Enterprise automation takes time: Q&A with NIIT Technologies' Sasanka Panda

Megan Wright

The road to intelligent enterprise can be long and challenging—but it’s worth the effort for the long term gain

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Photo by Floriane Vita on Unsplash

From his early days in process excellence to his current role spearheading NIIT Technologies’ global strategy for business process services (BPS), Sasanka Panda has been on a mission to improve processes and increase efficiency in the workplace.

Despite the hype, Panda believes automation offers huge potential to those enterprises willing to see it through and work hard to implement change.

“Automation in enterprise is real and there is a long history that one can refer to, to see success,” he said. “Personally, I have seen time savings of 30, 40, even 50 per cent just by having a good BPM [business process management] platform.”

AI, on the other hand, still has a way to go before it’s applicable across all industries and verticals, he acknowledges. “Banking, telecoms and the airline industry are the areas I see as being ripe for AI uptake.”

This month, as we welcome Panda as a member of the Artificial Intelligence and Intelligent Automation Advisory Board, we say down with him to discuss the role of governance in automation, the enduring relevance of the Six Sigma methodology and how automation can be a long term game-changer…

AIIA Network (AIIA): You’ve spent your career building up your technology and automation expertise—you studied at one of the premier schools in India, worked in the US for 13 years as a process consultant for tier one firms in the finance and accounting sector, before returning to India in 2007 and moving into the automation space where you now hold a black belt in Six Sigma. What made you decide to pursue Six Sigma as a framework?

Sasanka Panda (SP): At the end of the day Six Sigma is a methodology that can be applied to manage or solve issues and challenges. I came to know about it back in the US working with consulting firms and, initially, there is so much focus on the numbers—breaking down the issue to the finer details. But lately I realized that it’s not really about that.

The numbers are going to give you some sort of insight about what is going on, but abstracting that and figuring out the root causes of the issues, that actually makes all the difference.

Read more: How to deliver large scale process automation

Let me give you an example: One of the projects I worked on back in the early 2000s was a cash application issue for a company that received a lot of checks and bank remittances where the invoice numbers were not properly cited. So they used to get all this money sitting on their balance sheet on the liabilities side because they could not allocate to a customer or to an account based on the invoices.

On the other hand, the invoice was getting aged and they were sending the reminders to the customer, sometimes omitting the services, getting a lot of pushback from the customers. So we ran the numbers and we found that there was a strong correlation between the type of customer and the invoice that was getting erased, so we implemented a technical solution around that.

In the process, what I learnt is that it is not just about getting that detail through the analysis, but abstracting that and putting a generic solution on top of that, that was going to solve 70 to 80 per cent of the issue.

That’s what I have been using the Six Sigma framework for, and even for decision making I now find myself using some of those concepts.

AIIA: How has your experience of automating companies from within has prepared you to help others on their automation journey?

SP: My first automation initiative, back in 2008, was to put together a BPM solution so the team didn’t have to move a lot of physical documents around. The idea was to streamline the process to the extent that a lot of back and forth that happens between the internal BPS operation and the client could be minimized.

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Automation is about much more than reducing headcount. Photo by Alex Kotliarskyi on Unsplash

In implementing that system, I learnt that there were so many internal inefficiencies that could be automated, but the challenge was that automating also meant reducing headcount. So there was a change management issue that we had to work through.

We had to take those into account when building automation programs for clients that would, in turn, increase efficiency and margin.

AIIA: Tell me about the relationship between governance and automation. 

SP: It’s absolutely critical. It is also critical that business folks are involved in the governance as well. The reason why the automation program is within the BPS unit for NIIT Technologies is that we bring the expertise of all the process re-engineering.

Although in some cases automation is driven by the CIOs, it typically has to be done as a top down approach from the operation executive team, like CEOs, or CPOs, or CROs, because it requires a strong push to ensure that the nuances that typically creep up are being managed effectively.

Read more: Why automation fails

That only can be done through a good governance framework, because the IT team can only automate a particular process to a certain extent, but it needs to be standardized.

So when it comes to a governance framework, it is very key to have someone at the operations executive or senior level as part of the governance team who understands the importance of the automation. He or she should not worry about making it perfect in the first run, but working through with semi-optimal solutions, or semi perfect solutions, and slowly working through the process. That is actually very important.

AIIA: Is there one piece of advice that you find yourself giving time and time again when you’re speaking to organizations that are thinking about automating but are not quite sure where to begin?

SP: Obviously there is a lot of hype around automation and RPA. To add to the hype, there are those firms promising that their program will get efficiency of 80 to 90 per cent, which can be potentially true, but it typically takes a long time to get there.

So the advice I find myself giving to the firms starting this particular journey is that it is not hype. It is reality, it happens. But you’ve got to have the patience. You’ve got to manage it very carefully. You have to put in the proper governance processes, and you have to manage the exceptions well.

Sasanka Panda is head of BPS at NIIT Technologies, and a member of the AIIA Advisory Board. 

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