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Process Automation and the Elimination of “Swivel Chair” Work

November 15, 2016


“Robotic process automation software is having a moment,” writes Linda Tucci (@LTucci), “despite there being a good deal of confusion about what the term refers to.”[1] Tucci offers this definition of robotic process automation (RPA): “Robotic process automation … refers to software that can help automate mainly back office work that is rules-driven, repetitive and involves overlapping systems: think tasks that search, gather, collate and update data.” Allan Surtees, head of IT at Gazprom Energy, told Tucci, “It’s what they call ‘swivel chair’ work — clicking on multiple systems, getting data from one source and putting it into another, where people are actually stuck four or five hours a day just doing this boring, manual nonsense.” Boring jobs lead to tedium which leads to errors which results in undesirable consequences. Eliminating swivel chair work is good for the employee and the company.


Beyond Robotic Process Automation


You might be wondering what Tucci means when she asserts RPA is “having a moment”? I believe two things are at play. First, RPA implementation is on the rise. Whenever a new technology receives a lot of attention, it is having a moment. But “moments” don’t last. RPA’s “moment” may be brief because many analysts see it as a stepping stone to something else. In recent talks with clients, I’ve found they want to go beyond RPA to what I call Cognitive Process Automation™ (CPA). Cognitive Process Automation goes beyond the accomplishment of routine tasks. CPA has the potential to not just automate, but to improve processes by dynamically processing and executing subtle decisions as if they were made by the best human expert. Tucci admits, “[RPA is] different from cognitive robotic process automation.” According to her colleague Sue Troy (@SueTroy), “Over the next 10 years, the work of 110 million to 140 million knowledge workers around the globe may be handled by cognitive robotic process automation systems.”[2]


Cliff Justice (@CliffJustice), a partner at KPMG, told Troy, “This shift to robotic process automation — which digitizes labor through the use of advanced machine intelligence, engagement, analytics, big data, social media, mobile technologies and cloud computing — will change the knowledge worker labor market as we know it.” Troy reports some analysts believe CPA will ultimately expand the job market, but, in its early stages, will disenfranchise many workers.” Many of those workers will be employed by companies performing outsourced tasks that can be handled in-house by RPA or CPA. She explains, “A portion of the displaced workforce will be freed up from doing repetitive clerical and administrative tasks to focus on innovating and generating revenue, but others will be automated out of a job.”


Justice explained to Troy there are three classes of process automation technology. “The first class is basic process automation, which includes sophisticated macros, screen scraping and business workflow technologies that sit at the OSI presentation layer and are not integrated into the IT system. Class 2 — enhanced process automation — are technologies that use natural language processing and can, for instance, understand unstructured data and apply that understanding to the process automation. The third and most transformative class is autonomic/cognitive platforms. The Class 3, cognitive platforms ‘have the ability to parse context and understand meaning. … As that technology merges with robotic task automation, you have a whole different class of digital labor. You have technology that can understand your customers [and] run queries against rules engines. [If the response] falls within parameters, [the technology] can inform the robot to carry out a transaction and actually do things that in the past required decisions.” In addition, the decisions CPA systems make (or the transactions they perform) will improve over time since they are powered by cognitive computing technologies that leverage machine learning.


Benefits of Process Automation


Ralph Aboujaoude Diaz, a Senior Manager at EY UK, reports the CPA market is set to grow rapidly. He writes, “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. This market is now projected to exceed $US40 billion by the year 2020 (per IDC’s ICT Market Outlook).”[3] Growth predictions like that underscore the fact that analysts see tremendous benefits (i.e., good ROI) from implementing process automation technologies.


According analysts from International Data Group (IDG), “The opportunity of digital labor, or the automation of labor and tasks by leveraging digital technologies, appears boundless. … The reason? A historic coupling of the availability of powerful but cheap processing power on demand, combined with advances in artificial intelligence, natural language processing, and exponential growth of data. Substituting for or augmenting human labor with digital labor kicks the door wide open for businesses to reduce costs, boost quality and ramp up speed across all industry sectors.”[4] They offer three good reasons companies should consider implementing process automation. They are:

1. Quality. Digital labor offers significant improvements in reliability and consistency — software robots eliminate human error, perform as commanded and perform their tasks the same way every time. The more you can automate and put in place self-service capabilities, the faster and more consistent response you can get with people when need help or have a problem.

2. Efficiency. Estimates have found that software robots cost about one-third of an offshore full-time employee and as little as one-fifth of an onshore employee. This can be highly beneficial to organizations that employ large numbers of back-office people performing repetitive manual processes. In addition, digital labor allows for a lower capital intensity — Bots don’t require cubicles, desks, restrooms, break rooms, PCs, or telephones, significantly reducing the facilities footprint and related costs.

3. Customer and employee satisfaction. Digital labor frees up staff from mundane, repetitive tasks to do more strategic work that’s not impacted by geographical location, resulting in higher job satisfaction and morale.

Saugata Ghosh, a senior manager of digital services at Capgemini, offers a fourth reason companies should consider implementing process automation — data overload. He explains, “The amount of data that’s available now in places like social media and enterprises means it is becoming for efficient for machines to make decisions rather than humans, taking the human bias out of it and making decisions objectively.”[5] He continues, “If you look at the spectrum of robotic automation, at one end you have simple rules-based automation where the economics of those are such that they are quite easy to implement and have strong returns on investment. At the other end, towards the cognitive and artificial intelligence side, you’re also seeing accelerated maturity, with things such as driverless vehicles making it possible to automate tasks that we wouldn’t have previously thought of automating a few years ago.”




When it comes to process automation, Ghosh notes, “Initially, everybody was after headcount reduction. Most people are telling us now that their focus is on reducing errors, improving compliance, or improving the customer experience. We’re certainly seeing maturity in this area and the focus has shifted from the tactical to more strategic and sustainable objectives.” In other words, business executives are now able make a good business case for implementing process automation technologies. IDG analysts conclude, “In a world of digital transformation, the stakes are higher than ever. … Early adopters are generating tangible ROIs from their efforts.” As businesses deal with increased amounts of data needing to be managed, the case for implementing process automation solutions (and eliminating swivel chair work) will only grow stronger.


[1] Linda Tucci, “Robotic process automation software: Find the right target,” TechTarget, 31 July 2016.
[2] Sue Troy, “Cognitive robotic process automation poised to disrupt knowledge worker market,” TechTarget, 25 June 2015.
[3] Ralph Aboujaoude Diaz, “The self-fulfilling prophecy of intelligent automation,” Image & Data Manager, 23 September 2016.
[4] IDG Contributing Editor, “Is Digital Labor Working for You?CIO, 30 September 2016.
[5] Peter Gutierrez, “Making AI and robotics work for your business,” IoT Hub, 12 October 2016.

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