Is there a good argument for bottom up innovation?

By Clarette du Plooy


Last week I attended the Roboyo RPA (Robotic Process Automation) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) summit in Zurich when Boris Krumrey, Chief Robotics Officer from UiPath, discussed the topic of a “robot-for-all” in the context of rolling out automation in a company. According to UiPath, for automation to scale and succeed, it is best to not only use the traditional ‘top-down’ or strategic approach but to combine it with a less traditional, user driven “bottom-up” approach.  True bottom-up innovation is not just another project but rather a way to use the culture or dynamics in an organization to drive change.

Bottom-up innovation is about behavior and can therefore be applied in many situations in a company but for illustration purposes we will focus on RPA. In my opinion, the benefits of using the bottom-up approach in automation is of great value so therefore I decided to shed some light on the topic.

Rolling out a bottom-up innovation initiative does not have to come at a significant expense, but in the case of RPA it will require a minimal upfront financial investment as robots need to be acquired. with no guaranteed direct financial return in the end. Therefore, the question is really, is it worth considering and how would you use it to scale?

Is it worth it?

Integrating innovation into everything a company does is a very good way to maximize the already available resources to grow both people and the business. Innovative thinking and an entrepreneurial attitude are therefore behaviors that need to be nurtured as they shape a thriving culture of a company.  Whether those behaviors are applied on automation, client service or general employee wellbeing, the impact of a culture can be measured but how you measure it, will be different than how you assess the success of a project.

From my perspective, some of the key benefits for the Company that invests in innovation and entrepreneurial behaviors are:

  • An increase in employee engagement because they learn, contribute and benefit all at the same time and this helps to build a stronger commitment to the company.
  • You identify internal talent for new innovation related positions or teams. This may be more efficient than recruiting people from the outside because internal talent has what it takes and already knows the company.
  • You don’t lose entrepreneurs, but you rather engage and connect with them.
  • You gather multiple ideas in a short time frame, while employees review and develop them into multiple proof of concepts.

On the other hand, for employees, the benefits include:

  • The ability to shape how they work and bring improvement to their daily tasks. that may free up time or reduce meaningless duties. That means employees would spend their time on tasks more critical and relevant for the company.
  • Helping them to develop new skills and in many cases It provides better relationships with clients.

Even though success from investing in bottom-up innovation is not just cost savings, it is visible and measurable over time. However, failure of the initiative can be summarized as a loss of any initial financial investments.  Realizing that significantly more effort is needed to change the company culture and have bottom-up innovation succeed, is not failure but a very useful action point for Management.

So how do you set it up?

The way I suggest setting up a bottom-up initiative, especially for first timers, is to have a focus on the people to strengthen personal commitment, innovation and learning.

In the case of RPA, it may look like this:

  1. Start small – Dedicate 10 – 15 ‘robots’ for this purpose that can be rotated every 4-6 months.
  2. Provide self-training material for the users – Provide material to users for self-study on how to operate and build. Where budget allows, you may have a couple of experts on call in case users have a more complicated question. The idea behind this is to identify people that are entrepreneurial and ready to show personal commitment.
  3. Have a low entry barrier – Most often I have seen that innovative business ideas die in lengthy administrative and review processes. They have to be submitted, reviewed and only after that, the employees get to participate in the initiative. Instead it may be more efficient to lower the entrance criteria for participation, for example:
    • The employee’s robot should be operational in 1-2 months, so that the results can be monitored over a minimum period of 3 months.
    • Participation is a personal investment.
    • The employee remains responsible for the work of the robot.
    • If the robot is not used in a set period e.g. 1 month, the robot will be handed over to another participant.
  4. Decide if this is permanent – After the trial period has passed, provide the possibility that the robot can be made permanent if the user can illustrate a positive return for the company.
  5. Recognize and celebrate success – Sharing success stories and examples will encourage others to get on board, while it recognizes the ones who went the extra mile. Recognition also doesn’t have to be money, since most employee surveys indicate that while money is always appreciated, there are many alternatives when it comes to recognition.

How do you then scale this to bring additional benefits?

Bottom-up solutions in itself are unlikely to bring significant financial benefits to the organization, therefore scale is needed to bring a real shift for a team or the company as a whole. A light governance structure that includes people with the right skillset, should help the organization to review and scale the individually identified solutions.

One way to do that is a review of all the mini-projects twice a year to assess success and agree on which solutions can be expanded or replicated. It is critical to not only review these individual ideas in isolation but also to see where some of them connect or can be expanded with other automation solutions to really cover a process end-to-end. A small team made up of people that have a good understanding of the business, an RPA expert (like Roboyo) and some believers in automation would be the right people to review the ideas and approving them or even presenting them to those in charge of automation as a whole. The overall sponsor and dedicated steering committee for automation then reviews and prioritizes the joint results of the bottom-up initiatives as well as top-down steered projects to decide on additional investment and implementation.

Once bottom-up ideas have reached this stage for expansion, a more formal implementation approach should be applied. Ideally it includes a review of the program, testing, testing and more testing and lastly an assessment of the impact on existing processes and people. (See 7 outstanding ways to scale RPA to the next level. )

Bottom-up innovation does not have to be limited to startups and ‘innovative’ companies.  As illustrated, it is an initiative that will benefit all kinds of Companies in surprising ways.  It may not have been the first thing that comes to mind in implementing change, but I hope you see that:

  • Connecting employees from the start has significant benefits for all involved;
  • You can start small and scale progressively; and lastly
  • You don’t have to let go of more traditional approaches but rather by incorporating innovative methods, you can achieve better results.



Tags: Artificial intelligence, developer, intelligent automation, RPA