What’s the goal of automation? Ask a 19th century factory owner and the answer would likely have been “efficiency.” Through automation, individual workers could be made more productive. Ask a 20th century titan of industry, and the answer would likely have been “value.” Investments in automation equipment allowed for more tightly controlled quality, greater throughput and supply chain optimization.
Ask a business leader today, however, and you’re likely to get a new answer. As industrial automation gives way to intelligent automation, the goal switches from cost savings and process efficiency to business value and innovation.
Today, automation is about improving customer experiences, business excellence, service improvements, innovations, and strategic decisions. Bottom line savings are always welcome, but in this new world, the goal of automation is much more about digital transformation and top-line growth.
What is Intelligent Automation?
We already reap the benefits from intelligent automation in our everyday lives. The chatbots that we interact with online are powered by intelligent automation, as are the recommendation engines of entertainment and shopping websites. Nike used intelligent automation to develop a system that allows customers to create custom shoe designs through an augmented reality experience, and leave the store wearing their one-of-a-kind creations.
In simplest terms, intelligent automation means that the automation solution relies on cognitive technology, such as – but not always – artificial intelligence (AI), to arrive at decisions or recommendations. In their most sophisticated form, intelligent automation solutions can further evolve capabilities to proactively recognize problems and implement a solution, as each instance further refines the algorithm and increases the intelligence level of the solution.
There are numerous ways in which intelligent automation can reshape businesses internally. By applying intelligent automation to thoughtfully designed business processes, enterprises can transform those processes and increase their performance by orders of magnitude. For example, intelligent automation can elevate the customer experience both by managing predictable processes and tackling more complex decisions to dramatically accelerate systems and transactions.
Also see: DevOps, Low-Code and RPA: Pros and Cons
Intelligent Automation Innovators
For most companies, intelligent automation remains untapped. In addition to technology components, intelligent automation is an organizational capability. Gaining most value from it depends on growing the company’s knowledge, skills, and other foundations. Most companies only have nascent capabilities in this regard, while others have not yet even started on the journey.
However, a small minority of companies made investments early on and have devoted sufficient time and focus to mature their capabilities. The experimental forays of these pioneering companies show others the possibilities of the approach and also blaze a trail for them. This group knows that intelligent automation strategies must be “people first,” designed to leverage human strengths and supported by investments in skills, experience, organization, and culture.
We’ve outlined a ladder model, with five rungs that represent a progression from nascent to mature and intelligent automation. However, that is not to say that companies cannot leapfrog to higher rungs of capability if they so choose, so long as the data foundation is in place.
These five levels are largely distinguished by a managerial mindset. Engagement with automation projects often opens people’s eyes to additional opportunities to create meaningful business impact, which can accelerate change.
Also see: Top AI Software
Five Rungs of the Intelligent Automation Ladder
Often, the automation tools and technology are the easiest part. Companies use technology solutions to solve specific pain points and tasks, looking at how they are currently performed by individuals, and how they could be accomplished better. Although efficiencies are increased, this leaves automation in fragmented silos dedicated to business functions and teams that are working independently of each other. As a result, the value reaped from these efforts is limited. However, using tools is often where we see the early wins that show the promise of automation.
Companies at this level of automation maturity know that tasks exist within larger processes, and they start by re-examining the entire process, often eliminating unnecessary or redundant steps. Techniques like the Lean set of principles are often used to streamline the processes. The Lean process improvement methodology focuses on reducing time spent on non-value-adding activities and delivering products and services right the first time.
Robotic Process Automation (RPA)
On the third rung of the maturity ladder, companies begin to use RPA to automate repetitive, rules-based processes. They also establish the infrastructure and learning processes that allow one RPA projects to learn from each other and improve, as well as the capability to be developed at a level that can scale beyond an individual project. RPA quickly yields impressive benefits. It is not unusual to see cost reductions in the 50-80% range, as well as higher quality achieved through the avoidance of human error, and an 80-90% reduced time to perform tasks.
Businesses at the next major level of automation maturity have a strong focus on data and how to manage it as a crucial enterprise asset. This is the beginning of the intelligent automation phase and lays the foundation for AI-driven intelligent automation. Data-driven automation, powered by predictive analytics, can generate a steady stream of insights to infuse intelligence into technologies. This allows for faster, smarter decisions that accelerate innovation. But to get there, leaders need to reimagine their data supply chains and processes to ensure transparency, trust, and accessibility. If high quality data can be developed with all of these characteristics, the return on technology and AI investments can be maximized.
At the highest level of automation maturity, we see companies recognizing that they can and should implement intelligent automation at scale and across departments, teams, and processes. Having already realized the benefits of managing data as a corporate asset and automating information processing tasks, these companies are now adding artificial intelligence to their automation agenda, bringing in opportunities to reinvent individual processes, transform customer and employee experiences and drive revenue growth by augmenting the capabilities of human workers.
Also see: Top Business Intelligence Software
A New Era
Intelligent automation promises to usher in a new era in business, one where companies are more efficient and effective than ever before and able to meet the needs of customers, employees, and society in new and powerful ways.
Every business stands to benefit mightily from climbing the ladder to the fifth stage of operational maturity, and those that get there first will enjoy a considerable competitive advantage. Whatever your business, whatever your industry, now is the time to assess your intelligent automation maturity and put your future roadmap in place.
About the Authors:
Dr. Bhaskar Ghosh (@DrBhaskarGhosh) is the Chief Strategy Officer at Accenture.
Gayathri Pallail is an Associate Director for Automation Strategy and Deployment at Accenture.
Rajendra Prasad (@rp_automation) is the Global Automation Lead at Accenture.
They are co-authors of the book, The Automation Advantage.