The Wavelength: Automation and Innovation

wavelength 0918In this ever-more-automated world in which we live and work, it’s getting harder and harder to be truly innovative. Yet it continues to happen as businesses incorporate the opportunities automation makes available. This month’s panel of experts explains how it’s happening.

Are there certain industry verticals that you see that are ripe for automation innovation?

Sam Babic: I’ve been in this industry for 21 years, and I am amazed at the amount of untapped potential when it comes to automation, so I’d say all industries are ripe. If you include the opportunity for document capture and electronic forms, for example, to facilitate automation, organizations across all industries have gaps in one or more departments. Typically, even in enterprise rollouts, automation focuses on the core business functions to increase operational efficiency. It is rare for an organization to consider the rollout of automation across all facets of the business from day one. The optimization cycle for their core business leads to missed opportunities in other areas of the business such as employee onboarding, contract management and customer service.

Lance Elicker: Every single one! We are in an age of innovation where we have stepped out of the box. Ten years ago if you had told me I could go on the interwebs and order something from a website and have it delivered in two hours, even if I don’t live in a major metro area, I would have called you crazy. Now it’s just normal and we even wonder, could it be done in an hour? Oh, and the company that provides this service is doing pretty well in other areas too.

Sean Nathaniel: “Digital transformation” isn’t an industry buzzword, it’s a zeitgeist term that’s already greatly impacting industry verticals of all kinds and sizes across the globe. Digital transformation initiatives are targeted at using technology to empower employees, optimize internal operations, engage and delight customers, and transform products to deliver superior results we’ve not seen before. The evolution of technology has enabled us to deliver this transformation with cutting-edge automation innovation. We have entered the era of intelligent information management, where we must harness automation to reach new heights in how we organize content and data, and just as important, to help us set (and then surpass) new standards of excellence in how work gets accomplished. Ultimately, successful organizations will be those that use automation to execute digital transformation initiatives, regardless of their industry or vertical, to increase employee satisfaction, customer engagement and shareholder value.

Hugo Palacios: With retail stores like Amazon Go and the advent of self-driving pilot programs by companies like Lyft, we are clearly entrenched in the era of automation. This means that companies must make this pivot as well in order to both stay competitive and attract the right talent to their workforce. Two industries that really stand out to me are government and skilled trades (plumbing, electrical, carpentry, etc.). In government, the expectation of the constituent is now that all interactions should be available online – applications, permits, enrollment, licensure, etc. — and while many locales have embraced technology, there is still a lot more that can be done to automate the citizen identity management and better leverage technology.

In the skilled trades, I believe that the opportunity is to better democratize the technology that has traditionally only been available to the larger companies. Many electricians, plumbers, carpenters and other skilled trades are truly small business enterprises, and these firms need help to capture economies of scale. Whether that’s job ticketing, estimating and payment via mobile device, or even more automated ways to remind clients of HVAC filter changes, the potential for automation in this industry seems like a huge untapped opportunity still.

How does data analytics play a role in process automation?

Babic: Data analytics takes traditional process automation where a manual repeatable process is automated in a static fashion and turns it into a dynamic, evolving system. Whether process automation is achieved via coding, low-code or no-code, traditional automation involves understanding the most common flows that provide the biggest return on investment and automating those flows. The problem with this approach is that requirements are typically gathered up front with the current state. Assumptions may be incorrect and over time, assertions that once were true may no longer be true. Analytics allows an organization to monitor and tune their automation to provide the most benefit.

How is automation changing the business environment?

Babic: Put simply, automation separates the modern business from the dinosaurs. That’s not to say organizations with little automation aren’t surviving, but are they thriving? The level of automation within an organization directly correlates to its success. Being able to service your customer more quickly with fewer issues brings greater customer loyalty. A streamlined onboarding process makes a great impression on new employees and prospective candidates. A quick turnaround on contracts makes you a vendor that businesses want to partner with. The effects of automation or lack thereof ultimately lead to an impression on all parties your business engages with.

Jerry Blaine: Prevalence in the consumer markets of voice-driven digital assistants and low-cost video conferencing technologies are raising the bar on office automation and driving the need for innovation in every vertical market. It is important to understand that AI for certain business functions and process automation may cause a host of regulatory, legal and ethical issues. Deriving a maximum AI benefit requires a balance of when to use “transparent” versus “opaque” AI.

Nathaniel: Advanced technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and robotic process automation (RPA) are already helping organizations around the world improve efficiency, reduce cost and increase impact through continuous, intelligent, metrics-driven automation. We exist in a data-driven business reality – the volume and velocity of the content and data we are sending, receiving and interpreting are at a rate never seen before. Automation is accelerating this volume and velocity, which in turn is creating a greater need for organizations to harness smart technologies, like smart analytics, to understand all their data – and metadata. To truly compete in the age of information, it’s imperative we move our knowledge workers from transactional activities like data collection, to value-driven tasks, like crafting brilliant strategies based on the data we have.

Bruce Orcutt: Just look at how insurance carriers solicit your business or how you are being presented new mortgage options. Vendors are delivering on ease of use and simplicity in the process as a differentiator.  Messages like “sign up with us and you will be approved in 15 minutes” ring true to consumers. Automation makes any customer-focused benefit initiated via self-service or the mobile device the preferred engagement model. Businesses that neglect or discount that channel and model will struggle to connect with their buyers and compete in the future.

Palacios: Analytics, and data itself, is probably the biggest benefit of automation that people often overlook. With automation, you’re leveraging technology to manage a specific process. As a result, these transactions are all given a time stamp and you get visibility to the duration, frequency and volume of transactions. It comes back to the old axiom, “you can’t manage what you don’t measure,” and by way of automation, we’re measuring more now than ever before. For example, in the case of local government, enabling electronic forms will create a digital record that creates auditability, and we’re then provided with metrics on how many citizens may be leveraging particular services. This hard data can be used for analysis into what programs are most leveraged by a given population, and that analysis can then lead to improved policies moving forward.

What advice can you share for identifying specific processes that could benefit from automation?

Babic: On some level, anything is capable of being automated. The question is, what effort does it take to automate a process and what total value does that effort return? Look for things that require little effort but that provide a great return on that effort. This sounds simple, but in practice can be challenging. Value isn’t always clear and depending on the stakeholder, may vary wildly. What the chief financial officer finds valuable may be different from the chief experience officer. Value doesn’t always come in the form of dollars and cents but rather improved customer interactions, happy employees and loyal business partners.

Elicker: Follow the money. Usually, processes that involve cash provide ROI that is tangible. Find out from the people who are handling the processes currently what they think.

Nathaniel: Eat the elephant one bite at a time. Most initiatives fail because they try to accomplish too much, too quickly. Begin by using the framework for digital transformation — empower employees, engage customers, optimize operations and transform products. Then identify the high-level objectives for automation and define your measurements for success. For example, if empowering employees is your primary objective, set a goal of 20-25 percent improvement in productivity. Then find processes around your primary objective that are ripe for automation. These processes are usually those time-consuming, mundane tasks where repetitive decisions are used to complete work that can be easily systematized. More complex opportunities for automation could be eradicating waste and duplication. Most importantly, as you implement changes, take a measured approach and create a culture of continuous improvement. As we all know, culture eats strategy for breakfast, so ensuring you address the cultural aspects around change management is critical. Transparency to the initiative, the key objectives, the measures of success, and gamifying the initiative are ways to build excitement and engagement around change that can sometimes seem daunting to affected individuals.

Orcutt: Any time you ask a user to interact with content or documents, we want to automate that engagement. Think about how automation has made depositing a check easier.  Now think about any onboarding, new account or benefits enrollment project where you need to provide content or documents in order to gain approval. Imagine real-time review and approvals based upon the analysis of your documents and data that you provided. This changes how customers apply for benefits and services and creates completely new models for business dependent on customer engagement.

Palacios: It may be obvious, but it often makes sense to look at your copy machine. In some situations, when a business process requires a copy to be made it is because there is a process that could be automated. Paper is an extremely useful medium, even in today’s world, as it’s inexpensive, portable and durable, but at times it can also be inefficient. In some instances, the best solution for automating a process is to provide a digital artifact via email or PDF instead of a paper copy.

In addition, following the “sneaker-net” that exists in every workplace is an important observation when looking for automation opportunities. If people are taking time to walk a stack of documents from one area of an office to another for additional processing, there is probably an opportunity there for a closer examination of why that is being done.

When automation is introduced to a process, where are bottlenecks most likely to occur?

Blaine: Currently the technology that we are developing provides a voice-activated, one-to-one user experience.  This may be limiting in high-traffic offices or environments that have time-critical operations.

Elicker: There two areas that come to mind. The first is the capture/input of data to kick off an automated process. This process is often fraught with inefficiencies and potential errors and takes too long. The second area is exception handling. The best automated solutions handle exceptions well, but I have all too often seen a great solution crumble because no one said “what do we do if something changes?”

Nathaniel: With any major change, people often have healthy skepticism, especially when changes seem to come too quickly and management around the new standards, processes, or codes of conduct appears to be disorganized or not fully vetted. When management bites off more than it can chew, everyone senses it. In my experience, this uneasiness slows adoption of the solution. That’s why creating a culture of strategic, incremental change partnered with transparency from management creates a healthier environment where innovations are more easily adopted, and the new solution to a process is more intrinsically trusted by staff. Although workers may initially be doubtful or reluctant to hand over a portion of their daily tasks to a new automated process, once they understand the rationale behind the change and the capabilities of the solution, they’ll quickly adapt (with a sigh of relief) to a more productive, less repetitive set of duties. With more ability to focus on work that adds value, these workers also find more empowerment in their contribution to the end goal.

Orcutt: Bottlenecks occur in legacy systems trying to force real-time content intelligence systems into their historic paradigms of metadata and structures. In the day of analytics, data drives decisions. This data enabling real-time transactions and accelerating approvals and benefits comes from mobile engagement, third-party data brokers, and customer-provided content that must be analyzed and presented in a meaningful way to the analytics and decision engines. Content and content intelligence is king in these real-time services where customers have expectations of “now” for delivery of benefits, account opening, and services.

What are some of the skills employees will need in the future to thrive in a more automated work world?

Babic: More and more, automation will be driven by data and machine learning more so than static automation of processes. Employees building or participating in that automation need to be active participants in the tuning of automated practices. This means understanding how to properly train an automated process and have an awareness of the data that is feeding into the feedback loop. Is the data being used to tune the system relevant data? Does it have the appropriate fields and data types to drive the process forward? Are there any data points being introduced that are causing a regression?

Elicker: I think the key is specialization. High school and college grads will need to focus on specializing in specific fields as opposed to being a generalist. My brother owns a construction company and struggles mightily to find skilled equipment operators. Not everyone has to get a degree in computer science to thrive in a work world that is automated. Skilled laborers like plumbers, carpenters and electricians will all be in demand for years to come; they will just need to be able to utilize technology and automation to make their jobs easier.

Palacios: I firmly believe that the skills of the future are common sense and analytical thinking, much as they have been for the past 150 years or so. Especially in in an automated world, simplicity is often the best solution, so being able to strip away complexity and search for the shortest, most efficient distance between two points in a business process will never go out of style.

Should people be afraid of losing their jobs to robots? 

Blaine: Quite the opposite. Developing new markets, keeping up with the fast pace of evolving technologies, process customizations and data analysis should continue to feed the human job market for the foreseeable future.

Elicker: Yes and no. Yes, those people that work manual, repetitive-based positions will lose out to automation, but different opportunities will be created and new career paths will be built based on the need to build and maintain systems that are created for automation.

Nathaniel: We’ve heard the quote before in many forms – change is life’s only constant. Those who embrace change with a willingness to adapt by learning and growing their skillset will be better suited to this changing marketplace. Conversely, those who are unwilling to learn or change may be displaced. I have lived my career with the attitude of “working myself out of a job,” and when you have that attitude, you find ways to have impact and engineer out work – either through automation or by mentoring others into that role or function. In my view, these knowledge workers must continue to be an integral part of fostering differentiated impact and continued innovation. The leadership challenge upon us is to ensure we are equipping our team members to be successful in the new mode of continuous change, automation and value optimization.

Palacios: I think people should be aware of the reality that automation and robotics are going to become more prevalent in society and in business and be prepared for the changes that should come with that adjustment, but I don’t think that means that people should be afraid of losing their jobs. Much like the PC revolution of the 1980s allowed the computer to augment the quality and quantity of people’s work efforts, I believe that robotics and automation should be expected to have a very similar augmentation effect. Surely some industries will be more disrupted than others, but at the same time, there will be new opportunities that will be created in the process.

This article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Workflow.