How a Digital Office feeds business appetite for disruptive innovation
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How a Digital Office feeds business appetite for disruptive innovation

Angelica Mari — August 2016
The waves of digitalization rolling through organizations are putting new pressures on both IT and business management. I-CIO talks with one multinational — Belgian chemicals giant Solvay — about how its creation of a Digital Office is supporting the business’s digital ambitions.

Businesses everywhere are exploring new organizational models to support their digital transformation ambitions. But some have been working on that challenge a lot longer than others.

Belgian chemicals multinational Solvay put in place a structure to drive that digital agenda across the €12.4 billion ($13.7bn) company back in 2014 — and it is an approach to business-led but IT-fulfilled innovation that has proved highly fruitful.

Solvay’s Digital Office acts as a project broker between corporate departments and IT. Working with a Digital Taskforce made up of the heads of the company’s main business units, its remit is to identify digital opportunities right across the business, capturing related business requirements and communicating those to IT. And while it was originally a spin-off from the company’s shared services organization, the 10-person team is now seen more as a business function.

Fernando Birman, head of Solvay’s Digital Office
During its first year the Digital Office felt it had to set things in motion by kick-starting a series of digital projects. But as digital pressures and opportunities have mounted, the business has firmly grasped the agenda, and the activities of the Digital Office have begun to gather pace, says its head, Fernando Birman. “Now we’ve stopped suggesting initiatives and are at the receiving end of technology-based demands from various business areas,” he says.

That change stems from a realization by his business colleagues that some of the megatrends of IT have matured to the point where they are capable of delivering dramatic business outcomes. “In 2014, digital was not as hot as it is today, particularly in the B2B environment. People in the business were starting to hear about things like big data, IoT and digital disruption but weren’t associating that with business. A year later, the cultural change related to these was abrupt,” Birman outlines.

“The Digital Taskforce has gained more maturity in its thinking as a result of that evolution and started to organize digital transformation initiatives on its own. In a company this size, you can find people with many of the required competencies — such as data analytics, statistics and so on. The challenge is to ensure all these people can all work well together.”
New ways of working

Indeed, the largest project led by the Digital Office to date — and completed early this year — focused on improving ways of working across the company. This initiative was piloted within Solvay’s plastics and engineering division and involved the replacement of Microsoft Office tools with the cloud-based Google for Work suite (comprising Google Docs, Gmail, Drive and Hangouts) in a project that involved 500 users.

According to Birman, the move helped simplify some “over-complex processes” and cut hours per week from many key processes, delivering significant economic efficiencies.

“When we started this project, we believed that it was all about creating an environment where people could innovate more, run their business processes better and make better decisions. But we realized there were very significant productivity gains to be had,” Birman says.

Collaborating on shared documents in the cloud was a particular cultural shift. “People have become very used to emailing documents as attachments for someone to revise, so creating several versions of every document. But that’s a model that doesn’t fit well with the workplace demands we have today,” he adds. “In a company with more than 30,000 staff it’s not surprising to find groups of people that work in a really inefficient way and are not aware that they can incorporate these new possibilities into their working routines,” he says.

The new cloud-based office productivity approach is now being extended to other business units. But Birman argues that the rollout of such digital services needs to be across entire departments — rather than in functional pockets — if the benefits of more collaborative engagement are to be realized.

Individuals at all levels and across different generations need to appreciate those new ways of working. That’s one reason Birman has put in place a ‘reverse mentoring’ scheme: a Digital Office initiative aimed at spreading awareness and understanding of new technologies and how they can best be used.

“This entails younger employees going to their more mature counterparts and showing them what they can do with relevant applications or how they can use existing tools better,” Birman explains.

A significant number of Solvay employees are in their 50s, 60s or even 70s, says Birman, and they don’t always have the necessary familiarity with digital tools. “So the reverse mentoring scheme is very useful for them — and hopefully of interest to them, too.”
Exploring predictive analytics

Solvay’s Digital Office, naturally, has a much wider brief than workplace IT. Closer to the cutting-edge, it has been demonstrating the value of big data analytics to the business in recent months, with proofs of concept within the areas of credit management, sales and industrial maintenance. In credit management, for example, the company has chosen to work with ProbaYes, a specialist in predictive and optimization analytics.

At this stage, Birman says the aim is to test concepts rather than technologies. “We are still focused on relatively small data samples. What we are doing, though, is working with data in a more structured manner, using a methodology aimed at getting greater insight,” Birman says.

“For example, analysis of sales data is showing us the clients we should be offering more products to, and within maintenance it’s showing the right time for us to make certain interventions or change certain pieces of equipment. So in many ways, this is formalizing things that were previously in the realm of intuition,” he adds.

“What we can say from these proofs of concept is that the market is actually maturing fast — there are good products out there — and that the data is capable of telling us some very interesting things. We also know that it’s worth continuing with these initiatives and seeking out partners who can help us take this to a more industrial level.”
Sensing the environment

When it comes to Internet of Things (IoT), the initiatives at Solvay are also nascent but evolving fast. The company has partnered with industrial giant GE to undertake an IoT data analytics pilot focused on equipment maintenance.

At Solvay’s chemical plants, for example, there are already thousands of sensors capturing data on the status of chemical holding tanks and their contents covering temperature, pressure, liquid volume and flow. “Our IoT project will naturally end up as being an analytics initiative because it generates such large amounts of data sent from our various factories and we need to explore it all,” Birman explains.

“As well as the typical insights you might expect in areas such as logistics, there are other opportunities for us to explore ways of reducing the risk that is always a factor in the work of a chemical plant,” he adds.

“Working on technologies just for the pleasure of it is just not something we do. The Digital Office puts the business’s needs first.”

The excitement about digital opportunities has become evident right across the business, and Birman says demand for the Digital Office team’s services has surpassed expectations in the past 12 months. But for the coming year he has better visibility into the business’s priorities and what the demands are likely to be.

“We are still helping each business unit create their own digital strategy roadmap. They will choose the best opportunities to pursue, which initiatives might increase productivity, as well as becoming aware of which might not be such a great idea,” Birman says.

Formulating those plans will be the team’s priority for the coming year, alongside further proofs of concept. But, as Birman stresses, this is no ‘skunkworks’ approach. The method employed by the team is to identify where innovations can enhance the business environment rather than focusing on any particular technology.

“Working on technologies just for the pleasure of it is just not something we do. We had that kind of technology-oriented function before, but the Digital Office approach is quite different: it puts the business’s needs first,” Birman stresses.

“The idea behind the Digital Office is to find a business case, a justification, the minimal conditions of engagement for everyone in the organization, which means that stakeholders have to believe in the project.” That, he says, is the key to digital project success.
First published August 2016
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