The Evolution of Technology Innovation and Workflow Automation

A recent family dinner turned into a discussion about technology and the changes we have experienced in our lifetimes.

It started with a conversation about my wife’s grandmother (Baba), who was born in New York in 1909, and by the time of her death in 2008 had lived through a time of some of the most incredible change and technological advancement in history. She was born at the tail end of the Second Industrial Revolution, which brought us innovations like the escalator, telegraph, sewing machine, automobile and typewriter — inventions that ushered in a renaissance in productivity as newfound technology began to introduce automation to once manual tasks.

Born in the late 1960s, my own life has been quite different than Baba’s, and yet I have also lived through an astonishing time of innovation and productivity — the Third Industrial Revolution. In my own lifetime, I have seen the introduction of the personal computer, the rapid acceleration of software, the explosion of the internet and the recent emergence of artificial intelligence, machine learning and the internet of things (the Fourth Industrial Revolution). We live in a world today where news and events from around the world can be broadcast in real time, and you can reach virtually any destination in the world within a day.

From a business perspective, much has changed since Baba’s entry into the workforce. In her work as a seamstress during the early 1900s, the sewing machine was innovative, making it possible to mass produce clothing. A whole new market opportunity emerged as a wide variety of clothing became available to the masses. Similarly, when the typewriter made its debut it brought with it the ability to drive mass communication in a manner more productive than the handwritten letter. Since that time, the keyboard, whether on a typewriter or computer, has remained the dominant input tool used for business communication. But that may be changing. The introduction of speech recognition and digital assistants will likely one day overtake typing as the primary means of system interaction, eventually permitting all people to interface with computing technology in the same way human interactions are conducted.

Today’s pace of technology innovation is exploding. According to the book “The Singularity Is Near” by inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil, innovation is an evolutionary process that “applies positive feedback, the more capable methods resulting from one stage of evolutionary progress being used to create the next stage.”

Kurzweil’s thesis and examples are compelling and demonstrate that not only is Moore’s law of computing technology (computer processing power will double every two years) alive and well, but it is just one example of the increasing pace of technological innovation. Other innovations are demonstrating similar exponential gains including technologies that are not dependent upon computing. Of course, this pace of change is one we have seen in recent times and one that all of us reading this article are experiencing on a daily basis.

This rapid acceleration of technological innovation is impacting our lives in ways that are too numerous to count. The implications for our personal lives are profound, as are the implications for business.  There is no mistaking these impacts, as it was only a few short years ago that there were no such things as an iPhone or apps, and Amazon was only selling books. In the world of business, the term “digital transformation” had not been popularized, Big Data had yet to be defined and the bulk of what we today call business intelligence was buried in physical paper and computer systems locked in a vault, making its use a major challenge.

It wasn’t too long ago that this was the norm. However, in the last several years we have seen an explosion in how technology is being applied to business. We have seen digital transformation move from an interesting idea to a race where the majority of today’s companies are working feverishly to transform all aspects of their organizations to digital enablement, putting manual processes out to pasture wherever possible.

Of course, we have seen technology innovation in the past, but why is today so different? The technology innovations experienced in the early 1990s saw massive change in how computing technology was deployed as industry migrated from traditional centralized systems to client server-based architectures. While this ultimately paved the way for the distributed computing technology we enjoy today and set us on the path toward cloud technology and the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the impact on business was not nearly as great as what we are witnessing now. Yes, businesses became more automated, but look around any organization today and you’ll soon realize that the level of automation brought about by this leap in technology pales in comparison to what we are now witnessing.

Today’s ability to automate is based upon a confluence of factors including the advancement of computing technology, its ability to handle the massive volumes of data inherent in all businesses and the algorithms capable of processing this data. Sprinkle in artificial intelligence technology and machine learning and we are now living in a time where the majority of business processes are not only capable of being automated but can also be trained to learn, thereby delivering improved performance over time.

And where do we see this innovation? Think about any business process and you are likely to see how automation is taking place and the impact it is having on business. Let’s take accounts payable as an example. A standard process for any business, accounts payable has historically been a process manual in nature and burdened by a significant amount of paper-based information. Sure, paper still exists in today’s automated process, but now the paper is being digitized with key information automatically harvested from the paper and integrated into a customer’s ERP system. In many cases, accounts payable activities can be driven without any human involvement provided the purchase order and receipt of goods data are accurately captured, identified and matched.

Big deal, you say. So I can pay my bills on time, you say. Precisely. By automating this business process, companies are capable of capturing benefits including improved cash flow management, reduction in cycle times — thereby capturing more cash discounts — and the reduction of risk associated with fraud. Better yet, the personnel who were once employed to move paper and handle manual data entry are now emancipated to use their minds and provide added value to these organizations, often taking on the role of analyzing data and helping
to drive further value to the business.

This same scenario is now unfolding in business applications governing HR, procurement, accounts receivable, and even marketing where personnel are automating processes related to customer acquisition and using artificial intelligence and machine learning to reach out to prospects at the appropriate time with the appropriate messaging to solicit business.

While the race to automate has just begun, it is clear the organizations that got out of the blocks quickly are beginning to reap serious benefits. Often, they are not only seeing benefits in terms of their internal operations but are also seeing this translate into competitive advantage in their industry sectors. In a number of cases their efforts are spawning new business opportunities as they ultimately sell products and services related to the automation that was initially driven for internal purposes.

When I think about my own time on the planet, I can hardly believe what I have witnessed. While born at a time when computers existed, it’s hard to believe that I now hold one in my hand that is imminently more powerful than the original mainframes. I look in wonder at the technology that made it possible to put mankind on the moon and to execute the recent missions to the outer solar system, helping us to revise what we once believed about the universe. And I think about where we are headed with the advent of self-driving cars, home automation, genetics-based medicine and the internet of things and wonder what the landscape of technology and innovation will look like for my children and grandchildren.

I can only speculate on what Baba might have thought about the world she left at the age of 98, with its cars, television, airplanes and advanced technology, compared to the world she entered. And as I continue my own march towards mortality, I can only speculate on the amazing future that awaits humanity and dream about its implications for both business and life.