of the future’.

Strong leadership is essential to managing change that will be predominantly measured by community outcomes. We see the priority for councils being their continued development as the primary leaders of ‘place’, coordinating and organising effective partnerships across all agencies to provide whole life, effective services that fully meet citizen expectations. Citizens increasingly demand joined up services and will increasingly expect seamless delivery paths. Key areas to address are seamless health and care journeys, increasing citizen confidence in law and order and effective integration of local transport.

This view of the future is supported by the annual digital government survey that IPSOS undertakes on behalf of Sopra Steria to understand citizen expectations of digital services. Consistently the highest priority in the UK has been the ‘creation of a one-stop digital portal for undertaking interactions which need to be performed with multiple agencies’.

Data is the bedrock for change – effective management of complex data will support not only the effective delivery of services, but it will allow greater interoperability between agencies. Clear information dashboards will both inform management processes but also improve democratic transparency.

Digital platforms need to be implemented that use cloud based technologies to reduce the dependence on fixed infrastructures which will reduce the cost of change and allow the development of agile and dynamic solutions.

Automation, robotics and Artificial Intelligence will increasingly be introduced to improve business processes, improve digital communication channels and to release human resources to higher value activities. An example of a successful implementation of this was the introduction of self service and automation to support the delivery of Shepway Council’s Revenue and Benefits service.

Social engagement will increasingly use social media as a channel of choice for the solving of community problems, provision of information and to enhance the democratic process.

For many the digital future has already arrived so the ‘council of the future’ needs to prepare to lead their community and place to a new prosperity based on new technologies, new cultures and new ways of delivering business that fully meet the demanding expectations of their citizens.

Join the discussion on #CounciloftheFuture To see more blogs like this, please visit the website here.

What do you think? Leave a reply below or contact me by email.

Relevant or obsolete? The role of HR in the 21st century

by Claudia Quinton, Head of Workplace Transformation

The workplace is changing rapidly. Digital is transforming both how employees work and the way in which they expect to engage with their employers’ HR services. At Sopra Steria, we’ve recently partnered with Management Today on a survey that looked at the extent to which companies are using digital (data analytics, artificial intelligence, automation) to deliver a more consumer-like employee experience. And the findings don’t bode particularly well for the future of the HR function.

That’s because HR appears to be way off the curve when it comes to all things digital. For example, two thirds of CEOs and directors responding to our survey acknowledged that they had not yet fully implemented HR task automation and self-service technology in their organisations. Yet today’s employees – and not just Millennials – increasingly expect employers to make it easy for them to engage with HR how and when they want to (booking leave from home, whilst on the move, hot desking, etc.) and this can only be enabled with greater automation and digitalisation.

In search of flexibility

In fact, our survey found that greater flexibility and career development were the most likely to enhance employee experience. And the better the employee experience, the more productive and loyal an organisation’s workforce will be. Yet half of all managers and non-managerial staff told us in our survey that they had zero access to HR processes on their mobile devices. And only 4 in 10 non-managers – largely Millennials – said they believed that employees would be fully connected and operationally mobile in the next three years.

Taking this a step further, I find myself asking why so few business leaders have still not correlated a positive employee experience with greater automation? Is greater automation perhaps viewed as a threat, rather than an enabler, with concerns that robots will take people’s jobs outweighing the fact that robotic process automation can free up HR professionals from mundane, repetitive process activities? What I do know is that, with far more traction for improving employee/user experience and engagement, the tide is turning.

Connecting the modern workforce

I explore this in a new opinion paper digging deeper into the survey findings. In it I write, “by not embracing the technology that will connect and enable the modern workforce and free up HR for more strategic activity, the role of HR as a business partner could be obsolete, sooner rather than later. Indeed, being slow in the uptake of new, enabling technologies could well be the demise of the HR function as we know it”.

So, my question to all HR leaders is ‘do you want to remain relevant or become obsolete’?

For more on this, read my opinion paper ‘How can HR stay relevant in the 21st century?’