How intelligent automation will change the way we work

Incorporating cognitive technologies with business process automation can bring significant gains in efficiency, revenue, and customer satisfaction — if it’s done right. Here’s how companies should approach automation and how workers can keep up.

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Automation in the workplace is nothing new — organizations have used it for centuries, points out Rajendra Prasad, global automation lead at Accenture and co-author of The Automation Advantage. In recent decades, companies have flocked to robotic process automation (RPA) as a way to streamline operations, reduce errors, and save money by automating routine business tasks.

Now organizations are turning to intelligent automation to automate key business processes to boost revenues, operate more efficiently, and deliver exceptional customer experiences. Intelligent automation is a smarter version of RPA that makes use of machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI) and cognitive technologies such as natural language processing to handle more complex processes, guide better business decisions, and shed light on new opportunities, said Prasad.

For example, Newsweek has automated many aspects of managing its presence on social media, a crucial channel for broadening its reach and reputation, said Mark Muir, head of social media at the news magazine. Newsweek staffers used to manage every aspect of its social media postings manually, which involved manually selecting and sharing each new story to its social pages, figuring out what content to recycle, and testing different strategies. By moving to a more automated approach, the company now spends much less time on these processes.

“We use Echobox’s automation to help determine which content should be shared to our social media and to optimize how and when it is posted so that the largest possible audience will see it,” Muir said. “Automating in this way has created more time for us to focus on our readers and find new ways to engage our audience.”

Industry watchers predict that intelligent automation will usher in a workplace where AI not only frees up human workers’ time for more creative work but also helps them set strategies and drive innovation. Most companies are not fully there yet but do have numerous opportunities for business process automation throughout the organization.

Business processes that are ripe for automation

Ravi Vasantraj, global delivery head at IT services provider Mphasis, cites several characteristics that make business processes good candidates for automation:

  • Processes that deal with structured, digital or non-digital data having definitive steps
  • Processes with seasonal spikes that can’t be fulfilled by a manual workforce, such as policy renewals, premium adjustments, claims payments in insurance, and so on
  • Processes with stringent service level agreements that need quick turnarounds, such as transactions posting, order fulfillment, etc.

Many companies are automating contract management, added Doug Barbin, managing principal and chief growth officer at Schellman, a provider of attestation and compliance services. “If you consider all the steps needed to draft, send, redline, and execute contracts via email, the use of technology to manage the content, coordinate change approval, and automate the signing process, the savings in time and reduction of errors is significant,” he said.

Beyond contracts, anything that reduces manual interaction for sales is an opportunity. For example, companies are providing chatbots to automate the ability to answer key questions and connect prospects to sales, according to Barbin.

UMC, a mechanical services contractor in Seattle, has automated many of its sales processes, said Bob Frey, director of sales operations. “We’ve automated various sales stages so we can track sales through our pipelines,” he said. “We are able to track what stages the different sales are in. We do this using Unanet CRM by Cosential that’s designed specifically for the construction industry.”

Schellman’s Barbin cites security as another area where automation is making inroads. “In cybersecurity, the mundane often resides in compliance and the need to test controls in an increasingly complex environment,” he said. “There is an entire segment of compliance automation tools that are being built to collect data and perform initial analysis before triaging and passing to [a human] assessor.”

In addition, more organizations are automating the procure-to-pay process in finance and the hire-to-retire process in human resources, said Wayne Butterfield, global lead for intelligent automation solutions at ISG (Information Services Group), a research and advisory firm.

“There are large numbers of tasks in every organization across just about every function that can be automated,” he said. “The question is: What is the technology needed to automate them, and does it make sense from a value realization perspective?”

The contact center is a huge opportunity, not only because of the large number of people completing similar activities with every contact but because of the positive impact it can have on customer experience and agent efficiency, Butterfield said. For example, companies can use automated virtual agents to handle the more routine customer requests, such as balance inquiries, bill payment, or change of address requests. This enables human agents to handle the more complicated customer inquiries that require creative problem solving. Handing these routine tasks off to automated virtual agents shortens the time it takes to resolve customer issues.

Where intelligent automation is taking us

In coming years, the architecture of work will change and become more event-driven, with business processes controlled with intelligent automation and work broken down into discrete tasks that are performed via automation, assigned to a worker, or interactively executed between a robot assistant and a worker, said IDC’s Fleming.

“There will be far fewer task workers using enterprise applications on a constant basis; task work will increasingly be delivered to workers via automation,” she said. “Employees will spend more time digitally enabling themselves by learning how to develop using low-code tools. And employees will spend more time planning, proactively identifying and resolving problems, making decisions, creating, etc. — in other words, performing knowledge work and/or creative work.”

Prasad said that in the years to come, there will be a huge opportunity for automation to be viewed as an indispensable co-worker with a vital role to play in companies’ successes by bringing in opportunities to reinvent individual processes, transform customer and employee experiences, and drive revenue growth.

“Intelligent automation promises to usher in a new era in business, one where companies are more efficient and effective than ever before and able to meet the needs of customers, employees, and society in new and powerful ways,” he said.

Automation pitfalls to watch out for

As organizations automate their business processes, there are many potential hazards to avoid.

“The main one is ignoring your people and underestimating that,” Butterfield said. “Although the outcome is driven by using a technology, everything up to the actual automation of a process is generally very people-focused. A lack of change management will unfortunately cause many issues in the long term. Organizations need to keep their people aligned with their overall goals.”

Security, mainly authentication, is also a key concern, Barbin said. “Any automation, API [application programming interface] or other, requires some means to pass access credentials,” he said. “If the systems that automate and contain those credentials are compromised, access to the connected systems could be too.” To help minimize that risk, Barbin suggests using SAML 2.0 and other technologies that take stored passwords out of the systems.

Another pitfall is selecting only one technology as the automation tool of choice. Typically organizations need multiple technologies to get the best results, said Maureen Fleming, program vice president for intelligent process automation research at IDC.

And when companies decide to automate a business process previously carried out by a person or a team of people, it’s natural to receive some pushback, Newsweek’s Muir said. “Some of our journalists had initially struggled with the idea of letting an algorithm make choices that were previously weighed up and decided by a human,” he said. “There can be a bit of fear around AI and algorithms and a perceived lack of control when processes are suddenly automated.”

Organizations also need to establish clear strategies for business process automation, according to Vasantraj. “Automating the processes without understanding the ROI [return on investment] could lead to business loss, or automations built with multiple user interventions may not yield any benefit at all,” he said.

Take it slow, plan carefully, and listen to your people

Scaling intelligent automation is one of the biggest challenges for organizations, said Accenture’s Prasad. Therefore, it’s crucial that companies be clear about the strategic intent behind this initiative from the outset and ensure that it’s embedded into their entire modernization journeys, from cloud adoption to data-led transformation.

“Intelligent automation is not a race to be the first to implement the latest technology,” he said. “Success depends on understanding people’s needs, introducing new technologies in a way that is helpful and involves minimal disruption, and addressing issues related to new skills, roles, and job content.”

In other words, focusing on people is just as important as focusing on technology, Prasad said. Investments in intelligent automation must be “people first” — designed to elevate human strengths and supported by investments in skills, change management, experience, organization, and culture.

Butterfield agreed that strategic thinking is critical. “My advice would be to start small and think strategically,” he said. “Understand the shape and type of problems you are trying to automate or improve before you move to a technology solution. Work with your people, and ensure you use their tribal knowledge to understand why they do something.”

However, Butterfield cautions that organizations should avoid relying on people’s opinions on how long things take and how many actions they are able to complete in a given timeframe. “Such reliance often causes your business cases to be inaccurate, as they include the agent’s local management bias versus hard data and facts,” he said.

Muir’s advice is to let the results speak for themselves. Once an organization has introduced AI and automation to a process, it should let any time gains and increases in performance be key factors in objectively determining whether the project was a success. “In our experience, using Echobox proved the quantifiable value of automation to our organization, which made it easier for our teams to embrace it,” he said.

“Another piece of advice would be to find a balance that works for your team or your business when it comes to how much automation you use,” Muir said. For businesses that want to dip their toes into automation but are hesitant to automate 100% of their processes and relinquish manual control, there are often ways to just partially automate tasks, he added. “Take a realistic look at where you’re regularly spending time and talent on repetitive, manual tasks and explore how you can automate those parts of your workday.”

How workers can keep pace with automation

Rather than push back, employees should embrace automation and the opportunities it creates for them to provide high-value contributions versus management of administrative tasks, Barbin said.

“For security operations, for instance, leveraging automation allows those watching the networks for attackers to focus on high-priority threats and incidents, keeping up with a faster-moving landscape,” he said. “For compliance, they can move from managing a single US framework, [such as] SOC 2, to global compliance requirements, all from a single management plane.”

IDC’s Fleming noted that most organizations try to upskill and shift workers into new roles when their current roles are automated. They also consolidate new responsibilities into an existing role. And they tend to hire internal candidates for open jobs.  “When offered an opportunity to learn how to develop for automation, process improvement, etc., employees should embrace that opportunity,” she said. “Employees should look for internal upskilling programs as well as external ones.”

Newsweek’s Muir agreed that employees need to remain open to learning about new technologies and keep an open mind about how they can be leveraged. “Technology changes fast, and the tools and systems we use today may not be the same ones five years from now,” he said.

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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