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How citizen development can help businesses close the digital skills gap

Sundara Sukavanam, Chief Digital Officer, Firstsource  

Digital transformation and skills will be crucial for the UK’s economic recovery. But this success will be underpinned by addressing the current digital skills gap. Which according to a UK trade association for digital technology is currently costing the UK £6bn in GDP per year. 

This gap is felt by senior leadership teams, with two-thirds (69%) fearing their organisation is facing a digital skills shortage. Understanding that recruitment alone can’t fix this issue some leaders are turning to upskilling through citizen development programmes. These initiatives are designed to help non-IT-savvy employees learn digital skills. One such programme was successfully piloted by us at Firstsource, a global business process management provider, below is how we did it and what we learned.    

The Automation League

The Automation League is the embodiment of Firstsource’s Digital First, Digital Now vision. The initiative provided education, tools and trained capabilities for automation amongst the non-technical workforce. It was piloted across all organisational functions – from operations to customer services, marketing and HR. The result is automation solutions that were envisioned and build by non-techy employees, who consequently become part of the bigger cultural shift towards the digital-centric vision.  

The initiative and training were developed in collaboration with UiPath – a platform that automates repetitive office tasks to facilitate rapid business transformation. Following the training, Firstsource’s citizen developers built over 100 automations also known as ‘bots’. These innovations have since contributed to increasing efficiency amongst teams with some translating into enriched customer experiences. 

The grassroots approach 

Traditionally businesses roll out automation solutions through a top-down approach. Flipping this, Firstsource adopted a bottom-up or a grassroots methodology. The programme is premised on the idea that people ‘in the field’ experience processes days in and out. They have unique, in-depth insights into any inefficiencies and struggles. So why not let them define the challenge and propose a workable solution?  

The grassroots approach also helps to scale the resulting solutions. Because staff create automations that serve a specific purpose (and that actually work), colleague adoption and endorsement across teams tends to be stronger and faster.  

An automation state of mind

Mention automation and most people think it requires coding experience. Dispelling this misconception, the Automation League is founded on an understanding that technical knowledge is not a prerequisite for developing digital skills. 

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The initiative’s first focus is on participants learning about an automation mindset. Programming skills come later. Remarking on this, one participant said: “identifying what processes can be automated is probably the most difficult thing to start with, having a whole training section dedicated to it makes a real difference”.     

By adopting an automation mindset, participants benefit in two ways. Firstly, it soothes fears around automation, as participant Barry Goodfellow, team Leader at Firstsource, comments: “It’s really not about replacing jobs but rather about taking laborious tasks away – the ones that are time-consuming and stop you from focussing on more meaningful tasks”.  

Secondly, it permits participants to see day-to-day activities from the perspective of their colleagues – offering insight into the system limitations they face, and the practical solutions that can address them. 

Automation applied 

With a digital mindset embraced, programme participants are then taught how to build automation solutions, with many of the resulting applications benefitting their colleagues and the business soon after.  

Goodfellow provides an example of the Automation League in action. He delivers services for a network provider and developed a bot for identifying accounts that need to be closed, a previously manual task: “our escalation department would close 200-300 accounts daily… with that being automated, what would normally take three hours now takes just over an hour to do”. 

He designed his automated solution to consider special situations: “with the pandemic and people’s circumstances changing, accounts get flagged as vulnerable depending on their situation. The bot takes that into consideration. So, if a member is marked as vulnerable, actions don’t get taken automatically”. Impressed, the mobile phone network has integrated the bot into its operations.  

For other participants, creating smaller bots has been a gateway to more ambitious automation endeavours. Liza Mckenna, customer service agent at Firstsource, began building what she labelled ‘a very basic bot’, designed to minimise time spent logging into a system: “It can take three minutes, swapping between two browsers, to be able to log in. So, I created a bot that significantly cuts down this running time, essentially saving 110 agents two and a half minutes each day”That’s around four hours a day saved for the business.     

Next, Mckenna wants to create a bot that will recognise when an email is in a foreign language, automatically send it to Google Translate and put a note on the system. “We get emails in Arabic, French, Bulgarian, you name it. My bot could save agents between four and five minutes every time they get a case that’s in another language”, she adds. Her newly found ambition is a testimony to how, with the correct mindset, staff can develop digital skills that benefit employees and the organisation. 

And this is where business leaders can capitalise on the learnings from the Automation League – as a model for an effective citizen development programme that can be used to address the digital skills gap. The initiative also establishes that when it comes to upskilling and driving innovation, the best place to start is within your ranks.

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