Bots and Beyond Episode 27: Citizen Developer: From Hype to Reality

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We have all heard the hype surrounding the citizen developer concept. But is it really just hype? Or can citizen developers make a difference to business transformation?

In this episode of the ISG Bots and Beyond podcast, host Wayne Butterfield explores the reality and challenges of integrating this approach into efforts organizations are making to scale their automation programs. He is joined by Jackie Grunwald, VP and CIO at AdvanSix, who shares experiences from her own automation journey. Their discussion explores how companies can build a successful culture of citizen developers to drive enterprise growth and innovation.

 


Transcript

Wayne Butterfield

Hello and welcome back to Bots and Beyond. As always, another fantastic episode lined up for you today and another one of our American clients. So it's my pleasure to welcome the VP and CIO over our client AdvanSix. I've got Jackie Grunwald with me. And it's a real pleasure to have Jackie and I'm really looking forward to today's topic and I'll divulge a little bit more about what that is very shortly but Jackie, great to have you on the show.

Jackie Grunwald

Thank you, Wayne. I really appreciate the invitation. I'm looking forward to this discussion.

Wayne Butterfield

We're going to talk today; and it's not a new topic to bots and beyond, certainly episode one actually really kind of focused in on this, but we're going to look at it from a client side on citizen developer. So again, it's not something that's necessarily going away, this very much is a way of working for a lot of a lot of people within that kind of RPA space. So, really great to chat to you about this topic today. Obviously, we know a little bit about each other following some of our earlier discussions, but I’d really like the audience know a little bit more about you. And as is customary for our Bots and Beyond guests now, I'd love to get your intro on who you are, what you do, and then more importantly, Jackie, why you do it.

Jackie Grunwald 

You bet! So as you mentioned, I'm the CIO at AdvanSix. I have about 25 years of experience in IT. I started my career at a at a tech company and then I spent about 17 years working at Honeywell at various businesses and corporate at Honeywell, and then I joined advanced AdvanSix just before we IPO’d in in 2016. And I made a, you know, I made a shift there I earned a an MBA and, you know, after having the experience of working at a at a tech company, I realized I was really more passionate, I'm passionate about technology. Certainly, I love the evolution that we've had with technology in the past, you know, 20 plus years and the way that it continues to evolve. The opportunities that it creates for us is awesome. But I'm really a lot more passionate about seeing that application, you know, being close, understanding what a business does, and using technology to help a business transform the way they do things, become, you know, much more efficient and effective. So, I love working here at AdvanSix, and I love my role because I'm able to create a strategic vision for the organization of how we can leverage technology to really build and grow our capability here at AdvanSix.

Wayne Butterfield

I'm love your why! It resonates with me a great deal as somebody who also shares many of those kind of passions; using technology to create operational efficiencies and just improve the way that a business works. So, we definitely have some shared passions there, Jackie. You mentioned AdvanSix a couple of times now. Obviously, it'd be great to know a little bit more about who AdvanSix are, and kind of what you know, what do you do? What kind of industry are you guys in?

Jackie Grunwald 

Of course! At AdvanSix, we are a chemical manufacturer. We’re publicly traded under the stock ticker ASIX. Our headquarters are in Parsippany, New Jersey, and we've got manufacturing plants and other locations in Pennsylvania and Virginia. So, all our operations are in the United States. We sell our products globally. And what we do is, actually we're an essential manufacturer, which is kind of a key point. We've been operating continuously with our staff on our sites, even during this global pandemic. So, we've had to think a lot about how we can work, you know, safely and with good health together in reasonable ways, with this global health crisis going on around us. And it's important that we're able to keep people on our sites and keep running because we produce a lot of important products. So, we produce nylon. This is in a form called caprolactam and also a nylon resin. These are products that are used in industries such as carpet production and automotive industry. We make a nylon film. So, this is a film that creates an oxygen and water barrier in packaging. So that's important for like food packaging, and other packaging applications. We make ammonium sulphate, which is a chemical fertilizer. It's really critical to the nitrogen fixation in crops, which helps with crop yield. And then we run our process across our plants in a highly integrated way. We make products and co-products throughout our process. So, we make a number of chemical intermediates that are used in a variety of applications from solvents that are used in in the electronics industry, to acetone which is a key feedstock for hand sanitizer; obviously something that's become much more important to our lives recently. So, a number of products used in a wide range of industries around the world. And very glad that we've been successful to operate throughout these interesting times recently.

Wayne Butterfield

I feel like we should really be talking about potential industrial robots versus software robotics. Maybe that's something that we can, we can pick up on another episode. I'm sure there is some wonderful technology that's ongoing actually in the factory as opposed to the kind of back-office functions were where we'll probably touch upon a little bit today. For you guys it was 2018, I think, when you started on your automation journey. I mean, why don't you give us a little bit of history about where you've been to date. And then let's talk a little bit about, you know, what your thoughts are about the future.

Jackie Grunwald 

Sure, of course. You're right, we started about three years ago and we can talk about automation in all kinds of ways, but to narrow in on robotic process automation is pretty interesting. We started you know, learning from other companies what they were doing with robotic process automation, and we thought it was a really interesting opportunity. Thinking about the kind of process work that we do across our organization, business processes, right. How can we automate, simplify, make work easier, transform our processes? And back in 2018, we made the connection with ISG and decided that this would be a really interesting partnership for us, which it certainly has been. And we also, with the support of ISG, we selected to use the Blue Prism software as our as our RPA software. And, you know, we find RPA to be a really intriguing opportunity. So, when you think about the kind of work that often happens and decisions that we've made over time, we have different systems that we run across the organization, which means that when you're pulling together data from a process, you might be getting that data from different places; maybe some of it’s even collected manually, maybe some of it's in our SAP system, maybe some’s in other systems. So, we end up with people who are spending time, frankly repetitive time, to go and gather information from these different places. And, you know, traditionally they're probably putting this data into an Excel file. Maybe now they're collecting it into a Power BI report, but they're taking their valuable time to go and track down data over and over again, from different places and put it somewhere. So, they're spending a lot of their time doing this manual work. And when we can take a take a bot, right, and teach the bot to go and do this, it really transforms what the what the human, what the person can do with their time, right? Instead of spending all that time going and finding data. They can actually be using their time to analyze the information, create insights, share those insights with, you know, the right decision makers, enable decisions across the organization, which is a way more powerful thing for a person to be doing. And that's a really awesome opportunity. I think that RPA gives us. It allows us to change the kind of work that we're having our folks do, our people do, and offload some of the manual repetitive work on these bots or digital workers. And that's, you know, frankly, this is really good for people development, also. It's allowing us to refocus individuals on different kinds of work that's more interesting and can help them develop more in their careers.

So with this kind of interesting thought, we decided that we would build an automation COE made up of citizen developers. And so we partnered with ISG on this journey, and ISG helped us to train the individuals that we selected in our center of excellence. And we did this in a way, there was there was classroom training originally, but what was great was ISG helped us practice those skills. I mean, as probably we all can agree it's terrific to get educated on something, to take some kind of course, but you can't really become proficient at it until you start practicing. So, our COE embarked on a journey to build 10 or so bots. And the first set of bots that we built, ISG was doing a lot of the work and we're doing some kind of shoulder surfing if you will, watching and learning. And then in the in the next round that we built; now we're kind of moving into our second year probably of our automation journey, in that in that second round, our team was building bots themselves with some mentoring and coaching from our ISG partners. And this really helps us practice and learn the skills. So, then our COE could move on and start building bots on their own, which is what we're continuing to do today. We've got it a COE made up of individuals from across our organization, not just in IT, and these individuals spend some of their time to create automations. And we love the citizen development model, because if you think about IT work kind of traditionally; I mean a challenge can be that IT kind of comes in and looks at a process and says, “here I can help you, you know build a solution to make that easier”. And then when that project is done, IT is gone and then the process owners are the ones kind of living with whatever it is, which you know, hopefully is really good, but if it's not they're kind of stuck with what it is. By creating this citizen development model, we have people who are close to the process designing the way they want to run; and I mean, if you will, managing the bots or the digital workers once that work, or that process is automated. And I think that's really powerful, because it shifts that ownership of the digital process to the process owner. Our COE has built some additional bots on their own and we're really proud of their work and we're continuing to to advance that learning and capability as we go forward.

Wayne Butterfield

Okay, well, I guess that kind of helps with the backstory, and obviously I guess the start of your journey. You can tell how long ago it was because you were literally shoulder surfing. And we know in COVID times, well that wouldn't have happened over the last 18 months for a lot of organizations. So we can we can formally confirm that shoulder surfing was definitely something that was 2018 and not 2020 or 21. Thinking about why citizen developer then, I think you've touched upon a few points there, you know, you didn't necessarily want this to be completely owned by IT and obviously that's one of the things that we, you know, we see working well in organizations; that it's not just an IT initiative. But were there any other kind of points that you thought, well actually we want to go down this citizen route, we want to involve as many people in the business; was there any kind of thoughts behind that model? You know, what was the motivator behind choosing that path?

Jackie Grunwald 

Well, like I said, we want the process owners to be closely engaged. We want to drive the design of the automation so that people are really close to the work. But we also thought about, you know, where are their interesting opportunities across the organization? And probably like many companies we have a number of interesting automation opportunities. So, we really tried to capture like a cross section of the organization. We have citizen developers from finance, from marketing, from engineering. We do have a couple of citizen developers that are within IT. We've looked at supply chain opportunities, commercial; I’m sorry, I'm leaving out some functions here, we've looked at HR. But we really looked across the organization and said you know, “how can we best assess the opportunities?” We can do it by getting close to the process and engaging people from functions all across the organization in this citizen development work. And, you know, something I think maybe sort of interesting about the way that we thought about this, is when we started we asked our COE members to identify an automation opportunity in their own work. So, what's something that you could automate that's going to make your life better and create some, you know, additional time for you? You can give some work to a bot, a digital worker effectively. And by doing that then, once you've gone and automated some of your work, then that's going to free up a little bit of time for you, and you could spend that time automating processes for some of your co-workers in your, you know, HR function or your finance function, or wherever you are working in the organization. So, a way to kind of, you know, give back and spread the wealth if you will.

Wayne Butterfield

Fantastic! I think that kind of makes sense. And I guess it really does bring, you know, this collective together. I guess, you’re kind of all in it, right? It's not, you know, somebody's doing ill to, you know, an area of the business. You know, this is not necessarily IT saying, you know, this is what we're doing to you; actually this is a collaboration of departments who are all kind of in it together. So I think that's certainly something that I took from your output there, which is great. You obviously mentioned there's lots of people in different departments. I mean, was there anything you did you think was good around choosing those people? Because I guess most of these departments don't necessarily have, you know, a bedroom coder, as I might call it. Was there any kind of criteria you used to find the right people? Or was it willing victims? It’d be really good to get your kind of insight on that bit.

Jackie Grunwald  

Well, certainly, I think willing participation. I don't use the word victim here. But I think willing participation is key. I mean, and certainly this is demonstrated by asking and talking with people, explaining the opportunity. But a little more high level, we looked at who were our top talent, individuals that we thought were ready for an interesting development opportunity, people who were interested in driving and leading teams, because this is about transforming process work. So, you've got to be an individual who looks for opportunities to drive improvement, and who's willing to own that and work with people to drive that change to end results to outcomes. And, of course, you've got to be interested, you've got to have manager support, engagement in this, you know, in this journey. And I think, you know, I think it's also important that you've got a demonstrated ability to really get into the details; so, think carefully about a process and think about how you might improve that process.

Wayne Butterfield

And I think one of the challenges that a lot of organizations have kind of had around citizen developer programs, or at least the perception, I think the external perception has always been around governance. How do you maintain a level of quality in a citizen program? You know, how do you maintain that the guy in marketing is documenting the process and automating the process in a way that would resonate with a citizen developer in HR or, or you know, your core guiding principles as part of your core COE way of working? I mean, how do you have to kind of keep a good close eye on everybody? How to keep everybody engaged? And I'll be really keen to understand the kind of the governance around your program.

Jackie Grunwald   

Absolutely. That's a really important point that you're bringing up. I think we can all probably think back in time, and there was a time where maybe some light citizen development might have been, you know, I have a process that I'm doing so I'm going to simplify by using Microsoft Access. I'm going to build this incredible Access database, and it's going to make my life so much better. And that's great as right up until the point that that person moves on to a new role, and then someone else has to start doing this work and really can't figure out the super complex Microsoft, you know, Access database that was built, and then we start to get to kind of breakdown of process. So, as we think about citizen development in RPA, we have to think about longevity over time and across people, right? We're transforming process,  so we're not just building a bot to run for a year or to run as long as the bot developer is in that role. We're trying to create something that can be leveraged, you know, into the future by the organization, even as people grow and develop and move into new opportunities. So, this is another area that that the partnership from ISG was really insightful and helpful. They helped us to build a governance model and engage the whole COE in that discussion and ownership of the governance model. Like probably most companies out there, we have an acceptable use of IT resources policy and we ask, you know, individuals to review and agree to this on an annual basis. For our COE team members, we go a little bit further and we think about, you know, an agreement to our governance policies beyond just the acceptable use of IT resources. We've got to agree and comply with a set of RPA governance processes. And you know, the kind of processes that we use aren't so different from traditional IT development. We try to keep it, you know, fit for purpose, right. Really thoughtful about how we create value and create that longevity over time. But we do have a bit of a checkpoint around process documentation, right. It's important that we understand what the bot is meant to do. We do peer reviews of the bots within the COE, so we, you know, work together and partner on that. We of course do testing, and validate that the bot does what we want it to do. Certainly as we were investigating RPA we heard a horror story here or there where maybe a citizen developer creates a bot but it executes some unintended consequences. We want to really try to avoid that. And you talked about team engagement right? I think that's really critical. This is a journey and our COE  team members are all on the journey with us. So, we want to continue to build the capability, engage, share, look for new opportunities, work together. The COE team members, they get together on a regular basis. I think there was actually a COE meeting this morning. We have a COE leader who reports to me, but the members all have accountability to each other, to share learnings, to talk about what they're working on, so that we can learn from each other, and also to be an advocate for process automation in their in their respective functional areas. So, the COE team members take turns kind of building some interesting content that can be shared with peers and across the organization, and get out there talking about and looking for automation opportunities, assessing those opportunities in a meaningful way to think about, you know, where are those great opportunities where it's meaningful to automate work. And I guess the last point I'll make is that we're going to bring the team together here face to face. I know that sounds crazy after 18 or 20 months of not doing things like that, but we're really excited to get them together for some advanced training and practice. And you know just time together to, you know, have a meal and share and build those relationships, which I think is a really important part of being a team working together building trust.

Wayne Butterfield

You mentioned kind of closing out there, and time is almost up on this episode. It's been fantastic so far. As kind of one final question I'd be really keen to understand; we spoke about your journey so far, what about where you going? Like, what do you think you'll be doing over the next kind of 12, you know, 18 months? Hopefully, you know, COVID starts to be a little bit more behind us. It's fantastic that I guess the team will be meeting up in person for the first time in quite a long time so that's fantastic. But where next?

Jackie Grunwald    

As I said it's definitely a journey. So, it's a journey we're going to continue to stay on. We're still learning as an organization. We're learning more about the capabilities in Blue Prism. We have ISG to support us on that journey. And what we see is that the capability keeps innovating. Blue Prism is innovating in their product, which is super cool. It keeps giving us new capability. So, we're exploring, you know, what are the new capabilities that are out there? How can we leverage them? And you know, there's so many opportunities, I can’t possibly talk about them all but a few that I'll  refer to is, I believe it's called Interact in Blue Prism. So, this is a way our original bots are kind of scheduled right. They have tasks at a certain time that they go and do. Interact introduces a new capability where the individual can trigger a process, the bot gets sent out and does some work, maybe some data collection or something. And once it's done its work it brings it back to the individual who then can maybe make some insights on that data and kick off the next step of the process that the bot can go and do. So, really interactive process transformation, which is just super interesting. We're looking at starting to do this. We're interested in Intelligent Automation. And, you know, frankly, what we want to do is continue to create value and capability. To build capability with our COE team members, and just to create value and capability across our organization, to help AdvanSix continue to grow as an organization and to create more effective, efficient processes that really, really help us be your best.

Wayne Butterfield 

I'm sure like myself, the audience will have absolutely loved the insights that you’ve provided over the last kind of 30 minutes. So, thank you ever so much Jackie, really do appreciate your time. I know you're incredibly busy. I'm sure the audience will appreciate, and I look forward to hopefully seeing you in person myself in the not-too-distant future. So, thank you, Jackie.

Jackie Grunwald     

Thanks so much Wayne. This has been really fun. I've enjoyed talking to you and honestly, I can't wait to meet you in person. I'm looking forward to that.

Wayne Butterfield 

 And thank you everybody for listening to Bots and Beyond this week, and we'll speak to you all soon.

About the host

Wayne is an automation pioneer, initially starting out as an early adopter of RPA in 2010, creating one of the first Enterprise scale RPA operations. His early setbacks at Telefonica UK, led to many of the best practices now instilled across RPA centres of excellence around the globe. Customer centric at heart, Wayne also specialises in Customer Service Transformation, and has been helping brands in becoming more Digitally focused for their customers. Wayne is an expert in Online Chat, Social Media and Online Communities, meaning he is perfectly placed to help take advantage of Chat Bots & Virtual Assistants. More recently Wayne has concentrate on Cognitive & AI automation, where he leads the European AI Automation practice, helping brands take advantage of this new wave of automation capability. 
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