Business automation: opportunity and challenge

Automation
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With some success and hard-won experience now in the market, Paul Hearns collates the practical advice for the automated enterprise

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27 April 2020 | 0

The sharp focus on digital transformation in business in recent years has been interpreted widely by different organisations. As many such efforts falter, one issue merges clearly. Transformation does not mean doing things a bit more efficiently or cost effectively, it means all of that and doings things differently.

One of the means by which organisations have done things differently is through automation. This could mean robotic process automation (RPA), whereby machines can be used to support or multiply human efforts, or it could mean business process automation (BPA), whereby digital processes can replace paper or human processes altogether.

Early efforts in certain quarters have shown great return, but there is still much confusion about where such automation efforts can be most effective and how to go about not just integrating automation systems, but also selling them to the existing workforce as boon, not a threat.

 

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In general, when thinking about automation, there are a number of issues to consider, no more than any new technology for enterprise.

Business case

Before investing in automation technology, have a full understanding of what the total costs of products and services will likely be – as well as what the benefits will be for the business – in order to calculate an accurate return on investment (RoI).

“You need to understand what your real benefit over time will be,” according to Joe Schuler, vice president of network operations, Mastercard. “Be careful to not spend too much time automating brownfield and rather develop a strategy for where you plan to take the brownfield. Automation of older technologies can become a black hole for resource consumption. Don’t let it swallow your overall effort.”

Having established a strong business case, a coherent strategy is the next key step.

It might seem counterintuitive to need a strategy for automation. Why not just deploy automation wherever it seems to make sense, given that automation seems to be inherently a good thing for business?

As with any other major IT-related initiative, there needs to be a master plan for using automation – an overarching, clearly defined strategy that keeps things from spinning out of control because of a lack of foresight.

“Implementing automation without a strategy outlined and goals in place is like setting out on a road trip without a map or GPS. You don’t know where you’re going to end up,” said Anant Adya, senior vice president and business head for cloud, infrastructure and security services, Infosys.

“Instead of embarking on a large process and end-to-end lifecycle automation, identify automation opportunities in smaller processes, operational areas, repeatable activities,” he said.

Too much, too soon

Armed with these measures, there might be a tendency to go after whatever can be automated, but a modicum of restraint is needed, lest organisations try to do too much too soon.

Lots of business processes can potentially be automated, but that does not mean it makes sense to deploy multiple automation tools all at once across the enterprise.

A ‘big bang’ approach is not best for automation, Schuler says. “While I do think you need to build a critical mass and get some wins under your belt, you cannot radically alter the face of your organisation,” he says. “It’s important to get some early adopters and then showcase their successes. This will build momentum, especially among the naysayers.”

Mastercard tried to implement a database automation platform as a standard and saw some successes with specific use cases. But for others it did not make sense. “I think the important lesson is to provide these tools and stories that showed we reduced implementation times from 16 hours to 4 hours, and allow teams to see the success and embrace the new tools” on their own terms, said Schuler. RPA too, demands caution and pragmatism.

There has been a lot of hype related to RPA, and even though the benefits can be substantial for automating lots of processes, organisations should not rush into deployments without doing their homework.

“They make these tools too easy to implement and this could cause a lot of headaches down the road,” says Bob Moore, executive vice president of delivery at technology consulting firm SPR. “You must first completely understand the process that the RPA software is going to perform. The key items to consider when designing the RPA process are the need for real-time decision making and API [application programming interface] integration.”

Ill-defined

RPA tools can be powerful when deployed correctly, Moore says. But conversely, they can be extremely frustrating and expensive to implement when the processes are not completely defined.

“I have spoken to clients who are considering using machine learning to make decisions within the RPA process,” said Moore. “To be able to do this, you would really need to understand the data that you currently have and how it could be used to make a particular decision.” The first question to ask in a scenario like this is whether the organisation has the data needed to make this decision.

The touted capabilities of RPA can lead some to believe it will work anywhere within the business. However, this is not the case.
Some organisations can easily be swayed to use the technology in areas that are not the most appropriate – such as for regulatory compliance efforts.

“Don’t go after [compliance-related] business processes first,” said Michael Cantor, CIO, Park Place Technologies, a provider of third-party maintenance services and support. “The same need for controls exist, even if the process has been automated with an RPA tool.”

It is best to work with internal processes first to gain some experience, Cantor says, then consider how to implement RPA with the expected controls and how to align those controls with an audit firm.

The impact of automation on end users must also be clearly understood, articulated and taken into account in any automation strategy.

Appropriate application

What if a process is working just fine and does not need to be automated? Changing things up by automating something solely for the sake of automation could easily backfire.

Before automating anything, consider what the impact will be on the people most affected by such a change: those responsible for carrying out the processes being considered for automation.

“Too often, CIOs automate a process that shouldn’t be the priority,” said Adya. “Talk to your team and assess which processes are major pain points for them. Make sure that the automation initiatives have a significant [and positive] impact on experience, operational efficiency, and of course cost.”
When it comes to purchasing automation systems, there are a number of things to be aware of. While it is still early days yet, this has the knock-on effect of a smaller number of vendors form which to choose. This raises the spectre of lock-in, especially if going down a specialist route. It pays to research the options thoroughly to know there are migration or exit strategies, should a solution either prove unsuitable or be outgrown.

This also raises the issue of scalability. Some early adopters in automation have found that the solutions have been difficult to scale, after initial success. While this has been more on the RPA than BPA side of things, it is still worth asking the questions to see what the headroom is on any implementation.

Compliance and security considerations are also a must when assessing any implementation. Be aware of any regulatory obligations and ensure that vendors and partners understand their requirements when supplying a solution.

Chief automation officer

Taking all of this into account, and your organisation has had some success in either RPA or BPA, and is now looking to move further with automation, and another question arises: do you need a chief automation officer (CAO)?

The role of a chief automation officer is to oversee enterprise process automation as a whole. A CAO is expected to help the organisation achieve transformation rapidly but sustainably. The role includes optimising workflows, while applying them to appropriate areas of the business. The purpose of the CAO position is to ensure that automation is distributed and orchestrated effectively across the organisation. 

They will be expected to modernise or deliver on an existing automation strategy, if there is one in place, or create a plan that involves the requirements of both IT and the business, spanning technology development to security policy.

Some may confuse the role with that of a chief digital officer, due to the joint commitment to digital transformation. However, they are quite different as the CDO typically acts as the ‘driver’ for digital transformation in getting the business on the path to digitise culture and processes, whilst the CAO is tasked with putting the right technologies in place to align with the business strategy.

Additionally, a CAO is able to make decisions from an enterprise view not just from the perspective of the IT department. This can help to build an automation roadmap that matches overall business strategy.

If your organisation is struggling to get to grips with what automation it needs to adopt and how processes will align, then investigating the advantages of hiring a CAO might be a prudent decision.

Although, if you are close to what a ‘digital-first’ business looks like, then the support of a CIO and CDO could be enough for now. In short, soberly take stock of your existing capabilities and measure where the business hopes to be in the near- to medium-term.

Industry View: Low code evolution

Peter Rose, Tekenable

Too often robotic process automation (RPA) is the further cementing of poor process and inadequate systems into corporate IT. While delivering an undeniable process efficiency improvement and cost advantage over manual processing (rekeying etc), RPA, like fast food, is a short-term gain for long term pain. RPA is a tactical solution, not strategic and there is a viable alternative.

Siloed IT systems almost mandate siloed teams, business processes and services. Cross-cutting business processes that span these IT monoliths and connect disparate teams can be seen as an unobtainable goal due to the degree of upheaval and reinvention required. So, RPA appears to be an attractive alternative to digital transformation of a business.

Peter Rose, Tekenable
Peter Rose, Tekenable

But there is another way to deliver these cross-cutting business processes, a strategic move that positions the business to move progressively away from the older IT systems and dismantles the artificial team boundaries that they enforced. It improves efficiency, lowers the cost of business and makes new integrated services available to customers. It is Digital Evolution using Low Code platforms and TEKenable is leading the thinking and delivery of these today.

Tekenable delivers a low code layer sitting above the existing IT systems. Eliminating paper forms, offering customers omnichannel self-service data capture, providing cross-departmental business processes, integrating legacy systems and enabling holistic management this layer offers a strategic way forward.

Required legacy IT functionality is progressively moved up from the siloed systems into the process layer shrinking the older IT footprint until all the required capabilities have evolved into the new IT architecture and the older systems can be retired, something RPA cannot do.

At Tekenable, we believe in digital evolution not transformation and strategic actions, not tactical solutions that add a veneer of legitimacy to the existing poor processes and IT systems but fail the business in the longer term.

Peter Rose is the chief technology officer for Tekenable

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