With an increasing focus on automation efficiency to drive more favorable outcomes — without the benefit of unlimited budgets — it’s hard to know what to put full stock in. Two experts with deep insight serving the healthcare, government and private sectors have their sights on a stratified mix of technologies in the coming 12-24 months.
From machine learning’s (ML) place in the mix to the value of leveraging application programming interfaces (APIs), they share their views on the current state of business automation and the leading innovations that promise to fuel its evolution.
In the spirit of walking before you can run, a closer look at the gaping holes in business automation is necessary before declaring tomorrow’s winning formula. According to our experts, a fundamental lack of core workflow and technology understanding is chief among today’s deficits in the space.
“Getting a business process to the point of automation requires an intimate understanding of your workflow,” says Wes Wright, chief technology officer of healthcare security firm Imprivata. Charged with managing the automated technologies that facilitate healthcare provider access to electronic health records and drug administration data to heart monitor and insulin pump settings, workflow is his mission-critical directive. “However, a tool that can easily capture an end-to-end workflow is something that continues to elude the world,” he says.
Citing the five-day process improvement Kaizen event that is both popular and widely deployed in lean development environments, Wright makes a case for streamlining data collection to speed group analysis and solution building. “Right now, we take an inordinate amount of time mining the data we need to improve processes with, manually measuring process flow and stops, and translating that data to flow charts and diagrams,” he says. “A software tool that automates that mining, measurement and translation would substantially accelerate Kaizen events to brainstorming and implementation.”
Melissa Person, chief technology officer and owner of Melissa International, a tech services company catering to private and government clients around the world, agrees that education is chief among the current gaps in business automation.
“While all companies should be cloud-ready by now, the reality is that they’re not, based on a learning curve rooted in fear,” says Person. Citing globally publicized security breaches in recent months, she adds, “Many executives fear the cloud isn’t secure enough and defer adoption without a core understanding that it’s actually possible to create an environment as — if not more — secure than on-premise, and actually save money in the process.”
With a substantial history consulting both the public and private sector on technology concerns Person says, “Because the cloud also encompasses big data and the Internet of Things (IoT) (phenomenal toolsets for every business and civic organization), far more benefit than risk comes with organizational engagement. While there will never be an environment completely impervious to hackers, targeted education and implementation of layered security environments are capable of substantial risk mitigation.”
In direct response to the reservations many companies have surrounding workflow-streamlining cloud operations, Person creatively dives in at the middle of the solution development process to offer clients proof of concept solutions they can literally try before they buy.
She explains, “I believe that if everyone leveraged technology the way it was intended to be used, they would double their revenue. When fear overrides technology adoption, creativity goes a long way. Historically reserved for agile development environments, this approach gives the security-concerned set an opportunity to not only increase their comfort level with tailored technology solutions and pipeline products — but collaborate on them.”
Wright’s favored hack also draws on core development tenets, as he goes back to the literal drawing board to fill today’s business automation gap. “The adoption of lean development methodology has really taken off over the past 10 years,” he says. “As opposed to looking at technology to solve problems, you start with cans, strings, and paper-based boards to map problem statements, data, outcomes, solutions and actions. Taking that methodology and applying technology to it afterward can substantially accelerate your capacity for change.”
Not to be outdone, quality also figures prominently in Wright’s go-to arsenal of hacks. “While lean is really process improvement that examines quality of output from one station to the next, it’s not the same as Six Sigma methodology that looks at quality across discrete portions of output. They’re not mutually exclusive, and should be mutually inclusive for the best outcome,” he stresses.
From streamlining application development to comprehensive cloud platform integration, game-changing business automation solutions are currently within reach.
“One of the most valuable technology solutions streamlining business operations today is what I like to call the ‘hybrid cloud,’” shares Person. “While semantics surrounding this solution will vary based on the audience, it all comes down to the sharing economy and ecosystems.”
Comparing it to the Amazon model, she explains this cloud solution is made up of data repositories necessarily separated by required levels of privacy. Take, for example, Amazon website login and account pages. Housing all discrete personal Amazon user information, from shipping address and payment methods to purchase histories, this segment of the site is built on a private cloud platform, with data visible to individual end users only.
“By contrast, all the products end users peruse as they shop the Amazon site are housed on a public cloud,” she adds. “When they check out with their selected products, they are redirected back to a private cloud for payment processing, protecting all credit card and personally identifying information.
“Everything we do today is increasingly done through technology,” Person explains. “Whether a business-to-business, business-to-consumer, government, banking, retail or healthcare site — the need to ensure proprietary information remains protected is paramount. For this reason, the hybrid cloud leads the lineup of valuable technology solutions today.”
Wright is a fan of Microsoft Flow when it comes to automation solutions. “You can do a surprising amount of robotic process automation (RPA) with Flow,” says Wright. “Not only is this solution a DevOps professional’s dream, as it reduces trivial tasks in their development queue, but also a business person’s dream.”
He explains that by using Flow, the need for complex code writing is all but eliminated for many administrative processes. For example, the tool’s intuitive software robots can be set up to scan insurance company websites and cut and paste procedure codes to billing platforms —ultimately streamlining the healthcare claims process and increasing reimbursement rates.
“You can very easily write your own applications to streamline tasks, like setting up a smartphone or tablet to read barcodes and send data into a central database. And it’s so easily applied to a variety of back office processes, with substantial returns. From medical billing to facility inventory tasks, it frees up talent to focus on more critical operations, reduces human error, drives operational efficiency and ultimately improves patient care quality.”
So, what leads the business automation field for tomorrow’s most promising innovation investment? For her part, Person is going all in on the underlying technology fueling hybrid clouds. She believes leveraging API gateways to connect legacy and modern systems is imperative to keep pace with the rest of the world.
“Without question, my money is on the digital ecosystem,” she says. “Using APIs to connect data, services, entire businesses, and consumers in a single location is the future. In an age of both high-volume mergers and acquisitions, and increasing focus on efficiency, it’s vital to create ecosystems that seamlessly connect products, software and services across their entire continuum. That’s true for the lifecycle of an automobile to banking and personal finance.
Perhaps nowhere is the impact of this connection more pronounced than in healthcare. Persons reveals that API-connected systems are not only the future, but can be life changing. Citing a recent cloud ecosystem project her company led, she says, “Through a central healthcare data repository we developed, a cancer cluster in New Jersey was identified. The impact of connected pharmacist, physician, patient and scientist data has ultimately saved lives, time and money for all involved.”
Looking to the business automation horizon, Wright has faith in the trifecta of RPA, machine learning, and artificial intelligence (AI) — with a pointed caveat. “While robotic process automation, machine learning and artificial intelligence are all top of mind for those in IT, I believe the best return on investment will stem first from RPA.” Highlighting the important distinction of order, he adds, “Right now I see the whole industry jumping over RPA and going right into AI and machine learning. That move is flawed, because there’s a lot of low hanging fruit still left on the tree. If instead, you begin your automation initiatives by first deploying an RPA strategy, you’re fully equipped with the means to have machine learning actually learn things. In the same vein, committing to an RPA strategy at the beginning of a development initiative can also successfully accelerate AI. Essentially, a good rule of thumb is that any project involving a process beyond data alone should lead with robotic process automation before making the jump to ML and AI.”
In the absence of a crystal ball foretelling the definitive future of workflow automation, both Wright and Person make solid business cases for successfully hedging your business automation bets leveraging their perspectives.
Noelle Kull is Principal of KCI, a strategic communications consultancy based in Chicago. A trusted partner to startups and the Fortune 100 alike, she translates thought leader insights to compelling content in verticals spanning med tech and manufacturing to higher ed and beyond. A global citizen passionate about cultural exploration and modern technology, you can find her penning magazine bylines in Budapest, ghostwriting books in Chiang Mai, and leading desk-side media tours in New York City.