2018 is the year for workplace automation -- it has become the number one agenda item for the C-Suite of the Global 2000 and is driving real transformation across the enterprise. McKinsey in their report Four fundamentals of workplace automation wrote that
"...as many as 45 percent of the activities individuals are paid to perform can be automated by adapting currently demonstrated technologies. In the United States, these activities represent about $2 trillion in annual wages."
C-Suite excitement about the potential for using these technologies to improve business outcomes (oh, and there is that cost savings...) has made this the fastest growing enterprise software segment ever (the report is here: ...53% of the Global 2000...). One category, Robotic Process Automation (RPA), now has three "unicorn" startups -- Automation Anywhere, Blue Prism, and most recently UIPath which announced a $153 million Series "B" investment.
But despite claims by these companies that automation is fast and easy to implement and deploy, customers seeking to benefit from this new technology are finding that they need a LOT of services from external consultants -- in fact one analyst reports that spending on external services makes up 75% of automation budgets (here is that report: Robotic Process Automation Market). One large global consulting firm I sat down with showed me their sales pipeline for automation projects and it totaled over $1 billion. And that doesn't include what companies are spending internally to support these initiatives so the total cost to implement automation is much higher.
While business processes should be owned by business people, the problem with automation technologies today is the heavy IT involvement required to design, develop, deploy, and operate automations. During the past few years I managed consulting teams implementing automation for companies around the world. The development and deployment in every case required a team of technologists supported by people who understood the business process being automated. Sure - many of the automation vendors claim to be able to "record" a process, limiting the need for software development. But in practice I never saw a process that had a single "happy path" allowing it to be automated with such a recorder. Software developers have to get involved once you start to define process variations, exceptions, human coordination in the process, or simply additional connections to ingest data or deliver output.
While the expenses incurred as a result of the programming skills required to implement automation are a significant hurdle, companies run an even bigger risk by reducing the flexibility of their business to adapt processes to changing requirements. Once a process has been "locked up" in a software program, making a change requires that the programmers come back again (and again...). This should be sounding off alarms in every C-Suite even more than the initial cost of automation. It's one thing to have your IT department manage the resting place for business critical data -- but do you want them to also control every aspect of how the business processes that create that data are conducted?
A regulatory change, a difference in how you do business in one region or division vs. another, or just a good idea about how to improve a process now becomes an IT "change request" and part of a backlog of other such requests leading to a terrifying rigidity in the business as more and more of our front and back office processes "benefit" from automation.
But there is a solution - one that we have been pursuing as business people since the first person carried a personal computer with Lotus 1-2-3 through the back door of their corporate office building: buy tools that let users develop and control their own automations.
Marc Benioff in 1999 created the "Software as a Service" industry with the insight that business users wanted to control their own sales information. Now that same concept of self service that Salesforce pioneered is coming to the automation category -- companies like mine (Catalytic.com) are putting the power back into the hands of the business people. I just spent an incredible two days in a workshop with one of our customers where business people had a "hackathon" building dozens of automations of their own business processes with tools as easy to use as Microsoft Excel and now they have the tools to go back to their jobs on Monday morning and continue to bring automation into their business processes.
Allowing the business process owner to design, build, and deploy automations has immense benefits over the technology-centric approach:
- Cost for implementing automation is reduced and automations are built and deployed more rapidly -- this significantly expands the number of use cases where automation can be used
- Companies can embrace an "iterative" approach to automation and easily manage multiple variations on processes to meet regional or divisional requirements
- Continuous process improvement can now be a part of a company's automation journey -- increasingly business process improvement or business process re-engineering teams can have automation tools that they use side by side with process analysis
- A SaaS based approach provides transparency across an enterprise for all of the automations being built, supporting larger digital transformation initiatives by showing where benefits can come from connecting processes upstream and downstream and also identifying best practices amongst a set of similar processes
Finally, empowering your business people with automation tools can help us to evolve how we think about automation -- it shouldn't be solely about cost reduction. Our companies will be more successful when we can embrace automation as a tool to augment and enhance human potential. Having business process owners building automations themselves will provide us with the opportunity to automate in a way that eliminates repetitive and mindless work while making the role of people in those processes more about what people do well -- human skills such as creativity, critical thinking, and social perceptiveness. The future of workplace automation should be about eliminating drudgery not people.