Automation is key to workflow, and it’s hard to have good automation without some innovation. See what our executive panel had to say about the way automation is changing the business environment, how to identify new opportunities for automation, and more.
How can data analytics play a role in process automation?
Colin Earl: Data analytics can play a more effective role in process automation by actively triggering process decisions. At present, most companies gather data analytics and use this information when setting up the process automation. But they miss the opportunity to change process decisions in real time based upon active analytics.
For example, it will typically take some initiative on the part of the IT staff to even notice, let alone act upon, a gradual rise in issues related to a particular piece of software or an increase in the average response time. Efficiency and response times are improved when data analytics are gathered automatically and trigger actions to address issues before they grow into severe problems.
An example of when active analytics and process automation are fully integrated is supermarket supply chain automation. By scanning the bar code of an item at checkout, the system automatically decrements the count of in-stock items and triggers re-ordering when the count drops below a certain level.
Alain Gentilhomme: Automating processes provides numerous sources of operating value for all types of business. Automation standardizes work to streamline the pace of production while simultaneously reducing sources of error, including human error. Even more importantly, automation creates a continuous stream of valuable data about how processes are performing. Data analytics can identify variations in processes based on performance.
Andy Jones: Data analytics plays a huge role in process automation as it provides better real-time information and reveals complex relationships within data. It uncovers business patterns to give companies valuable insight about their processes, sales numbers and customer preferences to predict and inform business decisions. Analytics guide strategies to bring operational excellence to routine workflow as well as industry-specific processes.
Big, open, private, clean, dirty, you name it — data is everywhere. The problem is that this valuable information is rarely in the right format to be consumed easily and often resides in silos not readily accessible by the people who need it. Organizing and managing data has been core to our solutions, and our technology helps businesses apply data findings to improve processes. This focus is demonstrated by our research in the areas of natural language processing, semantic analysis and applied predictive analytics.
Kevin Kern: Most successful organizations today are data driven. Analytics can provide insight into the current state of the business and help build the foundation of the future-state automated process design. Today’s big data tools allow organizations tremendous visibility into process performance down to the level of relating customer satisfaction to process performance. Analytics are also changing internal processes from marketing to logistics, as you can derive a much deeper understanding of customer behavior and optimize all other process in the organization to align with that understanding.
Steve Young: Analytics are leveling the playing field for businesses of all sizes. Previously only large organizations could afford the systems and the staff to tease out business-critical information from their day-to-day reporting. These days it’s much more prevalent as software companies have moved to improve their reporting and analytic offerings.
On a macro level and a micro level, how is automation changing the business environment?
Jones: By 2020, the digital universe will reach 44 zettabytes (or 44 trillion gigabytes) according to IDC’s Digital Universe study. And as the volume of data grows, so do business expectations. Automation is making processes and workflows simpler, even with this dramatic growth in data and information within organizations. This in turn makes business environments more productive, by cutting costs and reducing the time it takes to complete tasks.
Slow, bottlenecked processes touch every industry, including banking, education, manufacturing, healthcare, insurance, government and retail. Automation simplifies and speeds up complex processes. It transforms manual, error-prone processes into more accurate, simplified workflows that take minutes instead of days.
Mike Stramaglio: At a macro level, we have all of these unbelievable technologies accelerating AI and data at unprecedented rates of speed and to near infinite power. The cost of these technologies is coming down, while the impact is going up. The problem is that many of these technologies are disparate – lowered cost and increased usage will allow for increasing integration into critical activities.
At a micro level, 90 percent of the automation and AI tools are already within our grasp and now it is up to us to apply all of this power by developing new apps or new technologies such as robotics or embedded medical diagnostics or as yet undeveloped innovations. The next 10 years will change the world like never before!
How has mobility affected workflow?
Earl: Mobility has led the future in terms of getting our software to work the way we do instead of the old way of doing business, “we conform our processes to the software.” Today, workers complete work in the field from their devices instead of saving it for when they get back to the office. This improves data accuracy and operational efficiency, but also results in greater internal and external satisfaction due to quicker task time.
Gentilhomme: Mobile usage now exceeds traditional computer operations driven by consumer preference. Inside companies, employees expect to interact with business processes anytime and anywhere, which means doing it from mobile devices. This is true today and will be even more so tomorrow. For Generation Z, who will soon be part of the workforce, a mobile device is the primary way to perform computer-related operations. It is not enough to just replicate a traditional desktop-based workflow to a mobile device. Mobile device users expect everything to be delivered as an app that they can easily interact with and an app that takes advantage of many mobile capabilities (even if some are found on desktops today). This includes voice/SMS/social interaction as well as capabilities like GPS geolocation, camera recording, iBeacon/Eddystone discovery, and hand-drawn signatures to name a few. Workflow and business process automation needs to integrate with these features to provide the user a very natural (and expected) experience.
Jones: With more people using mobile and digital devices in the workplace, businesses face new expectations from employees and customers. Employees expect to access information and work from anywhere the job takes them, while customers demand to interact with a company through mobile technology.
While mobile adds another entry point for accessing data or completing business processes, automation solutions keep this manageable and organizations across all verticals ensure their data remains readable, digestible, easily accessible and secure across all screens, including mobile.
For instance, banks are expanding their omnichannel capabilities, and customers can complete banking transactions on a variety of screens, including mobile devices, online portals and smart ATMs. By automating processes within retail banking, banks provide a more cohesive customer experience.
Kern: Mobility has had a huge effect on how business and consumers interact. Whether you are using your bank’s mobile app to pay bills or deposit checks, your airline’s app for you boarding pass or your hotel’s mobile app to check in before you arrive, mobility has changed every aspect of how we do business. Customers and businesses now expect everything they do to be an Amazon or iTunes experience. So mobility has automated many manual workflows and empowered consumers and helped companies be more efficient. In our own company we moved both our procure-to-pay and travel-management functions to software that embraces mobility. Instead of faxing receipts or mailing expense reports we can just take pictures on our phones, and I can approve expense reports and purchase authorizations from my phone, so workflow is vastly improved. Companies that do not move to mobile, responsively designed workflow will not succeed in the long run.
Young: Mobility in workflow means that information never needs to stop flowing. Regardless of where you are, there is typically a cellular or Wi-Fi connection which translates to improved accessibility and real-time response to workflow requests. Fortunately, you no longer need to be tethered to a desk to get work done, which has improved the lives of many people. Some would argue that it also means there are no more snow days or getting away from work in the office, but I look at it differently. If my team and I can spend more time with our families while still ensuring that business doesn’t come to a stop, it’s a win for everyone. Having just come back from vacation I have to admit there were times that I was approving PTO and requisition requests from my iPad while hanging out by the pool. These few minutes I spent making sure everyone had what they needed were a small price to pay for a week in the sun.
What advice can you share for identifying specific processes that could benefit from automation?
Earl: Start by identifying low-hanging fruit in processes that are simple but cumbersome. Getting started is as easy as “walking a mile in the shoes” of a person’s processes that you’re trying to automate. When you’re considering a process to automate, consider whether technology could be further leveraged. Some processes that make good candidates for automation include self-service employee portals, IT back-office processes, and document management.
More generally, automation works for complex processes that have the same workflow tree every time, processes with an unacceptably high error rate, and difficult decision-making tasks that are machine-addressable. Automation in these scenarios will reduce repetitive work for employees and can increase customer satisfaction.
Jones: Think about processes in your organization that are weighed down with lots of paperwork – those will likely be great starting points for automation consideration. By digitizing those processes, you open your organization up to increased speed in customer interactions, accelerated decision making and enhanced collaboration among employees, customers and suppliers.
In the digital age, many automation tools allow businesses to scale quickly to take on additional work. At present, 45 percent of those surveyed for Xerox’s latest Digitization at Work report work for an organization that does not use intelligent automation technologies. Inevitably, we’ll see more businesses adopt software that mimics humans by manipulating data, triggering responses and processing transactions.
Young: There are common, repeatable practices that should be looked at first, regardless of what industry you’re in. These include accounts payable automation, accounts receivable management, human resources onboarding and contract management. These are proven high-value areas for process improvement that don’t require that you reinvent the wheel to realize significant ROI. I always recommend that organizations look at these areas first as they represent the low-hanging fruit.
Another area to examine are manual processes that are prone to error. If you regularly see the ball being dropped in a critical process that impacts customer satisfaction or the bottom line, you owe it to yourself to correct it. Process automation isn’t just about speeding up transactions, it’s also about enforcing business rules and ensuring that all procedural steps are followed to ensure the best possible customer experience.
What are some of the most innovative ways you’ve seen automation used?
Earl: Calculating vendor discounts based on a number of variables from a wholesaler (volume, store type, product type); one-button setup for users in multiple places with right access control and permissions (e.g., assigning approvers based on LDAP); nightly import of invoices paid that gets automatically compared to invoice fields tied to contract — if 80 percent of the invoice amount has been spent, then a notification is triggered; automating publication of collateral to a website.
Young: We had a large international shipping company recently that was adding three new vessels and needed a better way to manage their bills of lading (BOLs) which were being delivered to them by email from around the world. It was a manual process that required a significant investment in time to first identify the BOL and then look it up in their internal systems so it could be assigned to the correct person who would process it for delivery. The issue was in identifying the BOL number which was never in the same place within the email — it could be in the body of the email, in the subject line or in the BOL included as an attachment. What made it more challenging was that the email attachment could be in a variety of formats; PDF, Excel, Word and more. To solve this, we designed a capture process which rendered the mail and its attachments to PDF format. From there we used advanced (unstructured) OCR technology to identify the BOL number by its format and extract it from the document. Once we had the BOL number it was simply a matter of looking up the delivery in their logistics system to get the relevant shipment details. With that information in hand, the BOL was then routed to the proper processor through a set of rules defined by the carrier including cargo type and geographic location.
Many fear the impact of automation on jobs – how do you view this?
Earl: There are legitimate reasons to be concerned about the impact of automation on some jobs, but those who get ahead of the curve by designing/implementing the automation not only stay employed, but also enjoy significant pay increases. Agile, code-free technologies are now putting the power in the hands of domain experts by removing the need for manual coding. This enables teams to focus on critical tasks that add value versus repetitive ones that may be cumbersome or a distraction.
Gentilhomme: By definition, automation is about getting machines to do the work that humans can do. This is not new and has been going on for decades. Agriculture represented a large percentage of the workforce in the United States in 1900 and is probably close to 1 or 2 percent today. And while technological advances clearly had a damaging effect on some part of the global workforce, it has created a number of new jobs that didn’t exist 50 years ago. It may seem like an overly simplistic and optimistic view that this trend of job transformation will continue forever, especially given the accelerating pace at which automation is being implemented across all parts of businesses. Recent advances in artificial intelligence (AI), which can potentially replace functions that usually required human cognitive skills, is clearly amplifying these concerns – leading some to the doomsday prediction about the “rise of the machines.” This an unstoppable force that we all must address. It will lead to a better and easier life for the vast majority of people, the same way people enjoy a better quality of life today than those living in the 1900s.
Jones: Automated tasks and workflows are not built to replace human jobs – they are built to enhance employee performance and work together seamlessly. The human element is something that – in most cases – should not be completely removed from processes and business environments.
Kern: Process automation can have a negative effect on jobs specifically tied to manual workflow, but can also allow organizations to redeploy that manpower to higher value work in areas like application support and customer support that help support revenue generation. We have to face that we live in a very dynamic time when we are competing globally. Process automation can provide a better customer experience and, when tied together with analytics, more customer insight while freeing up resources to innovate and grow the business, which will create more jobs.
Stramaglio: People may be afraid of new and aggressive automation tools and no doubt we are facing some significant transitional challenges regarding technology and people. For example, the advent of kiosks for ordering lunch at fast food restaurants make for easier and faster lunch service, but the down side is fewer people are needed to serve the client. However, even in the age of technology, business is very much about meeting people face to face, having conversations and building relationships. While the transactional side of the business can be automated and digitized, a lot of new business development is about real conversations and offline types of engagements. These will be new, knowledge-driven types of jobs and careers involving a great deal more data and knowledge of both business services and new technologies. This new combination will create and provide new types of jobs and a wealth of new career opportunities in everything from medical to hospitality and everything in between.
Young: There’s no doubt that automation changes the employment landscape. We’ve seen this since the start of the industrial revolution and it hasn’t stopped since. The key point to note is that automation, while definitely changing roles, doesn’t eliminate jobs. It creates new and better ones. I remember watching Mad Men, which focused on office life in the 1950s, and thinking to myself how different it was back then. Row after row of administrators were typing away in triplicate and answering phones as they drove the “modern” office. Fast forward to today and many of those positions have now been eliminated. Phone systems and computers have increased productivity allowing offices today to run better with far less clerical resources. What you didn’t see in those offices back in the 50s were programmers, tech support staff and business or program analysts, which arguably are better roles and that pay much more.
How specifically can automation help the SMB innovate?
Stramaglio: “Automation” in the SMB market in the past has been little more than manual automation tools married to aged technology and bad processes or, even worse, better technology applied by people who refuse to change old processes. Whether business models evolve incrementally or in a transformational manner over the next five to 10 years, in almost all cases the changes will lead to smarter supply chains, smarter products, and high-quality services for consumers. While this will add value and improve business performance, the consumer will never be left behind and, in fact, is the driver for acceleration. People will continue to explore new applications and develop the skills needed for our current and future workplace. As customers (and distribution clients) move from purchasing products to consuming services and experiences, businesses have no choice but to fundamentally rethink their operating/business models. Automation provides true enterprise power for the SMB market, and for the first time these companies can create and deliver new and highly effective business process methods, highly efficient supply chain management, and improvements in AI, robotics, manufacturing and nearly every area of delivery of products or services. This will shrink the world to a very small place for the SMB, with no client out of reach and every market within their scope. This is the most exciting time for every human being as we are witnessing things only Gene Roddenberry or Jules Verne imagined.
This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of Workflow.