Saturday, December 02, 2017

Automate or be Obliterated!

In 1990 MIT computer science professor Michael Hammer started a revolution in management thinking with his HBR article "Reengineering Work: Don't Automate, Obliterate." The basic premise of his article, which put the business process re-engineering movement into high speed, was that organizations were wasting time and money putting technology into organizations to automate existing processes that created little or no value and that instead companies should first try to fix, improve, or even eliminate these processes.
Almost thirty years later most large enterprises continue to have some flavor of business process re-engineering as a part of their ongoing efforts to reduce costs, improve efficiency, increase customer satisfaction, and a myriad of related objectives. In particular the role of business process analysis and improvement has become a cornerstone of the outsourcing industry where it is critical to accurately map and often substantially improve processes before they can be relocated to remote teams.
In 2003 Dr. Hammer published "The Agenda: What Every Business Must Do To Dominate The Decade" and posthumously with co-author Lisa Hershman "Faster, Cheaper, Better." Both books continued to focus on the challenge that organizations face as a result of having inefficient processes that are mis-aligned to a company's objectives. Tragically Dr. Hammer passed away in 2008 at the age of 60 and thus did not live to see the advances in artificial intelligence and robotic process automation that have begun to sweep through the business landscape ten years later.
If Hammer were alive today, I wonder whether he would issue a new challenge in the spirit of his Agenda call --- "What Every Business Must Do To Dominate The Decade." If I can be so presumptuous to channel what he might have said, I would suggest that he would urgently tell companies:
  1. Artificial Intelligence and Automation have the potential to radically and quickly transform the way businesses are managed -- specifically by re-engineering all existing business processes and reducing costs, increasing speed, improving quality, and even changing the way companies deliver their products and services
  2. Most companies are woefully behind in improving business productivity against the speedy transformation of technology (a good analysis can be found in this reportfrom Deloitte University Press) and an urgent focus must be put on learning to manage a workforce and processes that combine people, bots, and AI
  3. The worst mistake businesses are making today on this journey is to adopt technology solutions that are so dependent upon technical experts (data scientists, artificial intelligence experts, IT professionals) that they become disconnected from the company's business objectives and the business leaders who can truly understand the connection of processes to those business objectives.
So the imperative statement, the answer to "what every business must do to dominate THIS decade," is clear to me: Automate or you will be obliterated -- but be sure to go on this journey to use AI and automation in your business with technology solutions that empower the business to transform itself.
Maintain maximum agility -- put the power of AI and automation into the hands of the people who understand your business objectives and beware solutions that lock your business processes into inflexible technologies that require a host of experts to develop, deploy manage and improve.
The next decade will be one of immense and rapid change and transformation. To succeed in this time of change requires that you deploy simultaneously capabilities to exponentially reduce costs while maintaining maximum adaptability. Don't get caught in the trap of cost reduction that locks you into only one way of doing business in a world where your markets, customer expectations, product or service capabilities, and business models may turn upside down overnight.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Automation Solution

I have joined the amazing team at Catalytic, Inc. as Chief Customer Officer. Forgive me the brief "advertorial" -- but I hope to have a chance to work with every one in my network as we scale this product and business...
After 10 years in consulting I am returning to what I have done for most of my career joining a small innovative team building an amazing new technology that I hope will make an enormous impact for our customers, their employees, and eventually the world.
As an AI native company, everything about how the Catalytic team approaches software is infused with making machine intelligence a part of how people will become more productive, more successful, and more satisfied at doing their jobs.
As a SaaS company we have found a way to deliver this technology quickly and inexpensively so that our customers can achieve an immediate cost savings. And our ease of use -- eliminating the software developer from automation -- addresses the typical barriers that companies face: lack of internal talent, lack of understanding, no time for IT to implement, not sure where to start...
Our Intelligent Automation platform is designed to make it easy to use AI in business processes -- both providing easy access to capabilities that we have built and a marketplace of capabilities that we are packaging from hundreds of other innovative companies. The web based process builder allows business people to select from these "actions" and automate tasks to improve operations quality, data accuracy, compliance, overcome bottlenecks, and generate actionable insights.
Why do I call this the "automation solution?"
In working with clients over the past few years I have seen four big challenges to enterprise adoption of AI and automation, despite the enormous potential benefits to quality, cycle time, cost, etc.
  1. The economics of RPA are uncertain, initial costs are high -- ROI promises are too far in the future, maintenance and management expense is uncertain, and business continuity planning can easily swamp benefit cases;
  2. Many AI initiatives are inherently experiments since much of this work is being done for the first time ever -- tools are complex and require experts in technology who may not be experts in the business making it difficult to define path to benefit;
  3. Supply of experienced staff for implementation is limited -- both for process analysis and especially for automation development -- making it difficult to staff and scale automation initiatives;
  4. The approach to design and implementation is typically "top down" -- taking existing business processes and focusing solely on the release of headcount to achieve cost savings which makes employees and even managers uneasy about the technology thus delaying or even derailing initiatives.
Catalytic delivers a much-needed solution to this set of problems -- fast to implement, less expensive to maintain, and focused on enhancing how people and AI work together. We have a lot of work to do to achieve all of the promise of our new platform, but we are already at work with some amazing large companies in manufacturing, insurance, banking, real estate, and retail.
Catalytic. Work done better.
Hope to hear from you about how we can work together!

Thursday, October 05, 2017

The Automation Dilemma

Over the next decade a steady stream of new companies and products will use AI and automation to change the way work gets done across the economy. One of the books that I found time to read this summer was The Economic Singularity by Calum Chace. Calum provides a terrific summary of the debate about the impact that AI will have on individuals and society as the pace of change increases.
I am definitely on one side of this debate -- I believe that we are going to have a very bumpy time ahead of us as one set of human activity is ceded to the machines. Even if we are simultaneously creating new jobs as the old jobs are eliminated, I believe we will have a "lost generation" of workers who will find it difficult to develop the skills required for those new jobs.
So on the one hand automation will improve our lives -- cost reduction, quality improvement, etc -- but on the other hand automation has the potential to disrupt our lives by making it impossible for some members of our society to produce goods or provide services in a way the economy values. The Automation Dilemma.
I believe that those of us involved in the creation or deployment of these new AI and automation tools have a moral responsibility to go beyond the simple objective of "cost reduction" and do things with these technologies that make people's lives better. While reducing costs is not going away as an objective, we should be simultaneously asking how these technologies help us create growth -- both for our companies and for our employees.
Corporate automation initiatives today are typically very top down -- process re-engineering teams and software development teams work together to automate work, largely keeping the process the same but focused on removing people from any tasks that are repetitive, proscribed, and time consuming.
But what if we could approach automation bottoms up? Give automation tools to the employees themselves and ask them to automate the tasks which they know are repetitive, but also identify opportunities to change the way the work gets done by substituting the eliminated time for activities that can create more value for the business. Could companies become better faster if we trusted employees to own the task of improving?
We must find ways to use AI and automation to enhance human potential, increase the time we spend doing things that are uniquely human and find those places where a person plus a machine is greater than either one alone. We humans are curious, creative, problem solvers, relationship builders, empathetic and compassionate. These are qualities we want in ourselves and our society -- let's get our machines to help us be better at using these positive qualities to improve all of our lives.