Inspiration

If we have to say it in one single statement – our inspiration was Microsoft Inspire 2019! This is where we observed and realized the capabilities of Teams as a platform and the vast potential it had to elevate the way both on-desk and deskless workers work and collaborate. It changed the very definition of Communication, Collaboration and Engagement altogether. We started the skilling of our technologists and in parallel, set out to identify business use cases which were a potential candidate; our vast experience in helping enterprises in their quest for digital transformation was very useful as we had a good insight into typical business challenges our customers face. Finally, this led us to the idea of a CONNECTed and a TEAMified enterprise!

And then, the pandemic happened which fast-tracked the whole initiative and took the opportunity to a different scale altogether. Keeping employees connected, teams stitched together and ensuring a cohesive & smooth operation for an organization in the new normal was a struggle for every enterprise, big or small. Another challenge we observed was compliance since many a time front line workers were on location but the managers were working from home. This threw up all kinds of challenges related to location, device, time and identity compliance.

  • Was the Floor supervisor actually at the store while filling in the Store closing checklist?

  • Was the image of the safe/vault room in the bank uploaded from a secure device?

  • Who actually filled in the fire safety audit form?

  • Was the Lab opening checklist filled in before 6:30 am, well before the Pathology Lab in the hospital opened up at 7 am?

This is where our solution, Connect, embedded as an App within Microsoft Teams, emerged as a messiah for forward looking businesses who saw digital transformation as the only panacea to this gargantuan challenge and an existential crisis!

What it Does

An average employee today needs to perform a wide range of tasks most of which are repetitive and time bound. They also need to conform to SOPs; be mobile-enabled and get notified on a platform they use all day. Connect offers all of these and more, as a Hub on Microsoft Teams that brings together Processes, Communications, Documents and Knowledge.

‘Connect’ provides a fully configurable, Do-It-Yourself platform called Process Hub for automation of day-to-day SOPs that enable process owners to build forms-based evidential workflows for Checklists, Audits, Data Collection, Surveys, Assessments and more. You can set up recurrence schedules for tasks, set up approval workflows, assign tasks to user groups (Teams channels) or to individual users, set up reminder schedules and escalation SLAs.

Staff get notified in Teams Channels mapped to their locations and Teams Chat when a task is assigned, provide evidence in the form of video, pictures, audio or text, access resources needed to perform the task, and are alerted when an assigned task is running delayed or waiting for review. There is also a Process Hub extension available in the channel to support Task Approvals.

Connect facilitates structured collaboration on business-critical tasks between employees across locations, both front line workers who are on their phones and white-collar workers on their PC.

That is not all; you have a Modern & Intelligent Intranet thrown in, a comprehensive Documents hub to manage critical digital assets and an all-important but often ignored, Knowledge hub to collate, manage & share learnings gained by your organization over years – all within Connect for a seamless and unified experience for each employee from within the confines of Microsoft Teams, the virtual desktop of your workers today!

Moreover there is a support BOT that is a multi-channel FAQ BOT to support workers when they carry out their tasks. The BOT also brings in content from the Intranet, policies from the Document hub and integrates with LOBs like Expense management, leave approval to give a single point for workers to carry out their day-to-day tasks.

Connect redefines SOP execution, employee communication, engagement and collaboration in a wide array of domains –

  • whether it is a large Retail business with multiple stores/outlets spread across different geographies with thousands of frontline workers, needing to standardize Store Opening/closing SOPs or conduct Visual Merchandising Checks or Fire Safety Audits,

  • a Banking & Insurance enterprise having to seamless connect its multitude of officers & staff at branches & offices and deliver Customer facing services like Onboarding, Loan approvals etc. in a timely manner,

  • a Healthcare provider having a chain of hospitals & multiple departments that needs to enforce multiple SOPs, checklists and audits to ensure quality patient care, and where Administrators, doctors, paramedics, nursing staff require close coordination in real-time,

  • a large Hospitality chain, running multiple Hotels, Restaurants and Cafés need strict SOPs to follow; health & hygiene is a critical factor and enhancing customer experience a priority;

  • a diverse Manufacturing organization, where running a well oiled well-coordinated business operation between plant, warehouse, and supply chain critical to profitability,

  • or Quick Service Restaurant outlets that needs conformance to SOPs ensuring food safety & hygiene, outlet opening/closing and more,

  • any business that needs to build and adapt its SOPs to changing scenarios and ensure timely compliance

Managing your business through automated processes is a must for efficiency, accountability and timeliness; & this has to be augmented very effectively by a robust communication channel for everyone in the chain, make all digital assets like documents, SOPs, guidelines etc. available at every point that matters, and have knowledge resources & learnings readily referenceable in order to have a well-trained and well-informed workforce who are empowered and enabled to do their best for business.

Connect brings all this together through the omnipresent all familiar Microsoft Teams tightly integrated with teams and its secured channels. It is THE FUTURE OF WORK!

How we built it

We started off with the problem statement, envisioning what challenges a diverse and geographically distributed organization faces to enable effective and efficient collaboration and engagement amongst the work force. Once the pandemic with the whole workforce itself dispersed all over, and work-from-home becoming the new normal. The issues we realized were accentuated for front line workers who were typically not on a PC owing to the nature of their jobs.

We identified five distinct areas we wanted our solution to address:

  1. Bringing the work to where the workers are, that is, on Teams

  2. Create an app where Front line/white collar workers are able to perform all tasks and report on them within Teams on a mobile device without requiring access to a PC. Process Owners and Managers should be able to ensure SOP compliance and review tasks without relying on paper, email, phone to collect evidence of task completion. Workers should be able to capture and provide evidence easily in the form of pictures, videos, audio or text. Process Owners, workers, managers, approvers and auditors should be able to view/receive all tasks, reminders and escalations within Teams to ensure nothing is delayed or missed. Reviewers should have a quick and easy way to review compliance. Process Owners should be easily able to build/change SOPs (as an example everyone was modifying SOPs for COVID compliance and also for the WFH scenario). We wanted to provide Customers all 4 types of compliance - Time, Device, location and Identity)

  3. Provide BOT based support for support from an appropriate helpdesk channel and also the ability for the user to carry out interactions with HR/Admin/IT for leave, travel, expenses etc. from within Teams

  4. An effective & intelligent communication channel in the form of an intranet hub, for corporate messaging to each employee to keep people engaged at an organization as well as department level

  5. Easy-to-access and 24x7 available centralized repository for documents, a critical digital asset for the organization; and easy access to ‘knowledge’ which includes knowledge assets as well as ability to find expertise and be able to directly contact experts who can help

These are the pillars on which Connect stands today as it evolves!

The solution is a Team app with the following modules tightly integrated with Microsoft Teams leveraging its collaboration features. We architected the app in 5 modules as below

  1. Process Hub – Custom built and hosted on Azure with SQL PaaS, Power BI

  2. Intranet – Built on SharePoint online, integrated with Yammer, Streams, Power BI

  3. Documents Hub – A hub of document workspace sites (templates) built on SharePoint online surfacing content on the Hub

  4. Knowledge Hub – A hub for maintaining, tagging and searching knowledge artefacts and expertise, built on SharePoint Online

  5. Multi-channel multi-purpose BOT – Customized FAQ Plus App template with Power BI insights. Delivers content from the other modules on demand and also from backend Service Applications.

Below are the key functionalities supported by each module.

Process Hub - a fully configurable DIY platform for quick automation

Teams and channels created to map to Team and channel structure defined in the App. Teams are mapped to one or more Units of Compliance (UOC). A UOC can be a retail store, a hospital, a hotel, a bank branch, a factory….; it represents a physical location where the SOP is deployed. So you could create a team for West Region stores/branches or for a City or for a single store too.

Channels are mapped to Assignee Groups/Roles e.g. Store managers, Floor Supervisors, Cashiers, Security Staff, Facility management staff, Auditors, Nurses, Ward boys etc.

For Process Owners

  • Quick digitization of standard processes by business, without the need to invest time and money in building custom applications or having any dependence on IT

  • Create questionnaires of different types with scoring (Audits, data Collection, Checklists, Surveys, Assessments, Projects…).Define Approvals and recurrence schedule

  • Assign to users/ groups of users, Stores, branches. Publishes the assigned tasks to the appropriate Teams channel and also in the App. View real time status and progress of the tasks.

  • Define Escalation SLAs

Features for the workforce

  • Task notifications, reminders and escalations delivered in Teams channels making it that much easier to remain informed and take timely action. Collaborate with colleagues in the channel.

  • Notifications delivered to the User’s chat. Notification takes you directly to the task form

  • MyToDo’s in the app or in the channel; perform the task by loading the dynamically generated questionnaire

For Auditors / Reviewers

  • Receive tasks to review/approve in the Teams channel. Collaborate around that and complete the Task

  • For Area or Region Operations managers/Compliance or Legal Heads

  • View compliance insights

  • Receive escalations from the App for delays

Intranet

A Modern & Intelligent Intranet, built on SharePoint Online, leveraging other services like Stream, Yammer, Planner & Power BI with a BOT that understands the preferences, and brings relevant content to the user rather than user going back to the Intranet

Documents Hub

Built as a hub with department workspace site templates that can be mapped to Business Units/departments. These are mapped also to the ‘Teams’ created in Microsoft teams for each department. Custom components created for document workspace explorer for ease of navigation and a modern experience to the users with full collaboration capability through Teams. A sample taxonomy provided that can be customized by business. Powerful search.

Knowledge Hub

A portal that serves as a Knowledge Hub, leveraging the core capabilities of SharePoint Online for content management, along with cutting edge features like Expert Locator, Intelligent Search (including across tenants) etc. This is a repository for learnings and experience gathered over years of operations, and made readily available, shareable & referenceable for the workforce to remain informed, refer in case of doubt and eventually get it right the first time & not repeat mistakes of the past. Includes Wikis, blogs, Documents, Videos etc. built with a taxonomy and intelligent search. An expert locator to search for experts based on custom profile keywords across tenants as Delve cannot serve the purpose for external users. Customized user profiles that can be synced from external profiles, HRMS or imported. Ability to award badges to experts.

Multi-channel multi-purpose BOT

A Customized FAQ Plus App template, multi channel. Powerful insights using Power BI. Delivers content from the other modules on demand. Delivers intranet content like news; facilitates activities like expense reimbursement, viewing status of leaves, submitting documents to HR etc. Acts as a support helpdesk for operations. The solution evolved as we went about building each component, many of them in consultation with some of our customers, making it feature-rich and relevant to businesses. Special attention has been paid to enhance user experience with Modern UI design, easy to navigate tabs – all within Teams – and notifications, alerts, messages landing in designated Teams and Channels within the confines and security cover of M365; this enables the user to enjoy a seamless and unified experience all within Teams, whether on a desktop or mobile device, which today is almost like second home for every business user.

Challenges we ran into

We ran into some challenges, mostly related to the choice of technology and also in the development process. The key ones are listed below.

  1. Teams Manifest – Ours is probably the first teams App that has a backend on SPO as well as on Azure. But the Teams Manifest only takes one ID, Either the Azure App ID or the SPO ID. We need to send notifications to user’s Activity Feed and this needs the Azure APP ID in the Teams Manifest. However, since we need to render our SPO pages too within the same App we had to use the SharePoint ID. And you cannot use two. It took some time to figure this out and we had to change the approach multiple times until we understood we needed to use a BOT to deliver the one-on-one messages and a Webhook for the channel notifications. Secondly the issue of not being able to control access on the Tabs in the Manifest. We needed this and hence had to build a sub menu within our application to handle user-role based access

  2. Streams - In the Intranet module for the Media section and also in the Knowledge Hub, we used the Streams for videos. We however realized Streams does not support external users or users from another tenant. So, we built a custom module for this purpose to support multi-tenant scenarios.

  3. Yammer - A similar constraint for Yammer. It would not render within the Teams interface for external users, they were redirected to the browser since Yammer also does not have multi-tenant support. No option here except to offer a different user experience for external users by using a different Social landing page for external users

  4. UI technology for the Process Hub Module – This is a custom module with complex logic to generate dynamic user interfaces based on how the user creates the questionnaires with about 10 types of questions, branching, dependencies and a multitude of other options. So we decided to build the logic as a custom module on Azure versus on SharePoint. We also needed large expandable storage and so Azure storage made sense. The other thing we had to do was make a decision for the UI. At the time we started the Teams’ Fluent UI was still in Beta and GA was not known yet. We spent some time trying to play around and were concerned about getting support for a technology still in Beta and hence opted to go with .Net Core.

  5. Teams does not yet support taking videos and pictures from a tablet, only from a mobile. We decided to wait for this feature

  6. Notifications to users - We spent a lot of time to get the channel notifications to users chat in Teams working. A new library had been released for Adaptive Card templating and we realized that it was not stable and after a lot of trials had to shift back to the previous version of the library in GitHub.

  7. BOT - Other areas where we had to figure out solutions were to take the App Template for FAQ Plus and make it bring content from the SPO lists on demand other than doing its own work as an FAQ BOT

  8. Data compression - A lot of these SOPs for processes like Visual merchandising for Retail take on the average about 5K GB per day of videos/pictures to be provided as evidence. The storage needs per month run into TBs as a result and hence the Azure storage costs are very heavy. So we need to optimize the storage costs on azure. Exploring Azure Media Services and Archival options for this and also surveying more use cases for data intensive needs.

  9. Utility for Teams/Channel creation - Building an integrated utility within our App, for Teams and Channel creation and for syncing users’ profiles and locations from the Azure AD. This is Work in progress

Accomplishments that we are proud of

Connect has emerged as robust and well-received platform already with reactions from customers and Microsoft sellers nothing short of WOW! The Modern UI, Intuitive Design and Unified User Experience within Teams interface, both desktop and mobile device, have been immensely appreciated.

The most important and satisfying statement for us has been – Connect encapsulates the “art of possible” with Microsoft Teams and M365 as a platform

The interest it has generated amongst our prospective customers is tremendous, and within a short span of 3-4 months, we have won five new logos in our growing list of customers! This is quite unprecedented considering the tough business situation we are all going through, and the deals have been sealed without physically visiting even a single customer – the power of this platform, we believe, is a very tangible aspect which our customers are able to gauge by just the look of it. Across these 5 Customers, there is a user base of approximately 12.5K users in the first phase of adoption and later will go up to about 30K users across these 5 accounts.

Also, the whole solution is very modular, scalable and customizable as we did realize that in an enterprise environment, one-shoe-fits-all approach does not work. This also opens up a services revenue channel for us and our partner network whom we are actively recruiting to take this solution global.

We are also very proud of the User Interface and the user experience we have designed and built. Our Customers love that especially the born in the cloud generation that expects everything state of the art on the mobile.

Lastly, we are very proud of the fact that the solution has a quantified ROI in the form of

  1. Time savings - Considerable reduction in the cost of process automation and significant cost savings as it ensures timely compliance reducing the cost of follow ups and delays; saving management bandwidth

  2. Cost savings - The app improves efficiency as it connects all roles in the organization through Teams where high visibility notifications ensure awareness and

  3. Improved collaboration - It connects people and provides a single point for consuming company communications, for carrying out day-to-day tasks; searching for colleagues and resources

  4. Ease of Use - The solution provides anytime, anywhere use through the Teams app across devices

What we learned

Connect is largely a baby of the COVID-19 pandemic; and for us, it epitomizes the fact that “in every adversity, there is an opportunity”!

The situation, no doubt, is exceptional and unprecedented; the biggest learning we received is that technology is a great enabler ONLY if you understand the business and business challenges well, & you are quick & nimble in leveraging an opportunity even if it isn’t going to last for long. Innovating a solution for a practical business problem and keeping it simple for even the most non-tech savvy user is the key to success.

Connect is built as a modular solution, and each module in itself has been designed as a standalone solution; that gives us tremendous leverage to position the entire solution or a combination of modules to suit the customer’s needs. This has helped us close deals quickly, a very pleasant situation for an SI like us where deal closure takes months.

What’s next for Connect

Connect is a journey and not a destination!

As we roll this platform out to more and more customers, every implementation is a learning experience for us with customers coming out with suggestions on more must-have and good-to-have features; we are continuously evolving the platform, making it more robust, feature-rich and as configurable as possible. In its current avatar, the solution already is a great enabler for democratization of digital transformation and enablement as it brings together the diverse workforce – the white-collar and the blue-collar – into a single digital framework of the organization.

What else is on the drawing board

  1. Currently we were deploying this on the Customer’s tenants. We are also working towards offering a SaaS version of this for SMB Customers permitting them to pick and choose modules they want to use.

  2. Building an integrated utility for Teams and Channel creation and for syncing users profiles and locations from the Azure AD

  3. Data compression - A lot of these SOPs for processes like Visual merchandising for Retail take on the average about 7K GB per day of videos/pictures to be provided as evidence. The storage needs per month run into TBs as a result. So we need to optimize the storage costs on azure. Exploring Azure Media Services and Archival options for this.

  4. Provide ready-to-use templates for common SOPs for specific verticals. This will give a head start and users can modify these.

  5. Learning module and assessments for training staff on SOPs.

  6. Location, Device, Time and Identity Compliance – we already provide Time and Identity compliance

  7. Exploring use cases to expanding the scope of users to include external users like vendors/suppliers and customers

  8. Integrating other Teams apps like the ‘Shifts App’ and Staff Check in/out to make this a one-stop Hub for Front Line Workers

  9. New technical features are on the anvil too with QR Code/Barcode reading capabilities and image recognition

  10. Providing APIs/integrations with common line-of-business applications as well as with POS systems (Service Now, Remedy, Success Factors, LMS…)

  11. Extending the Process hub to conducting surveys for Customers say in a retail store or a hotel

Built With

  • .netcore
  • apptemplate
  • azure
  • azureappservice
  • azurefilestorage
  • bot
  • c#
  • cognitive
  • connector
  • graphapi
  • incomingwebhook
  • manifest
  • microsoftteams
  • o365search
  • powerbi
  • sharepoint
  • sharepointhub
  • stream
  • tabs
  • taskmodule
  • taxonomy
  • teams
  • yammer
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Updates

posted an update

While working with Customers we realized 'Accessibility' is a key area for many frontline workers as this workforce is very exposed to physical injuries in the course of their duties leading to temporary accessibility challenges. Also general reading and comprehension skills may be very different for this workforce. So we are working on integrating/enabling accessibility features offered by Teams and O365.

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posted an update

Connect has evolved to include Education scenarios - for organizations running multiple branches of schools or colleges, standardization of data collection across locations and Audits are ideally suited. We are building the industry pitch.

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