"Automation" is a scary word for many IT workers -- who contemplate images of robots, software and the like stealing their jobs as it becomes the norm.
But according to speakers at the annual Automation Innovation conference in New York last month, the short-term goal for an IT automation strategy should be to empower knowledge workers -- not simply replace them.
"If you do the integration and infusion [of automation technology] correctly, you will expand [knowledge workers'] capabilities; you will not detract from them," said conference speaker R.G. Conlee, CIO of Conduent. "We are not out to just replace people."
More than 300 attendees packed the Bohemian National Hall in New York City for the conference to discuss IT automation strategy and potential roadmaps to make this strategy successful. Conference organizers noted that the goal was to help attendees "transition from traditional labor to RPA, intelligent automation and cognitive computing."
But to realize the great business potential of IT process automation and attain a positive return on investment, it's important to start with concrete goals such as improving price points or a particular process.
"It pays to focus on a specific purpose for automation rather than thinking of it as a broad platform with extended capabilities," said Bill Galusha, senior product marketing manager of software provider Kofax.
Automation innovation challenges
Conlee noted that many companies have experienced "digital disillusionment" when it comes to the latest technological fads. CIOs and other members of the C-suite, have gotten tired of chasing the latest shiny new technological toy, Conlee said, and are seeking definitive results from these investments.
"They are saying we want it to be practical, something we can use, and we want it to make a difference," Conlee said. "In other words, we want to improve the way work is done; we don't just want new ways of doing the work."
It's important to remember that moving to automation takes patience, Conlee added, because many IT and digital systems actually negatively impact productivity while they are being integrated with company processes. Implementation of automation is a big challenge, and a plan is required that takes speed to market and complexity into consideration, he added.
R.G. ConleeCIO, Conduent
"There is a training curve for digital systems that does not elicit better work in the short term; it takes time to get there," Conlee said.
An IT automation strategy can be a huge help when it comes to one common issue facing modern digitized companies, Galusha said: process and data complexity. Because these companies are responsible for many systems with numerous internal/external data sources, it is difficult to connect all that information to the company's processes.
A robotic process automation strategy can help with consolidating data for analytics purposes, Galusha said, and apply unique business rules to information contained in these numerous data sources.
"Your processes, and how you are making decisions, [is] only as good as the information," Galusha said. "If you are doing it manually, it's slow, it's inefficient, and you're probably making errors along the way."
Galusha was quick to point out that obstacles to the automation revolution remain. Robots still have difficulty with distinguishing visual content such as invoices, purchase orders and email correspondence, for example.
"We also have to understand the complexity, really understand the use cases and how more sophisticated learning technology can be applied," Galusha said.
IKEA's automated customer service
Speakers at the conference also noted that automation will bring cost savings in the long run, but it could also expand business opportunities and help provide better premium service to customers. One company that is seeing these types of benefits is IKEA, which uses process automation to improve customer experience and engagement.
Martijn Zuiderbaan, Solution Owner at IKEA Retail AB, noted that IKEA is responsible for its entire supply chain, so prior to its implementation of automation, there were several potential areas that could have benefitted from it. The company decided to start small, by implementing automation processes into its customer call centers, with the goal of making its online customer service more efficient, engaging and effective.
"I think most enterprise companies are working towards a perfect future where all their solutions can talk to each other and everything works together, communicates and shares data," Zuiderbaan said. "The reality is not really there."
IKEA receives 20 million customer inquiries per year via voicemail, chat, mail and social media, Zuiderbaan said. The company is using automation to keep up with this demand and help it engage with customers in a smarter way.
In short, Zuiderbaan said the automation solutions were used to meet IKEA's need to bridge gaps in the existing IT solutions to improve both customer and worker experience at the furniture giant.
"We tried to be more efficient, we tried to make our co-workers more engaged, and we tried to make work more effective," Zuiderbaan said of IKEA's automation efforts. "By combining these three, we tried to get a better customer experience."
More on IT automation strategy
Automation testing tips to avoid IT surprises
IT infrastructure automation: The tools to use
Mapping IT's role in automation knowledge work