Since the outset of the pandemic, organisations have been increasingly launching initiatives aimed at automating business processes, turning to technologies such as robotic process automation (RPA) in efforts to reduce costs, speed up tasks, and improve accuracy of core business operations.
Some leading organisations, however, are not stopping there. Seeking to push their automation agendas forward, they are embracing a move toward broader “intelligent automation” (IA), a strategy that weaves capabilities such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) into standard RPA to enhance its functionality.
In addition to RPA, AI, and ML, intelligent automation strategies can also incorporate a mix of technologies such as natural language processing, chatbots, and others that complement each other, says Lakshmanan Chidambaram, president of Americas strategic verticals at global IT consulting firm Tech Mahindra.
“These technologies together allow us to automate business processes to a larger extent, when compared to simple RPA automations,” Chidambaram says.
As RPA adoption matures, it appears likely that IA will also gain traction within enterprises seeking to improve automation outcomes. An August 2022 report from Gartner projects global RPA software spending to reach $2.9 billion this year, up 20 per cent from 2021. The worldwide RPA software market is expected to continue experiencing double-digit growth in 2023, according to the research firm.
Vendors are rapidly evolving their RPA offerings into broader automation platforms with embedded capabilities for hyper-automation — Gartner’s term for IA. As a starting point toward hyper-automation, organisations will increase their spending on RPA software because they still have many repetitive, manual work tasks. Automating these could free up employees’ time to focus on more strategic work, the firm says.
Here is a look at how leading organisations are bringing intelligence to their automation strategies — and advice for CIOs seeking to do the same.
Embracing intelligent automation
Technology services provider Insight Enterprises is one such company embracing IA, leveraging a variety of automation technologies to support its business processes.
“Our RPA team focuses on internal optimisation of highly manual back-office processes and a few client-facing reporting activities,” says Sumana Nallapati, CIO of Insight.
“The team’s two primary towers currently focus on operations and finance, with a goal to provide a thoughtful approach to tackling manual processes, reducing costs, increasing productivity, and smoothing out error-prone processes.”
The firm is using Automation Anywhere’s RPA platform, which combines the basic RPA functionality with the ML and analysis capabilities of automatic process discovery and process analytics, as well as cognitive technologies such as computer vision, natural language processing, and fuzzy logic.
The initial drivers for deploying RPA at Insight were to optimise operations and enhance critical back-office functions. “We sought to standardise the organisation’s critical processes while working to scale and increase productivity across our entire business,” Nallapati says.
Insight understood early on, however, that automation was vital for growth in many business areas, Nallapati says, so it focused on two primary use cases when launching its RPA initiative in 2018: deal registration and sales order entry.
Since RPA was new to the company, Insight began slowly in those two areas to work through the challenges of implementing an RPA strategy and infrastructure, Nallapati says.
“Once the teams could show success in standing up an environment and automating more minor activities, we looked to scale the focus of automation,” she says. “Now, we’re working to transform how we maximise intelligent automation’s tactical, strategic, and competitive advantage.”
Insight is expanding its use of automation and IA globally. “As part of our integrated technology roadmap, we have a focused stream on transforming our organisation into an ‘automation first’ culture,” Nallapati says. “The goal for this stream is to go from being focused solely on less valuable, individual automation to creating a centre for enablement of strategically focused intelligent automation.”
For an organisation to maximise the benefits of IA, the effort should be tied to a larger strategic initiative and be strongly linked to process transformation, Nallapati says.
“In the short term, our team is focused on a formal approach that identifies areas of our business that are heavy in manual, resource-intensive processes,” Nallapati says. “Ultimately, our vision is to run a self-service, scalable automation model that allows for teammate-driven development and maintenance of bots/automation.”
Growing the IA strategy
Cloud software provider Freshworks is also deploying IA, as part of a multi-year digital transformation effort, with a focus so far mainly in the human resources department.
For example, the company is using the AI capabilities of its own IT service management software (ITSM) combined with the RPA capabilities of Automation Anywhere’s platform to enhance the onboarding process and give new employees access to the tools they need on their first day of work.
With IA, the company has streamlined areas such as invoice handling, employee on-boarding and off-boarding, and customer order processing, says Prasad Ramakrishnan, CIO of Freshworks.
“This automation has allowed our IT team members to get time back by skipping mundane repetitive tasks, and focus on what they were hired to do,” Ramakrishnan says. “Using AI and RPA technology, all of our employees can find the information they need in a streamlined and efficient manner.”
The need to increase automation of business processes “increased drastically” when all of Freshworks’ employees began working remotely in 2020, Ramakrishnan says.
“When it came to onboarding, different stakeholders needed to come together to achieve a successful day-one experience for our new hires,” he says.
“With all stakeholders moving to a remote-first working model, [IA] enabled us to create role sets and streamline approval processes, thus reducing the long cycle times. Once the team started, there was no limit to our imagination on things we could identify and optimise using IA.”
Freshworks has set up task forces across the business to continuously identify new opportunities to implement IA. “We see an increased need to intelligently automate the various tasks that employees perform,” Ramakrisnan adds.
Kick-starting a smooth IA journey
Adopting and expanding intelligent automation can be challenging because it involves a number of components and impacts multiple processes. Experts suggest several practices to ensure a smooth move.
One is to understand that automation is a journey, not a destination. “It’s never ‘good enough’; there are always more opportunities to uncover and tackle,” Nallapati says.
A good way to find and exploit those opportunities is to create an “automation first” culture, Nallapati says. “Much of the automation journey is rooted in change management,” she says. “Working with leaders to understand what automation can do, walking teams through the change, and teaching stakeholders how to work with and manage a ‘digital worker’ is critical to the program’s success.”
Automation isn’t a one-and-done endeavour, Nallapati says. “Much like the traditional employee, digital workers need coaching, occasional support, and the best tools and processes to make their work easier and more productive,” she says.
Another good practice is to set bold goals then work iteratively in small, decisive steps toward the big goal, Nallapati says.
“Do not try to boil the ocean with automation; you must stay methodical and focused on the outcome you are trying to achieve,” she says. “Show value quickly. Break down a larger goal into smaller pieces that allow you to realise value more rapidly and tie it to a specific, measurable outcome and return on the investment.”
IT-business alignment and collaboration are key
Companies also need to optimise business processes to increase the effectiveness of automation, Nallapati says. “Working together in a partnership, the business unit and the automation teams can leverage their expertise to refine the best approach and way forward to optimise the efficiency of the bot/automation,” she says.
Technology leaders should make sure to get business leaders and users involved in the IA process, Ramakrishnan says. “Educate them about the possibilities and collaborate with them in joint problem-solving sessions,” he says.
One recent example at Freshworks was a joint effort between the automation team and the billing department. “With a large number of customers and a large number of invoices to process every day, any small savings through automation goes a long way in increasing productivity, accuracy, and improving employee and end customer satisfaction,” Ramakrishnan says.
Similar to the type of hackathons that are common in IT organisations today, Ramakrishnan says, “we partnered with the business to have a business-side hackathon / ideathon. We educated the key users from the billing team on the possibilities of automation, and then they were encouraged to come back with ideas on automation.”
IT and billing then jointly reviewed the suggestions for feasibility, prioritised them, and came up with an implementation plan, Ramakrishnan says. It’s also smart to avoid jumping into IA, and automation in general, without a good reason.
“Never build a solution looking for a problem,” Ramakrishnan says. “Be sure to identify the problem first, and confirm if there’s a way to solve it already before creating more havoc for employees with a new application to deploy, implement, and learn,” he says.