Is the Time Ripe for Automation?

Stephen DeAngelis

November 17, 2021

Most people think of fruit when they hear the term “ripe.” So what does it mean when the term is used in a business setting? Vocabulary.com notes, “Ripe means ready. Ripe can also describe something that is not only ready to happen but well-suited for whatever is happening.” Many business consultants believe the time is ripe for businesses to automate whatever can be automated. Their reasons for believing this are myriad; however, most of them point to the maturation of cognitive technologies (aka artificial intelligence) and robotics in its many forms. The convergence of these technologies, at a time when businesses are finding it difficult to fill jobs, has only added to the “ripeness” of the situation.

 

Automation has historically been associated with manufacturing. Today, automation, in some form, is available to a wide variety of enterprises. John Zimmerer (@johnzimmerer), senior director of marketing at Topdown, writes, “Let’s start with the following proposition: A successful digital workplace is able to achieve and consistently maintain: Optimal operational efficiency; exceptional customer experience; [and] enjoyable employee experience. Being operationally efficient means an organization is able to produce very high output using the fewest possible resources.”[1] You don’t have to specify a particular industry in order to appreciate the outcomes identified by Zimmerer. He adds, “Organizations of all sizes are looking at technologies that can replace or enhance human resources. A host of automation technologies is driving a fundamental redefinition of ‘workplace’ and even ‘workforce’.”

 

Getting Started with Automation

 

The editorial staff at Computing magazine notes, “Although businesses are increasingly adopting automation, there are hurdles they must overcome before they can claim to have fully enabled the technology.”[2] They note that the first barrier to successful automation is complexity. “Complexity [is] an element that is not only driving automation adoption, but ironically also one of the key factors frustrating it.” For any business to be successful, it must simultaneously address issues associated with people, processes, and technology. The Computing staff notes, “The single biggest automation blocker is a lack of skills and the right people to actually push automation through. … After the skills shortage, the two most commonly-cited barriers to automation adoption [are] both related to applications and the movement of data between them. … The solution is to focus on data, not applications, by introducing data management capabilities alongside integrations.”

 

The most widely applicable automation tool available to businesses is robotic process automation (RPA). RPA uses software “bots” to perform routine, tedious tasks that many workers find monotonous. RPA seems to be having a moment; however, before automating any process, you need to ensure the process is ready to be automated. Alison DeNisco Rayome (@AlisonDeNisco), managing editor at C|NET, suggests, “When researching RPA, companies should look to tasks that [require digital inputs, that use structured data, and follow clear logical rules]. One way to identify these suitable tasks is to deconstruct your back-office process.”[3] Bill Gates (@BillGates) once noted, “The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.” That’s why making sure your processes are ready for automation is essential. Aoife Connaughton (@AoifeCptPlanet), a senior manager in consulting at Deloitte, suggests organizations take the following three steps when implementing RPA.[4]

 

Step 1. Have a vision. Connaughton states, “[Make] sure that there’s a strategic vision in place for automation and that the C-suite are really behind that.” Rayome agrees. She writes, “Companies must build a roadmap to deliver the full value of RPA as they introduce and scale the technology. This will help to navigate areas that have proven challenging for others, including selecting the right tool for the specific use case, building realistic expectations in the organization for expected returns, and creating change management processes.”

 

Step 2. Gain buy-in. According to Connaughton, “The second point is making sure that the IT team are on board — we know where IT aren’t fully supportive, it can tend to be a real blocker for automation.” You also need to get buy-in from employees who will be using RPA solutions. You might tell them resistance is futile, but, without buy-in, they will resist the change anyway.

 

Step 3. Make sure there’s a business case. Connaughton cautions, “Make sure that there’s a business case that doesn’t just look at the financial benefits but looks at the full range of benefits that automation can offer.” Other benefits include improved employee morale and reduced processing errors.

 

With so many new “digital native” enterprises dotting the business landscape, Jakob Freund (@jakobfreund), CEO of software firm Camunda, asks, “How do so-called ‘legacy’ companies keep up?”[5] Visionary legacy companies see the benefits automation and are investing in technologies that will make them competitive in this new landscape. A couple of years ago, a KPMG survey of almost 600 international business leaders found, “Nearly one-third of enterprises are investing upwards of $50 million in intelligent automation (IA) solutions, which includes artificial intelligence, machine learning, cognitive computing and robotic process automation.”[6] In business, playing catch-up is often a losing strategy; however, legacy companies have no choice. According to Freund, “The recipe for disruption lies in automation — and getting started may not be as daunting as it seems.” He adds, “In reality, legacy companies can take advantage of core business process automation and optimization to compete with these emerging categories. The key is starting small, and scaling up to eventually automate any process. Even seemingly minor automations can make a big difference in the customer experience.”

 

A McKinsey & Company survey of businesses that have successfully automated business practices found they have three things in common. Those commonalities are: First, automation is a strategic priority; second, the focus is as much on people as it is on technology; and, finally, process models are capable of scaling. They note, “As automation programs expand and grow more complex, silos within the organization can hinder performance if business areas do not coordinate closely with one another. The findings suggest that successful companies’ operating models — their structures for coordinating activities across the organization — allow their automation programs to properly manage the complexity of deploying automation technologies, which makes it easier for those programs to scale. … Successful companies are more likely than others to say that coordination across business units or functions is one of the elements that will have the greatest influence on automation efforts’ outcomes in the coming years.”[7]

 

Concluding Thoughts

 

When Freund writes about “scaling up to eventually automate any process,” he is making the case for what Gartner calls “hyperautomation.” Hyperautomation has been defined as automating everything that can be automated. Jason Bloomberg (@TheEbizWizard), founder and president of Intellyx, writes, “The question still remains whether hyperautomation is a useful term for describing the next generation of automation technologies — or whether it’s little more than analyst hype.”[8] In his opinion, the prefix “hyper” does little to help organizations lay out an automation strategy. He concludes, “Whether we add the ‘hyper’ prefix or not, two facts are certain: Automation is here to stay, and the technologies that support it are rapidly maturing. The analysts may be confused over what to call the various automation markets, but don’t let that confusion stop you from leveraging the appropriate technologies to address your business transformation goals.” If you haven’t started your automation journey, the time is ripe for you to explore whether your organization can benefit from automation before it’s too late.

 

Footnotes
[1] John Zimmerer, “Automating the Digital Workplace,” CMS Wire, 24 July 2018.
[2] Staff, “Complexity is the first barrier to automation adoption,” Computing, 6 February 2019.
[3] Alison DeNisco Rayome, “How to implement robotic process automation: 3 tips,” TechRepublic, 27 March 2018.
[4] Elaine Burke, “The robots are waiting: What’s holding businesses back from automation?” Silicon Republic, 26 March 2019.
[5] Jakob Freund, “How Automation Provides The Recipe For Disruption,” Forbes, 31 August 2021.
[6] Samantha Schwartz, “Intelligent automation taking over industries with walk, don’t run approach,” CIO Dive, 29 March 2019.
[7] Gary Herzberg, Rohit Panikkar, and Rob Whiteman, “The imperatives for automation success,” McKinsey & Company, 25 August 2020.
[8] Jason Bloomberg, “Is ‘hyperautomation’ just hype? Maybe, but automation is here to stay,” siliconANGLE, 4 February 2021.