The front-line workforce is vital to the success of many 21st century businesses. But, despite all the advances in consumer technologies, many field workers still don’t have the best tools. Richard Milnes, the CEO of Zaptic, knows this better than most. He was developing bespoke software for Consumer Packaged Goods (CPGs) companies when he became aware of this digital gap in enterprise technology. “Digital transformations have created digital customers, but not digital workers on the front-line.”
To close this gap, Milnes launched Zaptic. He raised investment and built a team to work on his vision. “At Zaptic, we are committed to digital transformation from the inside out. We improve the performance, the KPIs, and ultimately the customer experience for organisations by investing digitally in their front-line workforce.”
Under Milnes’ stewardship, Zaptic is delivering a simple, friendly, digital work experience, with early traction focused within the consumer packaged goods and retail verticals. The mission is to optimise the execution of work processes by the frontline workforce — in the modern market as well as in the emerging economies, such as rural India.
In this interview, Milnes describes Zaptic’s focus on digital operational excellence, the empowerment of front-line workers, and why he thinks Business Process Management (BPM) is the best candidate for the digital work platform of the future.
Gloria Lombardi: How does the Zaptic platform empower the front-line workforce?
Richard Milnes: Zaptic provides the front-line workforce with a friendly and intuitive app experience for their day-to-day activities. It is a millennial generation mobile technology that does not require the IT department to configure and deploy it, as it can be implemented easily by the managers of an organisation.
The platform is built around Business Process Management (BPM), and so makes it easy to configure and distribute processes for execution. A process can be anything: how a supermarket employee should check products are displayed correctly; how a field-worker should record a meter reading; what procedures must be followed to prevent an oil tanker disaster, etc.
By bringing processes to the forefront, the platform enables the sharing of procedural guidance in a new way. It ensures field workers know what they need to do, when they need to do it, and how they need to do it.
GL: Why is such a focus on process so important to success?
RM: The BPM concept has existed for years, even before computing. But, if we look at the main areas of software development, we find a great deal of investment in bringing software as a service to systems of record such as Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) or Customer Relationship Management (CRM) tools, which are very good at automating specific transactional processes. There has been an under-investment in automating the design and management of variable field processes with a more dynamic ‘system of activity’, bringing ‘software as a service’ to the design, execution and management of processes, which is BPM itself.
Organisations are often focused on the customer experience, making use of mobile, social, and analytics technologies to optimise the online relationship. But if the customer has a poor in-store experience because of a process failure, the whole customer experience is jeopardised. The real-life shopping experience is as important as the online one. So, the processes followed by employees are important because the customer experience relies on them.
Standardising and streamlining the way in which procedural guidance is communicated to front-line operational workers is key to success. We believe that BPM is the right system and ethos for the digital work platform of the future.
GL: Why do you think BPM has become such an important issue?
RM: To become operationally excellent, online and offline, an organisation needs more than just systems of records; it needs systems of engagement and systems of activities. We find that a BPM system supports the right operational practices.
A key benefit of BPM is the ability to bring data, best practice guidance, and specific applications all into one place. There are many work apps in the market, but no single provider is going to meet the needs of an entire workforce in the age of the Internet of Things (IoT) and Artificial Intelligence (AI). So, the digital work platform of the future has to integrate all those different elements into one place for the front-line staff. We think that the BPM system is uniquely able to do it.
GL: With this in mind, how do you ensure that operational excellence is achieved?
RM: At Zaptic, we talk about ‘insights to action‘: the convergence of awareness, knowledge, and action. Companies, especially Consumer Packaged Goods, retailers, and reseller businesses, have masses of data, often from their point-of-sales systems. The challenge is not just to turn raw data into “actionable insights”, but actually action.
Zaptic works with third-party analytics companies to predict what is happening in the field and what high-value actions should be taken by the front-line staff. The workforce receives simple notifications – actions they can quickly perform and record. In retail, this is known as activity optimisation: it involves using analytics to optimise the activities in the field. If we take facility management as another example, we talk about responsive and predictive maintenance (as opposed to the usual planned maintenance). It’s about using data to prioritise what happens on the front-line.
So, we consider the data to be the company’s awareness, and analytics finds the opportunities within the data. We then push out actions to the appropriate front-line staff in a simple interactive to-do list. We make sure the right guidance is on hand so that staff know exactly how to do the work, and of course we record their actions.
GL: Based on your experience with client organisations, what are workers asking for? What do they need to better execute their work processes?
RM: At Zaptic, we focus on three clusters of workers.
Process agents work out in the field using their mobile apps, and fixing problems. Typically, they want a millennial-generation gamified app experience. Something that is easy to use, friendly — completely unlike the boring and clunky enterprise software so common in less agile companies.
Process experts know how to do something specific. They are experts in that process. They may need ways to share their knowledge and expertise in a way that improves adherence to the best practice or brand standard. They need more than a PDF or employee handbook for their Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs).
Business managers predominantly focus on KPIs and making sure that a process is executed well by the process agents at the front-line. They want flexibility. They want to be able to easily speed up new projects, and create and adjust processes – all without the help of IT. They want to manage the business with their iPads, determine the work experience for the process agents with particular reference to their local requirements – the ability to configure locally and deploy the solution rapidly.
GL: Which macro-trends for the future of work influence your technology?
RM: We keep a close eye on the crowd-sourced and gig economy. The free agency is our favourite term.
The labour market is fundamentally changing. Many front-line jobs don’t require years of training and skills development, and can be performed by people who are not necessarily dedicated employees. The challenge for companies, as always, is to ensure that correct standards are in place without having to put everyone through months of expensive training.
This trend impacts many industries, specifically consumer goods and retailers. And the solution that we provide enables companies to communicate and deliver procedures guidance in an effective way to the process agents. Organisations can instantly become more agnostic as to whether the agent who is executing the process is a full-time employee, or a member of the crowd, or a free agent. Easy or urgent tasks can be given to the crowd, and free agents can be deployed to the local field, while more complicated and added-value activities can be entrusted to more experienced in-house employees.
Another trend, that is less socially driven but more a corporate phenomenon, is private equity firms taking ownership of consumer goods companies and food service businesses. Burger King is a good example of de-franchising. Companies are releasing their assets to streamline their operations. But, in doing so, they give up some of the control they have over the processes operated by the franchises. So, one of the challenges is to maintain the brand standards and the quality and compliance across the franchise networks. And the Zaptic platform provides a solution to that problem.