Chris Weston (Principal, European Client Advisory)
Marc Dowd (Principal, European Client Advisory)

What follows is a summary of the meeting of the IDC Digital Leadership Community (DLC) held on the 29th of April 2021. The Digital Leadership of over 30 organisations from across Europe discussed the concept of Intelligent Automation and the importance of this to their organisations. Do have a read and maybe join us for future discussions.

How should we approach “Intelligent Automation”?

In this session the IDC’s Neil Ward-Dutton set out his views as to how organisations should proceed when investing in automation technology. Neil is Vice President for both the European Artificial Intelligence Strategies Practice and the European Intelligent Process Automation Systems Practice at IDC and is one of Europe’s leading voices in this technology area.

According to Neil, there’s a clear understanding that the game for companies has changed; this is due to a variety of reasons. In the past few years, the pandemic has shifted everything to remote activity but, in reality, the process of change was already underway. Companies were already talking of digital transformation and the upheavals driven by Covid merely accelerated this activity. However, there are now several new dimensions, and organisations are really struggling to make sense of it all.

We’re not bringing those ideas into digital transformation. What we are seeing is a lot of technology that’s not been well integrated. Most organisations are on a journey to move from the purely manual towards automation but it hasn’t been smooth,” said Ward-Dutton.

There does seem to be a need to go beyond simple task and workflow automation and look at other ways to improve performance. As Neil points out, 34 percent of organisations cite customer service transformation as their main priority but many of them had been blindsided by the effects of the pandemic.

And while many companies are turning to automation in an attempt to streamline business processes, 56 percent said that it was a real challenge to incorporate automated systems with human intelligence.

From the data that was shared it is clear that we are beginning to see companies combine this degree of automation by bringing in real-time analytics. Increasingly by using the data from internal processes, companies are starting to combine intelligence automation and execution.

Diving into RPA

One of the technologies that has emerged or matured recently is RPA(robotic process automation) and much of Neil Ward-Dutton’s presentation to the group was on how companies are taking their first steps towards implementing it. It is certainly seen as a methodology for the future that is being used now.

But, as one participant warned, it certainly should not be seen as a panacea, pointing out that “some organisations have gone crazy with RPA and used it when it should not have been used”.

There was universal agreement, however, that the path forward was for more automation: the question was, how would this be done.

Amongst those present there were varying points of view – one CIO wondered if the rapid spread of RPA was not likely to double down on existing technical debt, merely hiding it away under a layer of efficiency but still needing to be resolved. This he suggested was like all failure to invest appropriately becoming more “toxic” with each passing year.

Another of the participants pointed out that that there are benefits to this process in terms of reducing existing technical debt as well. In the search for ways to introduce intelligence into the process, for example, by training ML models, we have to re-examine the data we work on since we are trying to teach bots how to do it.

There’s a human equivalence here, he continued: “It is bit like the idea that in order to teach something you have to be able to explain it – and in explaining it you see the shortfalls and errors”.

Issues to avoid

One participant pointed out that there is a temptation for organisations to go for the low hanging fruit when it comes to automation. It is a strategy that can be useful for short term wins and a quick boost to the bottom line but may not be the best approach for true transformation.

There was certainly an acceptance that automation is going to be the way forward but there are still a lot of issues to be addressed. For many people, the way that human interaction is handled is going to be crucial; for some, there is going to be a cost element, there will be businesses who want to add value at the lowest price but there was discussion as to whether that’s the best approach.

As a participating CIO from the manufacturing sector pointed out, sometimes the funding is not available for root-and-branch renewal of platforms and RPA is a useful sticking-plaster that gets the business to the stage where longer-term solutions can be deployed.

A framework for the future

Automation is certainly going to herald a substantial change in the way that business processes are handled. As one participant put it: “there will be many organisations that will approach its implementation through trial and error, with experimentation, rather than carefully laid plans”. There’s going to be no easy answer to how it will be done – the only thing that we can be certain of is that change is going to happen.

To help on that path Neil proposed to the group a framework that could map the different AI and automation tools onto the appropriate parts of an organisation. This offers a guide to where certain categories of tools are successfully used today and could form the basis of a living document of use cases enabled by automation in an organisation for as we all know innovation often but not always works by adjacencies.

The tool along with the mind map of the meeting and other elements that were used to facilitate the meeting are available on the virtual board for all members to come back to at their leisure or when the need arises.

The IDC Digital Leadership Community holds meetings of peers every two weeks. Many participants come regularly because they see it, as one Digital Leader put it, as “a chance to hear how others are solving issues without being put on the spot of having to know all the answers”. 

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