Laurent Maumet, CIO at Soitec, argues that the reshaping of business by digital tech needs to be matched by a change in the way work gets done.
As business leaders pursue digital transformation agendas they need to consider what the industry upheaval means for the people within their organizations and how working practices need to change. That is a challenge Laurent Maumet is taking on enthusiastically, helped by the breadth of his role at Soitec, the advanced semiconductor materials manufacturer, where, as well as CIO, he is also VP for both transformation and quality and operations support.
“With digital transformation we often talk about business model disruption and it’s natural that senior management look at the impact of the likes of Uber and Airbnb and ask themselves if newcomers to their industries will be taking on their businesses soon,” he says. “And while that focus is undoubtedly a big part of the transformation discussion, I think an equally important part — and the aspect that will have the biggest impact for many people — is how the culture of their organization will be altered by the digital transformation.”
For Maumet, there is a clear direction for that. “Just look at how our lives outside of work have been dramatically changed by smartphone tools and social media,” he says, “whether through real-time messaging, photograph-sharing or even witnessing the outcome of the elections. Outside of companies, digital technologies have changed the way people interact, the issues they discuss, the way children learn, and much more.”
In the face of digital disruption, the questions every company should be asking itself are: how do we take this new set of dynamics and embrace it within our organization and change the way we collaborate? Those are essential, he argues, as the degree to which companies are able to change their cultures will directly determine their future competitive advantage.
Such a position will come about for three reasons. First, because embracing tools that enable new ways of working will make them efficient; second, because those advanced practices will attract more talented people; and, lastly, because the move will allow them to grow the quality of digital interaction internally, as well as externally, with their customers, suppliers and partners. “It’s the big human part of digital transformation that is not being adequately considered,” says Maumet.
But orchestrating such a level of cultural change within business is no easy matter. The way interaction and collaboration has happened within companies has not changed fundamentally in decades, says Maumet. Even with the advent of email and intranets, the patterns of document creation and information circulation barely moved on, with mass duplication of effort.
The fact is that using new ways to collaborate can change that, at least when the business tools needed reach a mature and sophisticated enough stage. “To foster this culture of collaboration, organizations need to have the right tools,” Maumet says. But he expresses some frustration that organizations don’t yet have business-oriented equivalents of many of the powerful social media and collaboration tools that might enhance interaction within and between companies. “There’s no Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat for inside the company,” he says. In his view, it is only a matter of time before such levels of communication arrive but “the big question is which tools will win in a business setting.”
Tools like Workplace by Facebook and Google G Suite may be the first steps in this direction but are “far from complete yet,” Maumet suggests. But we are getting there. “Today we have some pieces of the puzzle that we can use. Soitec has been using the Google portfolio of apps since 2012. The fact that you can collaborate in real time on the same document and share it with comments represents the base of a new culture of collaboration,” he says.
Agile tools strategy
But witnessing the fast turnover in consumer tools, Maumet is keen to ensure any of their equivalents for business don’t have any semblance of historical application lock-in. For example, Soitec wants to rethink the way it delivers its intranet. “We have a classic intranet based on SharePoint which is relatively static in the way it provides interaction between people.” To overcome the fixed nature of the platform, the company has launched a project to invent a “totally new way of sharing knowledge, but building the underlying tools with the assumption it will change substantially in a year or two.”
“With our adoption of SharePoint intranet in 2011 we defined what we wanted, built it, installed it and then used it for five years with no change. Our view now is that one of the most important pieces of such a project is the speed at which we can change the tool, making it evolve,” he says.
Again, the inspiration comes from social media. “In their private lives people accept a continuous wave of change in apps: they see Facebook and Google evolving every week. And we need to be doing something like this, which also means cultural change for the IT team so we understand the need to be continuously and rapidly changing applications.”
It also means cultivating a new business user ethos about embracing new tools. “Facebook has changed dramatically in the past four years, and people have largely accepted that. But when there is similar change inside the company, people are often resistant, complaining about the training needed or the user manual being out of date.”
The fact that Soitec operates on a truly global basis (with R&D, manufacturing and offices that stretch from its headquarters in Grenoble in the French Alps to Asia and the US) means flexible collaboration tools are not a luxury but an imperative. “Our products inevitably have to evolve fast and that demands high levels of collaboration between our engineers in R&D, our production organizations and our offices. So improvement in collaboration can deliver rapid RoI.”
When the company first headed down this road with collaboration tools, it didn’t think it needed to train staff in their use. “We thought people would understand and behaviors would change but that’s absolutely not true. It was quite a surprise because people use social media outside work but they don’t necessarily understand what is behind them. So we helped them understand a little bit better, then when such capabilities do come inside the company it’s easier for them to understand the difference between how to most effectively use SharePoint, Google Plus, email and so on.”
“It takes considerable time to change the culture — and some real training. We want to explain the new collaborative mind-set and get everybody to buy into that. The objective is to increase the digital IQ of everybody in the company, to increase the way people accept and engage with the new collaboration tools.”
Alongside Soitec’s desire for more powerful collaboration tools for business, it is also looking to establish whether the machine-learning capabilities of artificial intelligence can increase factory productivity. “Like other semiconductor companies, Soitec gathers vast amounts of data during the manufacturing process.”
The company has worked with close partner Fujitsu to explore ways in which machine learning “changes the game on analysis and potentially introduces dramatic improvements in our factories, finding aspects we hadn’t thought about.”
It has also worked with Fujitsu on the feasibility of using machine learning for image recognition within its production processes: to see whether the manual inspection of product quality might be enhanced by the involvement of AI machines or whether the planning of production within a factory can be optimized to make the maximum use of plant machinery. Underpinning that partnership is a multi-year relationship in which Soitec has adopted Fujitsu’s Global Cloud platform as part of a strategy to move 70% of its IT into the cloud.
The AI initiative is just another example of the willingness of Soitec’s IT group to explore new digital horizons. “We try new things; we experiment. Sometimes it comes to nothing but that’s just part of the game. As digital is changing things so fast you simply have to do it because the resulting value created can be so huge.”