This time Maria, a CEO at Kreatik, spoke to Marek Nadra, a Business Solution Manager at Danone, who revealed what he is doing in Munich, who are Innovation Champions and why it isn’t always easy to order a Margherita.
You are a Business Solution Manager at Danone, where you work as an internal IT service provider for many companies within the Danone group. On a daily basis, you research needs and solve them through the implementation of IT projects. Can you tell us more about your role?
– I research needs, but sometimes I also create them. The declared need is not always the same as the actual need, because it is often not realized yet. Our team combines technical competences related to the understanding and implementation of new technologies with knowledge of individual business areas that we are to support, incl. HR, Data Analytics, Business Intelligence, Digital, CRM, sales and finance. As internal consultants, we support other departments by creating and implementing solutions for them that allow them to improve their work. I work with marketing teams, and sometimes the IT department appears in our conversations in the context that consent has not been obtained for an action or that consent requires prior consultation with this department. And I must admit that in such conversations there is frustration due to the lack of a certain freedom in making decisions. Sometimes there is a desire to bypass these internal procedures by using external suppliers.
What, from your perspective, should business departments understand in the context of the specifics of your work? How to effectively cooperate with the IT department?
– It is not easy to explain exactly what I do. You’ve touched on many interesting areas in your question. It seems to me that there is a little lack of understanding, also internally, of what we do in our department. Many times it is the case that we are actually perceived as “those who help with the laptops” or “those who help when the network does not work”. Which, of course, is also in our task area, but it’s a marginal part of it. How to approach the topic of cooperation with departments of external companies? The willingness and openness of cooperation are definitely required. It’s not like everything can be built from scratch.I n retrospect, it seems to me that the greatest successes are actually achieved with longer cooperation in mutual understanding, but also with the possession of certain competences. In fact, we have only a few business partners where we know it actually works. Understanding computer science and skilful project management are what counts. This is not something that is obvious on the business side. Graphically describing, we often encounter a situation when we get an order for a Margherita and we know exactly what it looks like, what it consists of and how to make it, but our task is to first consider whether the client really needs this Margherita i the first place. It may turn out that he ordered it because it is the most popular one, without wondering if it will really satisfy his appetite and give him strength for the rest of the day. As a department, we are open to customer suggestions, but we always try to propose solutions that they really need.
Are most of the projects you implement local or international for various markets? What does the cooperation of an international large organization look like on IT projects?
– The easiest way to answer this question is as follows – it depends on the need. Knowing the need, we first try to meet the challenge on the basis of what we already have. In most areas, we don’t completely start from scratch. If something concerns such core functions as e.g. finance, it will probably be based on SAP and implementing a new solution locally in this case does not make much sense. We check what we have in our internal portfolio first. In a situation where this need is very specific and we see that core solutions do not satisfy it, we look for a solution on the local market. And depending on the situation, we either find a ready, boxed system that we adapt, or we try to build it using various technologies, such as Low-Code Platform.
What is the process of implementing innovations in your company? Do you have a lot of space to implement them?
– We actually ask ourselves these questions every day. We do not have ready-made answers and action plans. In our case, we will probably not come up with completely new technologies, because this is not our domain. We operate in an FMCG company, where we are more concerned with the use of ready-made solutions than with the creation of new technologies. And that’s innovative for us. We are struggling with how to use the trend around AI in our organization, and not necessarily with being a pioneer in AI itself. At this point, it is worth mentioning that we have created a virtual team of Innovation Champions in our company. This means that we have people in the team who, apart from their standard duties, also perform the function of Innovation Champion in a specific scope. We are divided into various technology trends such as: Virtual Reality, Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things, Blockchain. We also have one Champion who is responsible for design thinking and developing an unconventional approach to solving problems and collecting requirements.
And what does the process of delivering innovations to the system look like? When a single employee, e.g. from the HR or finance department, has an idea, is the path of implementing innovation clear to him? How do you and your team promote and encourage people outside your department to come up with their own ideas?
– It seems to me that creating such a culture of innovation is not easy in any larger company. Most of the employees are so preoccupied with everyday duties related strictly to their position that they no longer have time to think about improving their work, especially those based on technologically innovative solutions. Currently, there is not enough time to stop for a moment and think about how to improve your own work. This is the challenge we are trying to face.
How you do it?
– One of the ways is to create the Innovation Champions which I mentioned earlier. This is a team dedicated to promoting technology. By promoting technology, I mean explaining what solutions a given technology provides and how they can be used to improve work related to a specific position. This type of knowledge is currently lacking in work environments. People know what Siri is, what AI is and use these solutions on a daily basis, but very often these technologies become something unfamiliar to them at work. Therefore, what is needed is understanding among employees of the opportunities provided by innovations, working on them and generating ideas for their use and ultimately improving everyday work. So far, problems arise at the very stage of generating ideas. Employees do not know how to make something more of an idea, i.e. to test, check, consider whether this solution has potential scalability. It is Innovation Champions that are working on changing this state of affairs in our company. You also asked about the process. At this point, we are using a global process that we are also trying to improve at the local level. We have regular meetings of IT department employees from around the world, during which we evaluate specific ideas. We wonder if they make sense at all and if they bring added value to the organization and the process. Then, very often, we send a list of questions related to the discussed ideas about what else can be improved to take the idea to the next level of development. We have several stages of innovation development. On each one, we increase the maturity of the idea, then allocate resources and time so that the people responsible for the idea can work on the solution, for example create a prototype, think about a business case, and ultimately create a concept.
Which stage do you think is the most difficult in this innovation funnel?
– It seems to me that each stage has some challenges. The proof of concept stage, however, seems to be the most difficult, i.e. the time when you have to create something and prove that the implementation of the idea really makes sense. And this also requires commitment, not just stopping at presenting an idea. Here you need determined people who believe in a given project and are able to spend the right amount of time on it and lead it further. Otherwise, in my opinion, it has no right to work. It is very difficult to implement someone else’s ideas if they are at a very early stage.
How many ideas do you manage to generate in this first stage and how many of them move on to the next ones: prototyping, implementing innovations? Do you have any specific goals or are you monitoring the process in some specific way?
– Based on my experience so far in this topic, I am a bit skeptical when it comes to setting KPIs in the context of innovation. I remember that at one time we actually decided to do it and we set specific KPIs for the number of ideas generated or for co-creating ideas. Ultimately, it came down to generating a set number of comments on an idea without much reflection on it. Many people focused only on providing comments, and then considered the process closed.
But the points were collected.
– Yes. Therefore, I think it is more important to realize what you really want to achieve than to define exorbitant KPIs. You can probably do it better, but it seems to me that now there is not enough maturity to focus on the implementation of rigid KPIs. I believe it is worth focusing on the direction and how to make people think a little more about a given topic related to the creation of new solutions, rather than focusing solely on enforcing specific actions on them. aniżeli skupiać się wyłącznie na egzekwowaniu od nich ściśle określonych działań.
Can you share a specific case or idea illustrating the process from entering this “innovative machine”, through prototyping, to internal commercialization? What tools did you use, who was the beneficiary, who participated, what did you manage to create thanks to this process?
– Let me use an interesting example of a project that we carried out in Germany – in our local branch. It concerned the use of VR technology for the needs of the HR department, which was not only a beneficiary of this project, but also a co-author. It all started with the activities of Innovation Champions and their promotion of technology. We started with purchasing the appropriate equipment, a 360-degree camera and glasses, and then we moved to testing its capabilities. In addition, we embedded the promotion of new technology and its functionality in the design thinking method. For this purpose, we have created a framework related to the problems that we can solve using virtual reality. As a result, the idea was born to record material that shows our company from the inside, for future students or employees, so that they can better understand who we are and whether it is worth working with us. We moved from the idea stage to the prototyping stage very quickly and recorded the material only with our internal forces. In the near future, we will want to show this project as an example of using new technology for business purposes, here for the needs of the HR department. I would like to add that the HR team took full responsibility in this case for the implementation of this idea. Our team was the inspiration, we gave the right tools, we managed the work on the project, but in fact the HR team developed the idea further. It seems to me that this is the key to innovation. Commitment and taking responsibility for the implementation of this type of project.
My guess is that the solutions you are working on vary in their complexity. How to differentiate and manage ideas that differ in terms of budget and added value? How to assess the value of an HR project, compare it and compare it with the project in the finance department? How do you approach it?
– It is impossible/It can’t be done 🙂
So how do you decide that a given project will be implemented and another not? What path have you worked out here?
– Now, we are at the stage of stimulating creativity and finding partners. It seems to me that this is not the moment when we really need to structure it all. This VR project, which I described earlier, happened locally, as part of the work of our internal Innovation Champions. This project did not even go through the entire global innovation implementation process. We did everything locally, because we had all the necessary competences and tools at our place. Therefore, differentiating projects and making decisions depends on the idea and the technology used. In the case of VR, if you have the tools: a camera, glasses, a prototype can be made practically free of charge. Of course, I do not include the time of our involvement. However, when we are talking, for example, about an AI solution, these are usually high costs, which are a obstacle already at the proof of concept stage. At the moment, we are still working in the dark. Having a case, we try to understand what the potential benefit is, how we can check it and then we discuss on an ongoing basis how to approach it. We are obviously more skeptical of investing a lot of money in very uncertain ideas. The situation is different in the case of such technologies as VR or RPA (Robotic Process Automation), where it is more tangible and easier to visualize the cost aspect of the project going through the creation of a prototype or proof of concept.
And in which area do you see the greatest use of RPA?
– For us, it is defined as one of the technological trends within innovation. This is quite a new and interesting area, with some risks worth mentioning as well. Speaking of Robotic Process Automation, we are talking about software that can simulate human work. Where can they be used most often? In areas with a lot of manual, repetitive work. So let’s imagine the processing of some HR application. First, we use one system in which we complete the data. Then we need another system to collect the missing data, and sometimes we still have to copy some information from the e-mail. In this case, RPA seems to be the perfect solution to simplify the entire process. There is, however, some risk involved. The more we learn about this technology, the more often we see that it can become a kind of excuse and a way to cheat the system. Instead of streamlining the process, making it really effective, designing a decent interface between the systems, we’re doing a bit of a patch at the top. Nothing more. Our little robot does the same process instead of humans.
Lastly, I would like to ask you about building innovative solutions in specific working conditions during a pandemic. Has the last year inspired you to create and use innovations?
– Although it was a very difficult period, there was a strong mobilization in our country to focus on the most important issues at that time. At the very beginning, our main priority was to prepare the entire organization for remote work. It may seem like a trivial matter, but some employees have never worked this way before or some of the tasks and responsibilities seemed impossible for them to be performed remotely. Therefore, we had to analyze the specifics of the work of each business area in order to unleash greater creativity in the implementation of pragmatic solutions. Do I see this as the main domain of innovation? Probably not, although I am very happy that there was a readiness that caused many people to think outside the box in a new and specific situation. Referring to the impact of the pandemic on the IT area in general, it is certainly a more complex topic. I am currently seeing trends that may not have arisen as a result of the prevailing pandemic, but would not have come as quickly had it not been for the pandemic. For example those related to teamwork. At Danone, we decided to take a closer look at this aspect of our work and proposed new solutions. We named the project “Modern Workplace” and its focus is on how to help our employees work together as a team and thus increase efficiency. Here, we support our organization, moving towards methods of improving work, where technology can be a key factor. Brainstorming and project management tools are just some of the elements we currently implement.
Thank you very much for the interview.