22 Oct The transformative power of Intelligent Automation
Someone transposed from one of Henry Ford’s factories might hardly feel out of place in a modern office. Like an assembly line, office work involves the repetitive inputting of data from one system to another, taking time that could otherwise be spent on creative thought and adding value. In 1685, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the German philosopher and polymath, observed that “it us unworthy of excellent men to lose hours like slaves in the labour of calculation which could be safely be relegated to anyone else if machines were used.” Over one hundred years ago, Frederick Taylor noted that most workers forced to perform repetitive tasks tend to work at the slowest rate that goes unpunished. Fast track to 2009 and the UK Government’s ‘MacCleod Report’ claimed that only 17% of workers considered themselves engaged and that this disengagement leads to £44 billion a year in lost productivity. I think that shocking. “Why must the toad work squat on my life?” Asked the poet, Phillip Larkin. Meanwhile, he dreamt of a utopian existence without work’s “sickening poison”, which seemed to him a disproportionate effort “just for paying the bills.”
Despite so much technological innovation, some things have stayed much the same. Most organisations are still structured around hierarchies, silos and the need for managerial control. Sales people sell, ops people do admin and finance people reconcile numbers and everyone does as they’re told, with no single person or team mandated to conduct cross-business activities and achieve customer outcomes. Such enterprises operate like manufacturing value-chains and are very stable, but their organisations lack agility and the tasks performed by many of their people are robotic. Organisations can’t observe, orientate, decide and act at speed to realise some marvellous customer outcome, because they are not joined-up or empowered to do so. The customer is not at the centre of all that they do. Problem is, with the 4th Industrial Revolution fast approaching, stasis is no grounds for competitive advantage. Intelligent Automation, however, has the power to transform. It enables rapid orchestration of activities across boundaries and through ecosystems to reorganise, seize opportunities and speed innovation. It allows us to take the robot out of the human, treating the sickening poison and changing lives for the better. With creative understanding of its potential, it allows us to reimagine services, business and operating models.
Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is about bots mimicking the work that humans do, by autonomously logging on, capturing data and orchestrating various applications and systems without need of systems integration. The bots are super-productive – delivering cost savings, reduced errors, fast operations and 24/7 coverage. What we don’t always appreciate is that they are also multi-skilled, which means they can conduct any rules-based repetitive task for which they have been trained, sourced from anywhere in the business. They are dumb capacity, waiting to be given boring work. Most businesses, however, distribute bots into silos because that’s how they’ve always been organised and because that’s where budgets lie. This denies the opportunity to organise the Digital Workforce as a strategic enterprise asset, to enable unprecedented levels of operational agility by operating around the clock, addressing peaks and troughs in demand, from anywhere, with the flexibility to react immediately to planned and unplanned business events without need of additional human resource or training. And with a centralised Centre-of-Excellence (CoE) enabling the reuse of objects, processes can be automated and deployed in just weeks, without need of heavyweight IT support or waiting months at the back of the queue for IT enhancements. The multi-purpose Digital Workforce promises super-productivity and optimal flexibility, at an ultra-low price point.
We also tend to think of the bots as operations resource only, but combine them with cognitive capabilities and this is not so. Intelligent Automation combines RPA and cognitive capabilities, increasingly with cloud, so that we can reimagine business processes from end-to-end, from the customer’s first-touch to fulfilment. At the front-end, cognitive technologies engage customers, especially to answer FAQs and run transactions, and prompt human agents to have rich conversations. They capture, cleanse and structure data, dynamically generate forms and trigger execution in RPA, without human intervention, making for an improved customer experience. At the back-end, activities are orchestrated across systems-of-record and exceptions are handled through robot-to-human interactions. Intelligent Automation provides the Operating System for the Digital Workforce, is the backbone for the end-to-end activities and enables new apps to be plugged in at the front and quickly integrated into the back, without need of systems integration. We can invent new customer value propositions, get new value from the IT estate and transform business and operating models.
To achieve the full potential of Intelligent Automation, however, requires new ways of thinking and operating:
- Start small, maybe, but think enterprise. The potential for the multi-purpose Digital Workforce requires sponsorship at the C-suite, rather than divisional level, and it requires that bots are not procured in lines of business and used only for particular processes. The CoE for Intelligent Automation should be centralised and bots consolidated for operations in order to optimise robotic capacity across all tasks in order to achieve operational agility. It’s like having a low-cost, super-keen and highly responsive BPO, but in-house (or DigiBlu can run it for you, if that’s what you’re looking for!)
- Take time to engage with IT and other key stakeholders in order to create a supportive enterprise-wide environment that is adapted to the nuances of the Digital Workforce, and then scale at speed. At one of our clients, a leading insurer, it took us a few months to get properly ready but when we got going we scaled fast, quickly moving beyond 100 deployments to achieve a year one ROI of over 200%. And we’re still getting faster as the sprint teams mature in the use of our Build-Prove-Evolve method; as components are built and reused, as we automate minimal viable product, test in production and reduce exceptions and continuously improve processes in the live environment. But no amount of agile execution will compensate for not having got the ducks in a row first.
- While RPA programmes win credibility by rapidly automating easy-to-implement processes and achieving FTE-related cost savings, more progressive organisations are thinking beyond discrete operational efficiencies to enabling operational agility, speeding innovation and improving the customer experience. This inevitably takes them beyond RPA into Intelligent Automation, which brings additional capabilities to open up the number of use cases and enable new designs. We take our clients to Intelligent Automation through Blue Prism’s RPA gateway and their comprehensive Technology Alliance Program, or get straight to it with Thoughtonomy’s integrated platform. Whichever, you should set your sights high and plan the journey.
- Automation releases many hours of FTE back to the business. Where businesses are growing, over-worked staff are grateful for the slack and the hours released are rapidly absorbed into meeting demand elsewhere. Some organisations reduce overtime, others use fewer contractors and maybe recruit less. It is important, however, to think beyond the drip feed of single deployments and the constant moving of deck chairs to strategise the organisational and people change, to be effective in communications and change management, and to prepare for the workforce of the future.
Intelligent Automation has a profound impact on organisation, teams and individuals. Some people are re-skilled for roles in implementing and operating the Digital Workforce and it is great for them to be in the vanguard of change. But more importantly, organisations should consider new customer propositions, processes and ways of working that add value in the unique ways that only people can. Would your company employ more people in customer-facing roles and empower them with information and the ability to provide immediate fulfilment, if it could afford to do so? Well maybe it can. With renewed value placed on human expertise, judgment and creativity, and with the cost savings from RPA reinvested, the business and operating model can be innovated. The WEF recently predicted the loss of 75 million jobs by 2022, which is scary, until you realise that they also predict the creation of 133 million new jobs over the same period. It is companies at the vanguard of Intelligent Automation who will stimulate those new jobs. Intelligent Automation can enable the ‘triple win’ of shareholder, customer and employee value. The opportunity is there to be seized.