Arguably automation will be the word of 2023 in business circles as we move into less certain economic times and productivity comes under the microscope. The knee-jerk reaction is that automation is primarily about improving efficiency and cutting costs, and certainly, they can be important aspects of automation. Yet those who are enjoying the most success with it, according to the 2022 annual McKinsey Global Survey, find it is tightly coupled to customers’ and employees’ experience, in that order.
As the cost of capital and inflation rises, eliminating low-value manual tasks and processes while reducing risk assumes an even greater allure across every kind of business.
As we explore in the next section, automation can bring huge business and operational benefits. For instance, among other things, BT shortened time to market for cloud-based services by 40%, speeded up the onboarding of squad members to three hours, down from two weeks, and eliminated 100% of human errors.
To achieve such dazzling results, companies must approach automation with an open mind, avoiding misleading, common preconceptions. A frequent mistake is to assume that artificial intelligence (AI) and automation are the same things. Some rules and input-output-based software engines are powerful enough to execute basic and advanced tasks, although they are not necessarily AI by definition. Automation with and without AI can generate value, depending on the use case and the quality of planning and execution.
Another misconception is to view automation primarily as a way of reducing head count. In fact, many staff will need to be reskilled and redeployed to carry out work of higher value to the enterprise as automation changes the nature of their work. Also, companies will need to recruit new talent with the skills to harness the technologies that enable automation and/or partner with automation specialists.
Nor is automation a simple, quick fix. For instance, artificial intelligence (AI) is a key enabler of automation, typically in the shape of machine learning, but it needs to be ‘taught’; models need to be trained through reiteration to obtain the desired results, which takes time. Also, automating poor or broken processes do not automatically fix them.
Organizations need to be aware that to gain the greatest benefits, they should see automation as integral or complementary to other large-scale technological changes. The McKinsey survey found that automation leaders are far more likely than other organizations to modernize platforms in parallel. Further, while most of the survey respondents are migrating to the cloud, 48% of those classed as automation leaders were coordinating cloud migration and automation programs, compared to 23% of non-leaders.
Note that the selection of benefits gained from automation by BT above was when the operator was building an innovative Digital Cloud Services Platform.
If your organization has not embarked on an automation initiative yet or is only in the early stages of doing so, don’t panic. The automation ship has not sailed, and nothing is ever lost in proper preparation. The McKinsey survey found most respondents think it’s possible to automate at least 25% of their organizations’ tasks over the next five years, and less than 20% say their organizations have already scaled automation technologies across multiple parts of the business.
A brief background on automation
There are a multitude of tasks, workflows and processes involved in the running of every business day to day which need to be managed to avoid bottlenecks and disruption like:
- Supply chain
- Orders to cash
- Procurement to payment
- Scheduling work
- Managing workflows
- Matching marketing effort to product management
- Generally allocating the right resources in the right place at the right time
A powerful and alarming example of problems in one part of an organization causing serious disruption elsewhere was outlined on the BBC by best-selling author Henry Marsh, formerly one of the top neurosurgeons in the UK’s National Health Service. Each day, some scheduled brain surgeries were delayed or postponed due to a lack of beds in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) for post-operative patients.
Many patients occupying ICU beds no longer needed to be there but had nowhere else to go due to shortfalls elsewhere. Marsh typically started his working day pulling rank to free up beds instead of in the operating theater.
Happily, in most settings, the consequences of poor processes and badly allocated resources aren’t a matter of life and death, but as economic times get tougher, it could be the difference between businesses surviving and thriving – or going under. Deployment is challenging, but the results can be spectacular: the Italian fashion house, Max Mara, struggled to fulfill digital orders when they tripled during lockdowns. By using automation, it shortened customer service resolution times by 90% and cut the cost per resolution by 46%.
The goal is intelligent automation
Intelligent automation means different things to different people in different circumstances, promising everything from scale to better performance and more efficient operations. Some think it’s an advanced form of robotic process automation (RPA), while others use the term interchangeably with digital transformation.
For our purposes here, we are using the accepted industry definition that it is the combination of artificial intelligence (AI) with RPA and process orchestration – a comprehensive, end-to-end solution that is foundational to digital transformation. Intelligent automation is not a single, standalone process but relies on the interconnection of various technologies, organizing work across human-robot teams.
Importantly, as we highlighted in the Abstract, it is usual with various aspects of digitalization to encourage an approach of starting with small victories to build confidence in and support for a particular initiative or technology introduction. However, that’s not the case with automation which should be an integral part of other major modernization efforts such as cloud migration or updating platforms.
“Intelligent automation is not a single, standalone process but relies on the interconnection of various technologies, organizing work across human-robot teams”
Three main pillars of automation
Broadly speaking, there are three types of automation:
Task automation software can take over a task from a human or humans, such as automating payroll processes or email campaigns, queuing social media posts, or scheduling bill payments, thereby freeing up employees to undertake higher-value tasks.
Workflow automation is all about organizing the flow of tasks, information, documents, and other materials across an enterprise to manage project deadlines, staff rosters, or customer requests, for example: employees’ work is scheduled, they understand what they need to do and are equipped to do it, and the time spent can be monitored and alarms raised if deadlines are looming and adjustments are necessary. According to the McKinsey Global Survey, document management and processing is the most widely deployed kind of automation (52% of respondents said) currently.
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