Renowned as the first black-owned, business process outsourcing (BPO) company in South Africa, SoluGrowth has gained significant traction in supporting growing African multinationals in industries such as mining, automotive and the public sector, with the emergence of technologies helping the industry surpass $20bn in 2017.
Previously part of multinational professional services network Deloitte for close to 30 years, the business has completely overhauled its systems and processes and reinvented its digital infrastructure, embedding new policies and procedures which will cater to its growing client base. Vikash Ramharuk, Director of Technology, explains that whilst taking care of SoluGrowth’s back office capabilities and services which it offers to clients, it has been essential for the business to improve its efficiency, productivity and its overall margins.
“In my role, I wear two hats: one is in terms of how we're growing projects as a business and as a brand but I've also got the responsibility of the Chief Technology Officer, where I look after all of the technology requirements and the digital and information requirements of the company itself,” he explains.
“It's been a good but challenging, both from a front-end perspective of growing the business digitally and also from a back-end perspective, making sure that we can actually keep the lights on and that the transition from Deloitte was as seamless as possible.”
Addressing staff fears
Bringing new policies and procedures on board whilst embracing new digital tools, SoluGrowth has overcome a significant culture change and readdressed the way staff work with new technologies.
“What we started understanding is that the communication was not too clear. To this end, we have worked to fix the communication, the culture, and the way the firm introduces technology,” observes Ramharuk.
“Previously, employees had to manually create user access for people that had joined to log on to a particular system. When they leave, access needs to be revoked to remove them from the system. It is laborious, mundane and repetitive.
“Nonetheless, when we introduced automation, staff were up in arms and were more than willing to do this repetitive work because they just didn't want a robot to do it. So, we changed tack. What we said was, ‘We're introducing a new employee, and we give all our robots South African names and employee numbers. We've got Zuki, Zazu and Khuti and changed the communication around it.
“We told employees, ‘Here's a new virtual employee, let this employee help you.’ So, in terms of changing the mindset of the employees, and changing the mindset of the workforce was very important to us.
“It moved from ‘this is what's going to be automated,’ to, ‘here's a new virtual employee, how can he help you?’,” he says.
“We have moved employees up the value chain, where they can take on tasks which are more strategic, creative, and more emotionally intelligent. We changed the way we introduced the technology to them, and now they're more excited and want to learn what other technology can they use and have become more passionate, analytical and exploratory.
“By successfully sending a positive message out to the market, where workers collaborate with technology, the business has improved its overall productivity and efficiency.”
Unlocking digital value
By investing in updating its business processes, its backend processing, and robot process automation (RPA) to improve operational efficiency for repetitive processes, increase client satisfaction and reduce costs, the business has fully ramped up its engagement with customers, vendors and suppliers.
The use of automated reporting and data analytics (with information gathered from providers) has also enabled the business to undertake predictive analytics, which has allowed SoluGrowth to support providers with executive reporting and business intelligence. Whilst it has its core client audience, the business remains keen to open further doors.
“We don't want to limit ourselves to just BPO work. What we are finding in the market is that a lot of companies are not ready to outsource complete business processes to us, but are reaching out for basic solutions,” comments Ramharuk.
“There are a number of organisations that want us to help them automate their processes with RPA. Our goals are twofold: one is driving automation efficiency and improving productivity, and our core business processes of the BPO company and our core organisation and secondly, we are using digital technology and solutions to look at new opportunities.
“We did an exercise for a huge mining company in South Africa, where we're using RPA for their group travel. We found that some of the travel is booked too late or booked out of the policies and rules which are in place.
“We use the information and analytics that we derive from them to help the organisation - but not to take that information and use it to attract new clients. We tend to stay away from that, in order to gain the security and trust of our clients.”
Whilst SoluGrowth remains on the lookout for new opportunities that digitisation will bring, the business faces challenges with regards to its newly adopted, cloud infrastructure. With competitors such as Amazon and Microsoft Azure, the business has appointed provider, Dimension Data in South Africa, as many clients in the country remain hesitant for their data to leave the country.
“Even in our non-disclosure agreements with clients, we tend not to use information that we gather from clients and then take them to other potential clients. Instead, we look at the information provided and then illustrate a model where we can help them," explains Ramharuk.
“We don't want to accumulate data from a company and go to a competitor and provide them with the same solution. Our principle is to gather a lot of data and assist our clients with that data, to help them grow, to make them more effective, more efficient, and make them more aware of how this data — with machine learning, and predictive analysis — has brought about change in the organisation.”
With such vast volumes of data obtained from its clients, the business has placed significant investment in strengthening its data security. Introducing factor authentication for any client or individual that wants to connect to its secure network, SoluGrowth has integrated three different firewall technologies and firewall layers within its cloud environment, and invested heavily in cybersecurity strategies, technologies, and implementations with third parties, vendors and companies.
“A lot of policies we have also driven by requirements that come in from businesses,” notes Ramharuk.
“For example, we run a payroll division, where we do payroll for organisations in South Africa and worldwide. So, for them to give us their payroll, it comes with a whole list of security requirements and recommendations that drive a portion of our cybersecurity strategy, to align with Industry 4.0.
“With so many interconnected devices and interconnected solutions and a digital workforce, people are also not always having to be in the office and also want to connect elsewhere. It's something that we take seriously and have started to implement our move towards to an increasingly digital workforce.”
Adopting intelligent solutions
Driven by machine learning, analytics, mobile and cloud technologies, Ramharuk believes that both robotic and cognitive solutions will further transform the market.
“This is a big play for us, so we are investing now in cognitive machine learning to be ahead of the curve in five years’ time,” he says.
“A lot of countries are now looking into the African market as a great BPO destination. Given our location, our communication skills and with the third-highest skilled chartered accountants in the market, companies are looking to do a lot of business here and are looking to us to deliver solutions.”
In alignment with SoluGrowth’s 2020 vision, the business sees itself as an increasing hotbed for shared services, with new technologies, predictive analytics and data reporting leading the way.
“We’re also looking at how a VPN solution can run across a shared services platform, to deliver more technology, efficient workflows and efficient processes,” he adds.
“Other technologies are also starting to emerge, such as optical character recognition. We can help companies with the onboarding of customers. In South Africa, people are now using an app to undertake facial recognition, eradicating traditional paper-led processes, for example.
“We're looking at these sorts of trends, where people are investing a lot more in digitising a lot of back-office capabilities, using automation, analytics, and VPN technology solutions. We want to package all of these technologies together to create products that we can go to market with.”
Gaining a positive, home-grown reputation, SoluGrowth has built the trust and respect of its target audience and enabled the business to drive engagement with its clients across South Africa and worldwide.
“We're the first BPO company in South Africa that's 64% black-owned. It’s something that we're extremely proud of and is something that we take to the South African continent,” Ramharuk says with pride.
“Whilst we’re not competing with the likes of Accenture and the Tech Mahindra's of this world, when we’re sitting in front of a Chief Financial Officer, he is pleasantly surprised to be working with a South African company that can give him world-class capabilities,” he concludes.
“There is a lot that we take out of that, and a lot that we can take home and say, ‘You know what? We've done something valuable. We've created so many jobs for South African people and will remain a leading, respected South African organisation."