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Rolls-Royce's low-code digital transformation steps up a gear

Mark Samuels Profile picture for user Mark Samuels May 19, 2023
Microsoft Power Apps provide the engine behind the aerospace and defense giant’s move towards citizen development.


Rolls-Royce is using Microsoft Power Apps to put data-led digital transformation into the hands of non-IT employees.

The company is working with Microsoft to helps staff embrace low-code techniques and to build tools that are improving productivity, supporting research and development, and providing data to people across the company who need it most.

According to Stuart Hughes, Chief Digital and Information Officer at Rolls-Royce, the implementation of Power Apps is all about providing a platform that gives employees the capabilities to pursue and achieve their digital transformation targets:

We want to empower teams to solve problems themselves. We’re not asking people to build a Power App that replaces SAP, but we are asking them to be able to build a Power App that enables their team to capture some data, to gain some insight and to improve their processes. We want them to look at data in a different way – to do data analytics, improve operations, and unlock value.

Starting the journey

Phil Kaufman, Head of Self-Service Technologies at Rolls-Royce, says the Power Apps implementation began with proof-of-concept work four years ago that proved the potential value of the technology: 

I think the community side of the technology is really important. Very early on, it was about looking out across or employee base and saying, ‘Are there people who want to do something? Do they want to make a change, are they evangelists of digital, do they understand the space, and maybe they’re even doing stuff already?’ 

The proof-of-concept stage involved working with Rolls-Royce’s digital manufacturing department. This group focuses on data applications and data science, so they were already digitally minded and looking for ways to improve how they worked. Kaufman explains: 

We thought this was a good opportunity to work with a part of the businesses that wants to do something with digital transformation. And that's important – the relationship you have with the business and being able to work hand-in-hand.

In his experience, Hughes says it’s crucial to develop such proof-of-concept studies: 

A pilot does enables you to get together as a team to make sure you’re focused on value. The pilot, in many ways, is about whether you can find the financial proof that you should invest in this approach and make it bigger. By creating the pilot in the right way, the whole mentality of the community and the team starts to become focused on what kind of value they can unlock.

In this case, the proof-of-concept study involved using Power Apps to digitize a paper-based checklist for new hardware and software requirements. People in the digital manufacturing team learnt how easy it was to use the technology and the business got to see the potential benefits of Power Apps. This first concept taught the team about the importance of the look and feel of the apps that are created, says Hughes: 

We created Cobalt, which is our design language. Now, when you create a Power app or Power BI, you load a template and it puts in the right colours, right buttons and shapes. That process really helped people feel that they could create something of good quality that they could be proud of. 

That design-led approach helped as other uses cases were developed. Early adopters became “champion super users” and spread the benefits of the approach across the organization. Hughes’ team worked alongside users to refine the platform. As well as formal four-day Microsoft training courses, his team created an internal guide to help users get started: 

We’ve made it as easy as possible for people to take part and that’s pushed us on. We did a few experiments. We used those to prove we could avoid spending money on external systems and building bespoke things. So, we had a cost avoidance-based business case that allowed us to scale. And then the community started to grow.

Reaching the destination

Each Power App goes through a formal publication process at Rolls-Royce, where key lessons and benefits are recorded. Hughes says some of the key apps that have been developed include a 24/7 on-call system for the company’s research and development department, a Kudos app that helps employees pass on praise to each other, and an analytics dashboard that helps Rolls-Royce capture and visualize data:

These are micro-innovations that are helping us avoid costs, such as buying licenses, building bespoke applications or reducing waste. But for me, the key business benefit is being able to say, ‘We created this report that took a lot of manual tasks away’, or ‘We created this small app that collected data that used to be in paper forms.

Hughes estimates the benefits from these small improvements added up to between £8 million and £10 million in cost efficiencies and savings through 2022. While those cash benefits are impressive, Hughes says the biggest win comes from empowering people across the business to take technology development into their own hands:

You find these incredibly talented people who are really into digital transformation. They can either help with an implementation because they're keen, they know the right people and they know how to change the business, or they can become IT professionals of the future, where they go on formal courses that we offer, gain certifications, and apply for roles within our IT department.

The aim now is to think about how Rolls-Royce expands its use of Power Apps across the business. The IT team ran a Citizen Digital Expo recently, where 500 colleagues from across the business attended. The Expo provided an opportunity for the company’s citizen development teams to demonstrate what they've created so far. Kaufman says: 

They all had their own booth that had an example of their app, report or automation. And 500 people came through the door and could walk around and think, ‘OK, what is this? And, actually, how can I use it?’. I caught up with one of the citizen developers the other day and he said that off the back of the Expo he’s now had five other teams across the business ask for the same app.



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