"> transformation Archives - Engr Kabir Saleh

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Making the connection: The role of collaboration apps in digital transformation

Whether it’s retailers plying wares online instead of in brick-and-mortar stores, media companies swapping print for pixels or companies looking to empower frontline workers, one theme is increasingly common in business: digital platforms are now fundamental to success — and that success depends on employees who can collaborate in real time, at any time and from anywhere.

With widely distributed employees and and a more mobile workforce, many companies have had to shift gears quickly in recent years to stay competitive. Critical to that effort is the ability to share information and ideas effectively using the latest communication and collaboration tools. The rise of real-time messaging apps like Slack, videoconferencing apps like Skype for Business and online file-sharing apps like Dropbox has given companies a host of tools they can use to underpin corporate growth and connectivity.

In particular, the growing adoption of team-based collaboration software and revamped business processes has helped organizations become more agile.

“Companies that utilize team collaboration applications report having significantly increased group and personal productivity, have faster time to market, and execute projects [faster],” said Wayne Kurtzman, a research director at IDC.

But getting employees to all row in the same direction — and even use the same software to do so — isn’t easy. Corporate execs, fully aware of the importance of modern digital tools to support their workforce, find themselves playing catch-up to match the apps and devices their employees rely on outside the office.

Better connectivity means smarter, more engaged workers

“Consumers now expect one click to buy, two clicks to return. And when those consumers go to work, they expect that same ease of collaboration, communication, and getting things done that they enjoy when they’re at home and working in their communities or their families,” said Kurtzman. 

A report from Deloitte showed that almost 80% of corporate execs rate employee experience as important, but only 22% called their companies “excellent” at creating a productive environment for workers.

That gap indicates where companies are increasingly putting their efforts as they scour the digital landscape for the right tools to keep employees productive — and happy.

Doing so is critical to both attracting and retaining workers. “After all, why should they be able to collaborate more easily at home or for their children’s football clubs than they can at work?” asked Kurtzman. “It makes sense to have the same depth of communication, collaboration and the ability to get things done that they enjoy outside of the workplace.”

The digital experience for workers should match that of customers, Jeffrey Mann, a VP analyst at Gartner, said in a recent research note.

“…All too often, the employee experience is an afterthought for business and application leaders,” wrote Mann. “They ignore the relevance to workers of the proven lessons from marketing and customer relationship management regarding the customer experience. Many of the same techniques used to create happy customers can be applied to encourage productive employees.”

At Valet Living, a residential concierge and amenities service provider, Facebook’s Workplace enterprise social network is now used to connect 6,000 employees — 90% of whom work part-time — across 40 states. The deployment has helped on-board new staff members faster.

“Understandably, it’s been difficult to on-board associates in a consistent and thorough manner until we adopted online collaboration tools,” said Henry Toledo, chief people officer at Valet Living.

Workers can access relevant training materials through a platform they’re already familiar with in their personal lives, said Toledo.

We know it’s critical to arm our associates with the skills needed to succeed and offer a consistent experience to our clients and residents, so we created a library of training resources, including our online training database, Valet U,  giving all new associates the chance to get up to speed quickly and efficiently,” he said.

The ability to connect a disparate workforce using digital collaboration tools — previously impossible via email alone, said Toledo — has led to tangible business benefits and reduced employee turnover.

“As we increasingly collaborate across the organization, we’ve noticed a direct correlation between connectedness and a steady rise in Valet Living’s associate retention rate,” he said. “We saw a 20% increase in associate retention since Workplace was introduced just a year ago — a testimony to our ability to make our associates feel welcomed from the jump.”

At Weight Watchers, company execs found that rolling out Workplace to 18,000 employees worldwide in 2018 helped with internal knowledge-sharing.

“One of the big questions or challenges [we had] was how do we bring everyone together?” Stacie Sherer, senior vice president for corporate communications, said in an earlier interview. “How do we break down the silos between our different geographies, and how do we break down the silos between our corporate head offices and all of the folks who are out in the field, who may only work a few hours a week but want to feel part of something bigger?”

Employees applauded the move, Sherer said. “One respondent said, ‘I feel like I work down the corridor [from] colleagues in other countries — I feel like I know them so well because of the connections they make on here,’” she said. “Because you can craft your own profile and there are groups around personal interests in addition to all the groups focused on work collaboration and communication, you get to know your colleagues in a way that you wouldn’t otherwise.”

A culture of collaboration

Many businesses now realize the need to improve collaboration to stay competitive; not surprisingly, spending on social software and collaboration tools has been on the rise. According to Gartner, it’s expected to reach $4.8 billion in 2023 — almost double the estimated $2.7 billion spent in 2018.

A survey of roughly 40 digital transformations by Boston Consulting Group found that organizations that focused on cultural change as part of their digital transformation projects had a much higher rate of financial success (90%) than those that neglected culture (17%).

Financial software vendor Intuit, for instance, is using its transformation efforts to focus more on innovation, less on managing infrastructure. “Digital transformation is as much a mindset and cultural shift as it is a business and technical shift,” said Intuit CIO Atticus Tysen.

The company has been using Slack’s workstream collaboration app to bolster idea-sharing among staffers, no matter their location. “Slack is one way we connect our global workforce across different sites and locations through near instantaneous messaging, while also creating opportunities for like-minded individuals or teams to have an area for ongoing dialogue that doesn’t require long meetings or multiple emails,” Tysen said.

“Using Slack, we are enabling the mindset and cultural shift of finding more opportunities to work efficiently at scale.”

Another Slack user, data analytics company Splunk, has had similar experiences.

“For us, Slack was the promise of really starting to change the communication culture,” said Fred McAmis, vice president for learning and development, at Splunk.

Before deploying the app, Splunk relied on a variety of different tools to communicate. “Marketing had one tool, while product and engineering had another,” he said. “When our CTO joined, he chose Slack for engineering. It started as a pilot project and quickly spread across the organization.”

Today, short, targeted instant messages help teams push projects along. “It’s real-time, while e-mail is very formal in comparison,” he said.

Improved collaboration processes are also helping the company stay agile as business scales. “At Splunk, our employee base continues to grow year over year, which means it’s imperative to maintain the company experience,” said McAmis.

Clear pathways for professional development help employees stay motivated, he said. And there is a Slack channel for leadership courses that are available to employees at all levels of the business.

“While training is the main event, I believe learning takes reinforcement,” McAmis said. “So we use Slack to supplement the training and offer a way for our people to stay in touch and remind themselves of what they learned. Slack gives us the ability to share knowledge quickly and create knowledge databases.”

The next big push: digital tools for frontline workers

Much of the focus of digital transformation in recent years has been on office workers. But enterprise software vendors are now targeting collaboration, communication and productivity tools at a wider range of employees, such as retail, manufacturing and healthcare staff. These frontline service and task workers represent a burgeoning area of investment for many organizations.

That’s especially true of Microsoft, which has been targeting frontline workers since late 2018. “[Frontline workers are] a massive segment of workers around the world that are currently pretty drastically underserved by technology,” Emma Williams, corporate vice president of Modern Workplace Verticals at Microsoft, argued last year. “What we are delivering is a customizable experience that really focuses on a mobile-first worker based on their role.”

Those comments came as the company added a raft of updates to its Teams collaboration tool to woo frontline workers. Those additions included new mobile app functions, integrations with third-party scheduling apps and an employee “praise” tool.

One company that’s used Teams to successfully engage frontline workers is Virginia-based Ferguson, a plumbing supply company. The company rolled out Teams and sparked a shift to channel-based communications in a way that helped improve customer service with faster, more effective information sharing.

The change was especially important for showroom consultants who must answer customer questions, repeatedly check stock and generally assist with purchases.

“Historically, the showroom consultant would have to get on the phone or walk to the back office for the physical warehouse and say, ‘Hey, I’m looking for this product; do we have it? Can you bring it out?’ Tony Morris, director of business process at Ferguson, explained last year. “That has not been a great experience for the customer — it can take time.”

Using Teams channels, the sales staffers at Ferguson can now quickly send a request for info to the back office using their mobile device, allowing them to better focus on customers. “They can continue to service the customer, but get feedback right through the Teams app, which is nice because they can give that information to the customer without putting the customer on hold or … [leave] sitting around waiting.”

That kind of change can lead to more efficiency, engaged workers — and happier customers.

Although many organizations are just now beginning to invest in tools for frontline employees, more money is likely on the way as the business case becomes clearer. And the evolution of the workplace, already well under way, will continue.

“We’re at the beginning of making every worker a knowledge worker,” said Kurtzman. “The collaboration of an enterprise runs much more efficiently the more ideas that are there, the more ideas that can be acted upon.”

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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UK coffee roaster steps up to compete with larger players thanks to digital transformation

“We’ve had to up our game to serve larger customers—in part by moving to Microsoft 365. We’re now in the same league as larger engineering or roasting firms. And … we’re well placed to compete at this level.”

– Josh Clarke, Head of Coffee, Clifton Coffee Roasters

Britain is famous as a nation of tea drinkers, but in the last 10 years, it’s fallen in love with coffee, too. Brits drink 95 million cups a day, up from 70 million just 10 years ago. Innovative, independent coffee businesses like Clifton Coffee Roasters contribute to this surge in popularity.

The Bristol, England–based company was founded in 2001 as a “support system for coffee shops.” Back then, says Clifton Coffee’s Head of Coffee Josh Clarke, the industry had begun to shift toward quality but lacked expertise in training baristas, servicing coffee machinery, and sourcing beans—all of which Clifton Coffee readily provided.

Today, the company has grown to serve 850 wholesale customers in the United Kingdom and mainland Europe. In the four years since Clarke joined Clifton Coffee, the staff has more than doubled from 12 to 27 people, but it’s still run by James Fisher, its founding director. Clifton Coffee offers not only specialty coffee and machinery, but also servicing and training. The backbone behind some of the nation’s most successful independent and chain coffee shops, Clifton Coffee represents more of a value chain than a supply chain, as Clarke puts it.

Where great coffee comes first

Twenty-four Clifton Coffee employees work at the main site in Bristol. They run the business, look after finance, order coffee beans, run the roastery itself, and service and sell machinery. The company also has three remote locations serving customers in Liverpool, west Wales, and on the south coast of England.

As with any passion project, the people at Clifton Coffee come to work each day because they love coffee. And this focus on their core business meant that many of the support systems—like communications and collaboration tools—got adopted on the fly as the company flourished. Clarke says, “As we grew, we added new staff here and there to maintain the same level of service. But we reached a critical point in our growth curve and started to lose a lot of conversations in the confusion caused by using multiple communication tools. We knew we needed a consolidated approach to handle the expanding size of our customer base.” Scaling to meet the demands of larger customers meant rethinking how the business operated.

Since 2017, Clarke and a colleague have led a project to make operations more efficient both through organizational changes and smarter use of technology. This included a new finance and enterprise resource planning system and the goal of going fully paperless by mid-2019. An overhaul of Clifton Coffee’s collaboration and communication tools was the next logical step.

The pair got in touch with Steve Crompton from Changing Social, a Microsoft Partner Network member that had advised Clifton Coffee during its previous digital projects. “We told Steve about our communication problems, and he was excited to show us Microsoft 365, particularly Microsoft Teams and what it could do,” says Clarke, who was quickly sold on the idea of one set of tools for everyone in the business to use on any device. “And I was confident that we could use Microsoft 365 to help keep our data safe,” he adds.

From zero to live in two months

The timing was perfect—Clifton Coffee’s subscription to its old file-sharing service was running out. Following initial conversations in early September 2018, the company switched to Microsoft 365. The deployment quickly progressed as Changing Social and Clifton Coffee built the structure of the Teams environment, and Clifton Coffee’s IT partner migrated the company’s physical Exchange server to the cloud. Designated Clifton Coffee employees led the drive by helping move everyone’s files to the new system and discovering new uses for Teams within the company. By November 5, Changing Social had replaced all of Clifton Coffee’s previous collaboration and communication tools with Microsoft 365.

Cutting through the noise

With Changing Social’s support, Clifton Coffee could instantly adopt new ways of working. Clarke says, “With Teams, we immediately felt the impact of having channels where you get a fast response because your question is relevant to that channel rather than something that could get lost in a giant group chat on WhatsApp.” Now, most employees keep three windows open on their devices to cover everything they need: Outlook, Teams, and the company’s financial system.

In addition to using Teams to communicate on both their laptops and smartphones, employees at Clifton Coffee use SharePoint Online, OneDrive, and Forms to share files and media—and to request leave, file expenses, and collect feedback on coffee trading. Clifton Coffee also gathers feedback from customers about its training sessions, sending forms out automatically along with invoices, which is already helping improve customer service levels.

The new tools have delivered tangible savings. Getting rid of Dropbox has saved Clifton £2,500 alone, but the benefits go beyond having fewer software licenses. When Josh goes on trips to source coffee, he used to make tasting notes on paper and share them with the website manager in person or via WhatsApp—a process that would take around 30 minutes. Now, they share notes via video in 10 minutes, saving 20 minutes per coffee. And with 58 coffees to look after, this works out at £1,000 they can put back into the business.

Bespoke workflows for better coffee

Clifton Coffee had more plans for its new tools, reaching beyond the initial efficiency gains. Within a couple of weeks of Microsoft 365 going live, the company had already developed two exciting use cases. The first involved putting QR codes on each piece of coffee machinery in the field. Previously, it kept all documentation—invoices, delivery notes, quotations, engineering logs, and callout forms—on paper. Staff would print copies, fill them in while onsite, then scan them once back in the office and save them on a server.

“It was an archaic method of data management that left too much potential for human error,” says Clarke. Now, when engineers visit a customer, they take a picture of the code with their device and a form pops up in Microsoft Forms where they can enter the service data. This gets automatically saved in the cloud for anyone who needs to access it. And easy ways to log data result in higher-quality input. Clarke adds, “Having a more reliable record of machine usage means that we’ve been able to sell 30 percent more water filters since the move to Microsoft 365.”

Clifton Coffee has rolled out a similar system in its roastery, where whoever opens up in the morning needs to complete a checklist to comply with food safety regulations. Now, that person just takes a picture of a QR code, logs the data, and gets on with the day. Clarke has worked out that these digitized checks save employees about one hour a week and deliver further savings of more than £500 each week by removing inefficiencies and inaccuracies in the process.

Stepping up to the big leagues

Clifton Coffee’s newly digitized business puts the company in a great place to move to the next phase of growth. After working with a developer to create a bespoke operations package, it plans to implement Microsoft Power BI for clear insights into its business. Clarke says, “Some of our customers have grown to 50 or 60 sites now. Over the past couple of years, we’ve had to up our game to serve larger customers—in part by moving to Microsoft 365. We’re now in the same league as larger engineering or roasting firms. And because we offer both those aspects, we’re well placed to compete at this level.”

Find out more about Clifton Coffee Roasters on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

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Google’s grand Assistant transformation is slowly taking shape

Google Assistant is the backbone of almost everything Google does these days — and for good reason. We’ve talked plenty about how we’re in the “post-OS era” and how the common thread throughout most Google products is increasingly Assistant and getting you invested in that next-generation search interface.

So far, though, Assistant has remained mostly that — an interface. A prompt we use to get information and perform tasks. A layer that exists within other Google products. A function, in other words — not its own standalone entity.

From the looks of it, that’s all about to change. Join me for a bit of beyond-the-surface contemplation, won’t ya?

Assistant’s fancy new Canvas

Lost amidst the more headline-generating announcements of Google’s giant I/O conference earlier this month was an innocuous-seeming tidbit mentioned at a random developer session: Google’s launching a new way for developers to offer more interactive content on Assistant-centric devices.

It’s part of an effort called Interactive Canvas — currently available as a “developer preview” and limited to “gaming experiences,” to start, but with more categories expected to be added into the mix “soon.”

As Google’s official developer documentation site explains it:

Interactive Canvas is a framework built on the Google Assistant that allows developers to add a visual, immersive experience to conversational Actions. This visual layer is an interactive web app that is sent as a response to the user in conversation. Unlike traditional rich responses that exist in-line in the Assistant conversation, the Interactive Canvas web app renders as a full-screen web view.

Zzz…oh, hi there! All right, so not the most illuminating or excitement-generating description — but let’s break it down, because beneath all the mumbo-jumbo, there’s some incredibly important stuff going on here: Interactive Canvas connects a “conversational Action” (a fancy way of saying a voice command) to an “interactive web app.” That means when you say something to your device, instead of just getting a basic response back, you can opt to interact with a “visual user interface.” Hmm. A visual user interface, you say?

As Google explains it elsewhere, the setup is designed to allow developers to “create full-screen experiences that combine the power of voice, visuals, and touch.”

Google Assistant Platform Google

An early example of a simple app built with the Interactive Canvas framework.

Well, tickle me tooties and call me Dolores. That sure sounds an awful lot like an app to me.

Assistant + apps = ?

See what we’re getting at here? Google is effectively turning Assistant into its own standalone platform — not just a void-like interface for answers but a home for its own collection of honest-to-goodness apps. And those apps will run directly on Assistant-centric Smart Displays.

If we read between the lines, that ultimately means Google is redefining its Smart Displays and giving them new life as Bizarro World Android tablets, with their own separate app library that has nothing to do with Google Play. The same apps available in that library will also be available on Android, according to Google — which suggests there’s a decent chance they’ll make their way to Chromebooks eventually as well.

Oh, and the apps don’t use any special programming languages, either: According to Google, they rely solely on “open web technologies” like HTML, CSS, and Javascript, so there’s no learning curve required and only minimal effort involved for developers to get on board.

If I may quote the great American philosopher Keanu Reeves for a moment: Whoa.

Stop and think about the significance of this: All those simple-seeming Smart Displays are poised to become far more functional stationary tablets — but instead of tapping into the standard collection of Android apps in Google Play, they’ll use a new type of app that can run on all sorts of devices with the common denominator of Assistant at their core. So what type of tablets are these Smart Displays about to become? How do we categorize them? What operating system are they running? Does it even matter? (Google clearly doesn’t seem to think so.)

When I first wrote about the notion of the “post-OS era,” I made the following observation:

Google’s central goal is all about Assistant. And the once-critical operating system is now just one of many satellites surrounding it.

This latest twist with Interactive Canvas represents a monumental step in that post-OS mindset. For months now, folks have been obsessively scrutinizing Google’s under-development Fuchsia operating system and wondering if it’s the future of the company’s software setup. (As I’ve said from the get-go, that type of thinking seems far too black and white to be sensible — an interpretation Google itself corroborated during a Q&A session at this month’s I/O event.) The reality, it appears, is something far less sensational.

Assistant is the Google platform of the future. Whether we’re talking about Smart Displays, the Home Hub, or Android devices, the operating system is but a pawn in Assistant’s larger-scale and higher-stakes game.

Now, let’s be clear: None of this means entities like Android and Chrome OS will cease to exist. It does, however, mean Assistant is only likely to grow ever more important in its role as a nucleus and connective tissue across all those projects. (See also: the way Google is simultaneously encouraging developers to integrate Assistant into their Android apps and allow the apps to function entirely within Assistant, without ever needing to be “opened” in a traditional sense.)

The best way to sum it up is the way I presented it previously: It’s the virtual assistant’s world now. The operating system is just living in it.

And just think: Everything we’re seeing now is only the groundwork of this burgeoning new reality.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

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Digital transformation: Why every enterprise needs to think about UI

You can throw all the money and technology you want at enabling the digital transformation of any form of enterprise, but if your end users are uncomfortable with your brand-new solutions, they will simply stop using them.

Put the customer first

These are just some of the thoughts shared with me by Sam Johnson, Chief Customer Officer at Jamf, following that company’s move to introduce its, Jamf School MDM (Mobile Device Management) solution for educators.

Many may not understand why schools may need MDM solutions, but just like any enterprise the sector is making more and more use of technology – or trying to.

“MDM in education allows schools to integrate technology into their classrooms seamlessly, ensuring data protection and without the worry of updating the OS or device authentication, Johnson explained.

The thing is, while technology promises so much in terms of productivity, proficiency and learning improvements, delivering on those promises requires effective deployment – and must also be agile enough to evolve over time.

“If end users are uncomfortable using the technology with which they are provided, there is a good chance they won’t use it,” Johnson told me.

Making solutions that matter

One error enterprise users make when creating new software solutions for their business is to misread the needs of the internal customer.

You end up with apps that everyone is expected to use which really only meet the needs of senior management,

Some software solutions are built to be usable by IT teams or those who are familiar with technology, as they are responsible for managing the organization’s devices… but they aren’t built with the end user in mind as well,” Johnson observed.

Failing to consider the needs of the end user means that the very same people an enterprise wants using those apps most end up enduring an experience that seems unfamiliar or unintuitive, so they use the solutions badly, if at all.

“Ensuring that the end user will be able to utilize the technology, rather than be burdened by it, is critical when implementing these solutions, especially when wanting to encourage maximum productivity and creativity.”

On app design

The need to deliver intuitive solutions that end users engage with extends to user interface design.

If the UI is cumbersome, hard to figure out or functionally flawed, you’ll find that the people you want to have using those apps will use something completely different.

Is there any excuse for poor app design?

“Not today. Customers demand intuitive and productive applications,” Johnson said.

“It is critical for the end user to be comfortable and confident with the technology they are using.”

Understanding Apple’s impact

It is possible even Apple didn’t fully realize the profound transformation it put in motion when it introduced the iPhone.

A dozen years later and the impact of mobility is still transforming every market it touches and a plethora of integrations service providers are helping businesses deploy Macs and iOS devices.

We also know that when employees get a choice they will usually choose to use an Apple product.

“We believe that the intuitive and powerful features of the Apple platform enable people to do their best work and students to learn,” said Johnson.

Of course, like any technology solution it’s imperative that the fast growing number of organizations opting for Apple are properly supported in order to optimize the impact of newly deployed apps and devices – and that they focus on what their users need.

Please follow me on Twitter, or join me in the AppleHolic’s bar & grill and Apple Discussions groups on MeWe.

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