The intelligent automation journey: a few thoughts...

Today’s need for automation is real and is not going away.

It is undeniable that the intelligent automation market is going through a rapid development and workers are somehow more inclined to coexist with virtual agents, aka bots.

From automation that just “execute” (data centre automation to robotic process automation) to automation that “think” and “learn” (autonomics, cognitive computing and ultimately the holy grail of true artificial intelligence), the intelligent process automation market is growing at fast pace and in an orchestrated manner.

intelligent automation journey

The constant quest for more intelligent automation will be a promising and rewarding journey but without any doubt a challenging one…

  1. Given that intelligent automation is the next wave of innovation for large multinational organisations, there will be an race between business areas to be the "first one" to evaluate and pilot these new technologies. Without a macro view of on-going departmental initiatives, organisations will run the risk of internal cannibalisation and the consequences of that situation could be quite damaging. Just imagine senior management receiving multiple contradictory messages...What do you think will be the ultimate perception and appetite to put intelligent automation on the agenda of strategic initiatives? It is quite crucial to ensure that all initiatives are aligned and the net aggregated outcome is presented in a unified way.
  2. Getting the right intelligent automation strategy enabled by a balanced mix of technologies, supported by a well-defined service delivery framework and last but least governed by an effective operating model will require proper thinking and planning ! Will intelligent automation be deployed to serve specific tactical requirements of each business area or will it be used to holistically and gradually transform the workforce environment across the organisation? Should organisations put intelligent automation at the centre of their overall digitisation strategy, acting as a key enabler for front-office and back-office transformation?
  3. Building commitment from senior leadership towards large scale adoption of intelligent automation will require patience and perseverance. Let’s be realistic here, there is still a long way before knowledge-based virtual workers can accurately start to gather unstructured data without pattern, process rules based on dynamic languages and ultimately make complex judgements. There is no doubt that in order to be successful and widely adopted, the intelligent automation journey should be considered as a strategic initiative. But how to convince when a clear benefit realisation plan is difficult to determine because too many variables are involved (and unknown)?
  4. Overcoming cultural resistance to automation and managing the change will require planning, discipline, and effective communication. Don’t underestimate the business technophobia and operational fatigue that has been built up during the long and tedious IT and Business transformation years. RPA champions, process SMEs, business analysts will need to be trained to gather automation request from respective areas and learn how to translate functional requirement into an initial "readable" language for product owners and developers. Some form of IT literacy and skills will be required in order to assimilate and embed intelligent automation.
  5. Initial strategies for scale will face execution obstacles that can potentially slow down mass adoption. From a business perspective, deployment of intelligent automation at process levels will not consistently realise expected benefits. A wide range of processes and activities are and will continue to be highly unstructured and therefore resistant to automation. From an IT perspective, will IT functions feel that intelligent automation is another burdensome project that will stretch resources and create additional maintenance and support activities? Dependencies with other ongoing IT and business transformation programmes or termination date of existing BPO contracts will also create an initial bottleneck that can block the rapid development of advanced intelligent automation.
  6. It is not a surprise that compliance oversight functions and independent assurance providers will spend non negligible time and effort during initial years to perform a wide range of “baseline” assurance activities in order to ensure that intelligent automation environment (people, process and technology) is reliable. What about robots running critical financial activities or accessing and processing sensitive HR information? What about the auditability of a deep learning algorithms for example that are used to learn and take decisions? How auditors will be able to evaluate the effectiveness of these algorithms knowing that machine learning systems have a low interpretability? A lot of scrutiny will be applied and let's be honest here, this situation will inevitably end up costing money to all organisations.
  7. In addition to key drivers such as increased productivity, reallocation of resources to more value-added activities or better customer service, cost reduction will remain the primary driver for investing in intelligent automation. There is no doubt that reducing operational costs will be a quick and easy win. But will it be as simple for organisations to deploy advanced intelligent automation (adoption of cognitive technologies that extend RPA's reach for example) in order to ultimately create business value and boost agility? This will probably be the million dollar question!
  8. There will be non-negligible security concerns regarding the risk of the entire intelligent automation environment being vulnerable to data manipulation. Now that intelligent automation is actually increasing the level of digitisation and networking, how to ensure that the intelligent automation environment is reliable, secured and cannot be tampered by intentional fraudulent activities (accessing the control room to re-calibrate processing logic and sequences, altering master data or logs, etc.)?
  9. In order to reach a stable “automation” state, systematic reliance challenges will create business fatigue and bring initial cost up. Lack of process rationalisation and data harmonisation will continue to be the automation bottleneck. Like any machine, 100% reliability can’t be reached. This simply means that exception handling and recalibration of bots will require on-going human intervention. Total cost of ownership related to the deployment, maintenance, upgrades and monitoring of the entire virtual workforce must not be underestimated.
  10. In many cases, end-to-to process automation will require process adaptation in order to transform data into a readable processing format. Even if the change is minimal, the transition to automation will require procedural changes to process data (i.e change to existing templates, standardisation of communication content, etc.) or just human intervention to manually transform the data. The key question here is how much will it actually cost (from a change management or FTE allocation) to adapt processes in order to enable automation? A case-by-case cost/ benefit analysis should be performed to assess the adaptation costs.
  11. There is no doubt that established service providers have built extensive intelligent automation capabilities. A survey from HfS Research has revealed that almost half of organisations want to roll out intelligent automation with their existing service providers. However, serious challengers are starting to methodically transform existing practices by developing sector based intelligent automation capabilities and building strong alliances with technology vendors. There will be a lot of alliances or let’s better say “coopetition”.
  12. Significant investment from service providers for winning contracts and executing intelligent automation strategies will be the norm. Organisations will negotiate fees very hard ! Money will be spent on preparing business cases, running proof of concepts, determining how to scale up the pilot and sorting out how to deliver expected benefits in large and complex organisations (expectations will be very high). Offering large discounts, putting fees at risk and defining value-driven revenue models will be common practices for most service providers. One thing is sure is that intelligent automation software vendors will be the big winners.

If you want to read more about intelligent automation, please check Ralph's other posts:

Robotic process automation applied to internal control: food for thought.

This article was originally posted on the LinkedIn Pulse. The intelligent automation journey: a few thoughts..., Accessed 18 Aug. 2017