Automation and 2 Key Technologies for Digital Operations success

Digital Business requires Automation, Platforms and workforce orchestration technologies to operate successfully in the digital age and manage a remote workforce
diego navia digital operations

By Diego A. Navia

In the early 2000’s Larry Bossidy, a GE alum and CEO of Honeywell – Fortune #83 at the time, along with Ram Charan, released a #1 NY Times best seller called “Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done”. Coming off the dot com bubble, the message reminded us it is important to stick to the basics and deliver results. For decades, getting things done meant hiring the right people, establishing the right culture, defining and following processes, etc.

Execution meant aligning strategy, people and operations. Given the limited use of technology, disconnects with Strategy were common and “caught” via periodic executive, financial, budgetary or operational reviews. In practice, Technology was assumed to be part of Operations, supporting people and processes. Fast forward today and much of that “support mentality” legacy remains.

Execution today can leverage technology not as a support, data repository but as an integrated architecture that 1) provides integrated information, 2) executes tasks and 3) orchestrates work execution across functions, employees and stakeholders.

Workforce orchestration automation platform
Automation Industrial

Work and Process Automation

My father in law, now in his 80’s, founded an company over 50 years ago focused on crude oil and fluid control industrial automation using SCADA and other proprietary industrial capabilities from Rockwell Automation, ABB, etc; today he builds control boards and automated fluid control software leveraging open source software and hardware.

All this to say automation has been in place for a long time but the search for efficiency and cost effectiveness through technology has now extended from industrial plants and engineers to service operations, processes and white-collar jobs.

Automation is not new but has gotten easier, just not as easy and detached from science as sales pitches will make you believe

Robotic Process Automation

RPA irrupted over the last five years. It has built an entire software category by bringing along many variations and associated acronyms. Intelligent Process Automation (IPA) for example, defies initial market perception of RPA being a “dumb” prescriptive, task-oriented tool, by combining it with Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML). 

As any other successful product, RPA addressed the right need at the right time.  Coming off exceedingly complex, lengthy and expensive IT projects, many of them associated with ERP – but not exclusively, IT departments and users needed cheaper and faster solutions such as Low code/no code.  

Automation RPA

Yet, what made RPA so attractive also made it a bit of a nightmare when going from one pilot to 10, 50 or 1,000 applications/ robots, running mission-critical day-to-day operations.In essence, at scale, organizations had to solve similar problems (e.g. sequencing, data structures, security, architecture) that made other solutions (i.e. ERP, Cloud EAS) slow and costly. In fact, IEEE published a first set of IPA standards just days ago (July 2019) that reinforces the underlying complexity of this apparently simple solution, spanning six feature areas: Architecture, Configuration-Build-Test, Orchestration, Management, Execution and Intelligence. 

We can define Automation as fit-por-purpose software code that reads input data, performs tasks and generates an output; in doing so it reduces or eliminates human intervention

Under-the-covers complexity at scale has led to disenchantment and substantial slow-down in what remains a formidable RPA market. This is a good thing because it helps buyers come to terms with the inherent complexity of solutions in this area and acknowledge there are more tradeoffs than shortcuts. While watching unassisted manipulation of UI or documents might seem “robotic” and make jaws drop, the underlying operations on data is what counts from a business perspective. RPA is valuable but just one of many options, including ERP, Cloud EAS, Open source code, decades old legacy programs, marketplace apps, OCR, etc

Automation digital maturity innovation

I have first-hand experience. After years experiencing the benefits and shortcomings of top-down operational improvement consulting, around 2014, I championed a Global Productivity & Innovation program. The premise was simple: “Eight thousand people performing work around the world are best positioned to automate and improve task productivity, but need technical support, access and recognition”. 

It worked, …. to an extent. Staff were genuinely excited and started seeing their job as much more than repetitive processing work, they were building the future! We matched technical and business in teams that submitted open source, Adobe, C# solutions, etc. Of course, opening discussion or extending adoption from one part of the world to another hit all kinds of political and ownership issues. But none as big as the mix of risk aversion combined with a desire to run -and own- tools centrally, end-to-end, top-down, using the “latest and greatest”: RPA, AI and BPM, circa 2015.

At a time when the human-machine relationship underlying The Future Of Work gathers headlines, we need to get past a focus on human-machine interaction and rather explore value-added machine-machine exchanges and algorithms.

The challenge is not just automating a task but orchestrating all pieces together, so they add value as a whole, ensuring compliance and securing information.  This may also explain why the hottest area and the one most likely to survive is the ERP/EAS -RPA combination (e.g. SAP RPA, Oracle RPA, AutomationAnywhere – Workday alliance)

Enterprise Software Platforms

automation orchestration digital

Enterprise Software Platforms

Automation of specific tasks or processes is a must today, yet flexibility and interoperability are key to a sustainable modern business. Being able to work and communicate with each other electronically is key for a company to deliver value and adjust dynamically, across both internal and external stakeholders. In that sense, Traditional ERP’s inherent inflexibility due to both architecture and commercial considerations has been both a blessing and a curse.

SAAS and PAAS

Salesforce, the cloud application company, not only pioneered Cloud-based enterprise software delivery (SAAS) for Sales, Service and Marketing in the early 2000’s but opened up its platform to third parties introducing an AppExchange marketplace in 2006

While much discussion is devoted to technical platforms (PAAS) – that only computer scientists may comprehend, as well as to consumer-oriented platforms driving new business models (e.g. Uber, Airbnb), less mainstream attention is devoted to Enterprise Platforms like what Salesforce pioneered. These are a combination of multiple technical layers and components, including PAAS, common data structures, process architecture, standards, communication protocols, API’s, and a complex set of hardware and middleware layers, that establish a common foundation for running company operations. This foundation is what allows individual pieces of software to perform tasks automatically and seamlessly communicate with other pieces of software, including those used by individuals; all delivered via cloud-based Software-as-a-service (SAAS).

The pursuit of agility and interoperable scale has made Enterprise platforms front and center, following the Salesforce model

Cloud Enterprise Application Services (EAS)

The fact mainstream attention is not as strong does not extend to key players in this space. In fact, this trend has been building up for a while, including a multi-year big push for Cloud Enterprise Application Services (EAS) by Oracle and SAP as well as new players such as Workday. They have also been retooling their platforms, including acquisitions with varying degrees of success, to ensure an open and developer friendly platform – a 180 from their origins.

The transition of course is not easy – as SAP would attest, given a good portion of their installed base cannot directly leverage its open platform but rather will need series of complex upgrades. Key players are also making strong moves: Microsoft building on its Sharepoint and .NET user base as well as its push for an Open Source de-facto platform (e.g. Github, VSC, Linkedin), IBM focused on Cloud and Cognitive (e.g. Redhat, Watson), Workday leveraging HR competencies, and Automation Anywhere with its bot store

Automation Execution SAAS ERP CLOUD SOftware

Outsourcing and BPO

In parallel, the Outsourcing, GBS and BPO industry continues to undergo a seismic shift of smaller duration contracts, re-shoring, in-sourcing and a plethora of competition -in addition to an automation and innovation push. Having access -and being responsible for – an extensive set of processes across myriad customers, made BPO vendors ideally positioned to create the type of platform that would make them and their clients more competitive and flexible.

Due to a combination of factors: client contractual restrictions, compliance limitations, wage arbitrage complacency and political conditions that discourage silo-busting, this has not happened and may never occur. I still recall spending weeks in India with top-level access to one of the top 3 BPO vendors and being shocked at how siloed their approach and toolsets were. Of course, in an industry with players as aggressive and mighty as Accenture or IBM, this may change quickly.

In addition to technical convergence and copying from the RPA playbook, Enterprise Platform messaging must become more business friendly, benefiting platform companies, users and organizations

Workforce Orchestration 

Workflow and Workforce Orchestration

Work flow is a sequence of work tasks that are completed and handed-off until a work outcome is completed from start to finish.

Business Process Management (BPM)

BPM software was designed to manage workflows and did so straddling across two key value propositions over the last three decades. The first one, similar to RPA, promised to automate workflows and process functions with low-code or no-code programming. 

Automation workflow

 These suites of products became increasingly sophisticated and visually appealing adding process simulators, code generators, etc. The likes of Pega, Lombardi (now IBM BPM), Appian can point to a long list of customer processes, typically in niche areas not covered by packaged applications, built using their software.

The second BPM value proposition is one that has been somewhat overlooked over the years: work assignment and execution monitoring across people and resources.  Several factors can be blamed for this, including most business software having proprietary work monitoring mechanisms, primarily dashboards and messaging. More importantly, work oversight across end-to-end processes and operational silos seemed almost impossible from a political perspective, compounded by technical barriers and confusion about end-to-end process flows. The fact people were paid to oversee teams via line-of-sight management made the tool nice to have rather than a must.

“It should come as no surprise that these days BPM vendors integrate the terms RPA, bots or chatbots in their offerings”

Fast forward and not having handoff visibility is no longer an option if organizations are to remain flexible, lean and responsive. Organizations run software that execute individual pieces of work across multiple programming languages and operating environments. Modern organizations also have a workforce disseminated not only across city locations but across states, countries and time zones, subject to various contractual arrangements (e.g. full time, part time, BPO, CoE’s, contractors, consultants), that must work together and hand-off work to each other.

Static work execution and organizational charts are increasingly things of the past as organizations must now continually optimize who and how gets the work done across a hybrid workforce scattered globally, that transcends company walls and incorporates automated tasks

Future of Work and the Modern Workforce

Task ownership, sourcing as well as process flows are changing and will continue to change as organizations come to grips with options afforded by Technology and connectivity. These changes make static jobs and fixed organizational charts unsustainable. Unlike in the past when you might implement a piece of software and later adjust flows and incrementally tweak jobs, this process is now real-time and unlikely stop in the near future

This means constant change as organizations compete, find ways to deliver smoother customer experiences, streamline handoffs, automate work, de-skill jobs, eliminate human handoff’s, or simply rely on third parties to deliver tasks, full jobs or entire services.

What is known as The Future of Work has arrived and sets a business case that will only get stronger as the modern workforce gets increasingly complex, jobs get re-bundled, individuals re-skilled or tasks automated and the need for dynamic assignment, compliance, restrictions and risk management gets even more complex.

A piece of good news is that from a technical perspective open protocols and API’s are making it easier to oversee cross-functional handoffs. Standards, common data structures, coded policies and all other common elements brought by platforms will facilitate working together and responding to changes in an agile manner. The bad news is the complex architecture of skills, tasks, processes, qualifications and restrictions required to power this has not reached its infancy stage. 

web reskilling workforce future of work

This area is so important and rich with corporate execution information and IP that it may very well set the base for an Enterprise Platform, corporations want to own. I tried to do this. Using IBM-BPM as the foundation and spending the eight to nine-digit budgets associated with large endeavors, we set to create a backbone that at the time processed the second largest volume of transactions across IBM-BPM’s global installed base. 

The backbone worked, was load balanced globally and delivered what it was supposed to for a mission critical system. Yet, the user experience was never what was expected; the UI was neither pretty nor functional in spite of using high end, specialized NY-based UI shops; functions empowered themselves to use their own software/workflow, “Agile” requirement gathering was in the thousands, functionality was recreated, etc. 

In spite of the challenges, a BPM workflow engine can become either the base corporate platform or key oversight platform component, but it needs to be accompanied by extensive user education, top executive support, open architecture, API’s and some drastic changes in decision rights. Furthermore, a robust workforce orchestration software cannot be limited to BPM type functionality, even if it includes “smart” decision engine tools (i.e. ODM).

Workforce Orchestration solutions must include smart functionality – AI and ML – for risk-weighted work-task assignment, load balancing, right-skilling and other live resource optimization features

Individual task automation running on robust, interoperable Enterprise Platforms, combined with sophisticated Workforce Orchestration software and hybrid workforce codified knowledge, establish the foundation for Modern Agile Enterprise operations. How does your Digital Business Execution capability roadmap look like? 

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