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“Don’t perfect your process and then automate it”

Megan Wright bw
Posted: 12/15/2017

An automated process is more efficient than one that isn’t automated—even if it’s imperfect—says Thoughtonomy’s Terry Walby

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Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

Change has been the defining and motivating factor in Terry Walby’s career; “It excites and enthralls me,” says the chief executive of Thoughtonomy.

From his early career working at IBM to his current role as leader of Thoughtonomy, Walby says delivering positive transformation has always been the goal. “A lot of people would claim to be agents of change, but for me it’s been the one thing that’s defined what I do.”

This month, as we welcome Walby as a member of the AIIA Network Advisory Board, we sat down with him to discuss what inspires him most, how he defines automation success and why organizations often make the same mistakes time and time again…

AIIA Network (AIIA): Tell me about the first time you came across automation—do you remember where you were or what you were doing?

Terry Walby (TW): That’s something I have reflected back on, because for me all of technology, and certainly all of software, is aiming to automate, aiming to remove the need for a human to do something by having the technology do it instead.

So whether it’s a spreadsheet making an accountant more efficient or a Word document replacing a typewriter, right through to a complex business application, technology is aiming to automate the execution of work. It’s an underlying theme throughout any technology platform.

In terms of automation tools, specifically, that probably featured in things from way back in my time at IBM and through the time I spent in IT Services.

“There's a constant desire to become more efficient and to find ways to automate the tasks that are done by people.”

Obviously, a lot of the organizations I worked in were quite closely involved in delivering what would broadly be classified as people-based services, whether that’s IT or business process outsourcing, those services are heavily reliant on human resources. And so, wherever you have had reliance on human resources there's an opportunity to create greater scale or to create better efficiency by automating it.

I suppose it became more apparent at my time at Computacenter where we were spending quite a lot of time working with customers and delivering automation solutions for them—using traditional automation technologies, delivering transformation programs, projects, outcomes and then services that were using automation technology.

Read more: How to implement intelligent automation

I was then approached by IPsoft and eventually joined the business as managing director to help build their UK and European business. That was when automation became the product for me. That was the key moment when it became my raison d'etre, if you like.

AIIA: Fast forward to today and Thoughtonomy is growing quickly—what inspired you to build this business?

TW: We created the business because, despite all that time spent in technology and automation, there was an increasing frustration with the ability to leverage the technology for business benefit. What had become obvious was that there were still hugely unproductive workforces at play across businesses of all sizes, that businesses were hampered and limited by their availability of skilled resources. You couldn’t find the right people or couldn’t afford to hire the right people to help support growth, and you would be hamstrung by inefficiencies of the work that people were doing. So we stepped in to solve that problem.

AIIA: You say businesses of all sizes share this challenge—is there a particular sector or market segment that is leading or trailing the rest?

TW: No. I think we recognized the problem existed across the wider market and, as we worked with customers, we realized it exists not just in organizations with big workforces, but it exists in a different dimension in all organizations. It’s not just about people efficiency, it’s also because they can’t access the scale and skills they need to get to in order to drive growth. The concept of digital labor gives them the ability to do things that would be unviable otherwise.

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If it existed at all, the solution seemed to most to be difficult, complex and expensive. So what we set out to do was to create a platform that could solve the problem in a frictionless way, a way that was non-disruptive to deploy but still delivered very quick benefit, very rapid return on investment and very scalable capacity so that businesses could consume digital laborers as an augmentation or a replacement for human labor.

AIIA: That’s obviously a hot topic right now. Do you face challenges when explaining the benefits of RPA and automation to clients?

TW: It comes down to explaining the concept of creating capacity to do things more efficiently.

“For some organizations driven by an agenda of cost reduction and efficiency, the appetite to automate work is driven by a desire to require fewer resources to do the same amount of work.”

The vast majority of organizations that we’re working with are using our technology as an extension of their staff. They’re using the virtual workforce as a way to drive productivity, but also to support non-linear growth or to launch new services or challenge new markets or to create a level of efficiency that allows their people to do things they couldn’t otherwise do.

I’m a big believer that most—if not all—organizations and businesses are constrained by their access to skilled resources. The people they have got are skilled and capable to do the job they are assigned to, but much of what they do is not using those skills.

And whether it’s because of the cost of people or because there is a shortage of skills, and people take a long time to hire, train, develop and integrate into a business; availability can be as big a challenge as staff productivity is.

Read more: How do we know intelligent automation is real and not just more hype?

If you went to pretty much any manager and said, “If I give you access to a bunch more resources on-demand to work in your team, would you be able to do more?”—the answer would be yes.

I must admit we did consider that we might find some resistance as we went out to work with operational teams. We were concerned we might find people saying, “What are you doing here? You're taking away my job! You're automating my work and that’s putting me at risk!” But actually, the opposite’s true. When you get into the detail of what people do day-to-day, you find that a lot of the repetitive, systematic work as the obvious candidates for automation because they are things that people don’t enjoy doing.

People are proactively coming forward and saying, “Look, can you automate this thing I do every day, because it’s really boring and repetitive and I keep making mistakes and it’s just not fun, it’s not adding any value?” In that sense, it’s almost become self-selecting.

AIIA: You’ve hit upon an interesting point there, because according to market research, those surveyed showed that almost 80 per cent of professionals believe that less than 40 per cent of their business processes are ripe for automation. Do you think that organizations are potentially a little bit too cautious when it comes to embracing the potential of automation?

TW: There's still a lack of awareness of what's possible. If you ask somebody “Can we automate your work?”, they think in a traditional sense about automation. They think in a sense of having a task end-to-end replaced by a bot or a piece of software that requires zero intervention at all. In other words, the lens becomes quite narrow.

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I was at an event the other day and I asked the audience who thought their job could be replaced by intelligent automation. Almost nobody said yes. But then we went through the kind of things that we address with our platform and the way that we approach it, and the way that we’re automating work that takes the time and that consumes the most resources.

“You don’t need to remove the person entirely to deliver efficiency.”

If you're a customer service agent having a conversation with a customer and carrying out a task, you might say that can’t be automated because you’re having a conversation with the person. But actually, if you automate the execution of the task, you make that work more efficient. You’ve improved the customer experience and you’ve delivered a more efficient business outcome.

So I went through some use cases of things for which we’re using digital labor as an assistant, as a support mechanism and as an aid to human workers, rather than as a replacement for human workers. Then I asked the audience the same question—who thinks some of the work they do or their teams do could be replaced by automation? Everybody put their hand up.

AIIA: So what’s the one piece of advice you find yourself giving customers or clients time and again when it comes to automating?

TW: The first thing we say is start now! Don’t spend ages thinking about it, because the return on value is so quick, it doesn’t make sense to spend too long thinking about what you should do, it makes sense to start your automation journey as early as possible.

The other advice is don’t confuse automation with business process transformation. They are very different things. What intelligent automation allows you to do is to take your current work and have it automated in a frictionless way, in a way that doesn’t mean you have to modify your applications and your processes and your systems.

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But if you do go into process re-engineering, that has a very different outcome. It’s a very different cadence in terms of delivery value because you then need to redefine what your processes look like, how they should work and how effectively they should run. It takes much longer to get your outcome. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t redefine their processes, I’m saying they're not the same thing.

So my advice is counter to what might be considered perceived wisdom.

“Don’t perfect your process and then automate it: Automate your process, benefit quickly and then decide whether you want to perfect it or not.”

An automated process is more efficient than one that isn’t automated, even if it’s imperfect.

Terry Walby is chief executive at Thoughtonomy and a member of the Artificial Intelligence and Intelligent Automation Advisory Board.

Megan Wright bw
Posted: 12/15/2017