interview

Working towards operational excellence with workflow automation

Gerry Appeltants, CroXcon BCB leader, at the crossroads of business and technology

Belgian companies face two major challenges: automation and data

Try to avoid silos, combining all the silo data in a data lake

Automation solves many business pains in domains where talent shortage is the rule

The author of this articleDirk van Bastelaere - Communication Manager CFO Services
‘Belgian companies today face two major challenges,’ says Gerry Appeltants, BCB leader at TriFinance CroXcon, ‘Automation and data. Getting all your data right for financial reporting is a real challenge. Power BI, IT and Automation can help organizations tackle that challenge. Just like RPA, workflow automation helps organizations to cut costs, gain efficiency and optimize processes, all the while freeing up time for the people involved.’

Gerry Appeltants, BCB leader CroXcon

Introducing CroXcon

CroXcon is TriFinance’s latest business addition to its service offering. Gerry Appeltants is CroXcon BCB leader. The CroXcon team consists of process consultants and experienced and certified platform consultants in ServiceNow and Splunk. They perform key roles as project leaders, architects, data and implementation consultants. In this interview, Gerry talks about his diverse and adventurous career in IT, shedding some light on the TriFinance CroXcon services and his ambitions for the near future.

Geeky fun at the BBS Boards

Gerry Appeltants was destined for IT. As a fourteen-year-old, he used a computer he got from his father to hack computer programs. In the mid-1980s, Gerry hung out on BBS Boards (Bulletin Board Systems), basically precursor platforms to the internet where computer geeks discussed technical topics in user communities. BBSes peaked around 1996, around the time the World Wide Web was becoming mainstream. 

In 1997, Gerry and other students were involved in building the University’s computer network. Windows NT 3.5.1. ruled the world. Before graduating, Gerry received a job offer from Kredietbank. At the time he graduated, Kredietbank had become KBC, fusing with ABB and Cera. ‘I spent 6 months there without a pc. As you can imagine, that was hell for a computer geek and not really a great start to my career. Afterward, I have always worked in IT services and advisory.

A career at the crossroads of business and IT

Two years later, Gerry started out at the Cronos Group with a small company called Enternet, where he built intranets and functional websites like the first e-commerce websites that started to appear. Gerry then moved to Bureau Van Dijk and the Real Software Group where he worked EMEA, especially bigger European projects starting at three, four million euros. In 2005, he landed at Ordina where he started his 15-year journey through the Microsoft ecosystem. ‘For the whole of my career,’ he says, ‘I’ve been working at the crossroads of business and technology. CroXcon is my seventh or eight startup, be it of course within the broader organizational context of TriFinance.

Thriving in the Microsoft partner world

Fifteen years in the Microsoft ecosystem is quite impressive. What fascinated you about the company and its partner network?

Gerry Appeltants: ‘One thing I particularly appreciate about Microsoft, is the culture of entrepreneurship. You are expected to reach out and talk about matters relating to your business. I learned public speaking at precursor events of the Tech days (nowadays Techorama). Colleagues from that period now all are acting as public speakers. We built communities, forged bonds, also with competitors. 

‘IT in Belgium is a really small world. Everybody knows everybody else. If, like me, you have worked at big players like Ordina, the Cronos Group, Real Software including a stopover at Bureau Van Dijk you know most Belgian IT-people. But everybody respects each other.

‘The Microsoft partner world is an ecosystem in the true sense. You visit conventions and events to meet up with peers. As a loyal Microsoft partner, you pay a yearly visit to the Microsoft partner conference. You participate in charity projects like the Microsoft Charity Program during the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster. Several Belgian partners traveled to New Orleans to build temporary housing before the World Partner Conference. That kind of initiative forges new bonds that you can fall back on if you need input, assistance, information or anything else from your professional network.’

The Visibility circle

‘Tech companies like Microsoft and ServiceNow coach you in becoming a good writer and public speaker. They help you to better understand your customer, to know who your audience is. They teach you how to become noted in what I call the ‘visibility circle’ by liaising with entrepreneurial networks or more informal networks around certain influencers, but also by taking the stage at universities and university colleges.

Building crisis-proof business

You have always worked at the intersection of business and technology. That became very clear at Ordina.

Gerry Appeltants: ‘At Ordina, where I worked as Division Director of Business Integration & Software Development, I started out with ten people, developing the company into an organization of 300 people a few years later because we had been able to work on different projects in different industries. 

‘Industries follow different business cycles consisting of expansions followed by crises, contractions and revivals. Parallel to that, you have government and public sector projects that are mostly stable, but often involve larger volumes and low margins. 

‘To create a stable business environment, to guarantee continuity, you need a good mix of these different types of projects as soon as you start working with larger volumes. You specifically want to avoid putting all your eggs in one basket. 

In seven years, we built Ordina from an unknown Microsoft partner into a Microsoft Gold partner in all verticals.’ 

Starting new companies, organizations and organizational structures is something I like to do and what I am really good at
Gerry Appeltants, BCB leader CroXcon

Major outsourcing deals

During your Microsoft time, you mainly did local projects. That changed when you joined Fujitsu in 2012

Gerry Appeltants: ‘Yes. Once I had moved to Fujitsu, I started to close major outsourcing deals, for instance doing all of IT for the the world's largest tire and rubber company for a period of five years. We also won a 150 million euro workplace outsourcing deal for a big banking group. That took us a year with a team of four, five people.

‘I was hired at Fujitsu to optimize the department I worked at, and make it profitable again. That meant slicing and dicing, and making each part profitable again. We also founded a separate company to organize a specific activity. Starting new companies, organizations and organizational structures is something I like to do and what I am really good

Digitizing business and workflow automation with CroXcon

Gerry Appeltants: ‘I landed my next project in data and automation at TriFinance where I initially wanted to combine Splunk and ServiceNow solutions. For the moment, we mainly offer ServiceNow solutions. In the Gartner Magic Quadrant for IT Service Management tools, ServiceNow has been lonely at the top simply because of its functionality and innovative quality. Their ITSM tool has been named a Leader for the seventh consecutive year now. 

As a blue chip boutique, CroXcon is an innovative unit that offers technologies to digitize business and automate workflows. We have four core domains: IT Service Management, Customer Service Management, Field Service Management and HR Service delivery. We solve many business pains in domains where talent shortage is the rule. 

Customer Service is very important these days. Any hiccup in serving your customer will be punished on social media. Good Customer Service management offers customers several contact options like self-service, conversations with chatbots, or knowledge-based articles. Machine learning quickly routes customer issues to appropriately skilled agents.

Automating case management for the HR department

One of the departments that has much to gain by automating workflows is HR. Can you give us some examples of the possibilities there?

Gerry Appeltants: ‘We help HR departments by automating onboarding and offboarding, and HR case management. Very often, the pressure in HR departments is really high, causing a high number of cases to remain unsolved, or even get lost. It’s also very common to use Outlook or Excel to handle HR cases. 

‘We can automate all the flows in the HR department, making them intelligent. Think about automatic assignments or follow-up. Adding artificial intelligence to certain procedures, we make sure people automatically get an answer. In practice, that often means fifty percent of all users get an answer without any human interaction.

‘Take a request for parental leave. An employee can send an email to the HR department asking which forms they need to fill or which procedures there are to follow. We added a routine to the artificial intelligence engine that answers emails with subject lines like ‘Parental leave request’ or ‘Parental leave procedure’ with pre-designed emails like: ‘Dear colleague: thank you for your email. We will look into it as soon as possible. In the meantime, please read our policy on parental leave applications. You can find it here.’ You could do the same for requests considering sick leave, company cars, comp & ben, training, and many more.

HR people generally dislike superfluous administration. So we tried to alleviate that burden, cutting unnecessary admin

Skipping human intervention

One of the main goals of workflow automation is still to relieve the people at Customer Service or HR from tedious tasks. Could you give us an example of that?

Gerry Appeltants: ‘At one client of ours, the HR department was flooded with requests. They had a shared central mailbox where employees dropped their inquiries. Asking: ‘What do people in the HR department really dislike?’, we started to optimize the different flows. HR people generally dislike superfluous administration. So we tried to alleviate that burden, cutting unnecessary admin. 

‘Before, HR staff got requests for reimbursement of hospital costs that they had to read, sort, and send to the insurance company. We built a flow that skips that kind of human intervention. As soon as the system detects requests related to illness, hospitalization or retirement, the request is automatically forwarded to the insurance company. The same goes for questions relating to parental leave. Any adjustments related to role changes are now initiated by the system. Somebody asked a question about a role change implying a company car upgrade will for instance see their request automatically forwarded to fleet management.'

Other departments can profit from automation too. For the same client, CroXcon did a project where you automated contract management.

Gerry Appeltants: ‘For Procurement, we built that same client a solution notifying which framework agreements and contracts are about to expire. Not knowing when an agreement expires is a disaster for a Procurement manager. The year before a contract expires, they need to know if they have to automatically extend the contract, or make a new selection. You want to avoid having your framework agreement expire. Automating contract management solved that problem.’

Setting up a Configuration management database at Sciensano

You also did a project at Sciensano, the federal public health organization that everybody got to know when Covid-19 started to rage.

Gerry Appeltants: ‘We automated their case management, and set up a Configuration management database (CMDB). Sciensano receives data from doctors, hospitals, universities, etc, and the CMDB helps Sciensano to understand the relationship between the data that were uploaded from many different sources. One university can for instance upload its information on an hourly basis in a csv format, while hospitals do it on a daily basis in a different format. By building a CMDB, we guarantee the quality of data that was previously stored in excel sheets or document folders. When FOD Volksgezondheid would for instance like to know how certain health data from the Brussels region were produced, Sciensano only has to push a button to know from which systems and sources the data was uploaded.

Automation and data as major challenges

What are CroXcon’s ambitions for the next three to five years?

Gerry Appeltants: ‘I’d like to see CroXcon in Belgium’s top three of workflow automation players. Belgian companies today face two major challenges: automation and data. Getting all your data right for financial reporting is a real challenge. Power BI, IT and Automation can help organizations tackle that challenge. Just like RPA, workflow automation helps organizations to cut costs, gain efficiency and optimize processes, all the while freeing up time for the people involved.

‘Companies should of course take on automation and data in an intelligent manner. What does that mean? Take machine learning: don’t be an early adopter. Artificial Intelligence: nice, but don’t put all your money on it. Try to avoid silos and combine all the data from silos in a data lake.

‘In the ERP market today, we see a kind of consolidation with SAP for Hana, or Microsoft urging companies now using Vision to migrate into the cloud with Business Central. For me, that can all be subsumed under the data umbrella. Companies want to move their data into the cloud and build their ERP there. But if you want to act pragmatically, you should focus on data and automation.’

 

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The author of this articleDirk van Bastelaere - Communication Manager CFO Services

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