Feb 10 2021

Q&A: How Can Businesses of All Sizes Take Advantage of Intelligent Automation?

They need to think about their objectives with automation first and manage the ‘digital workforce’ much as they do human employees, says Deloitte Managing Director Gina Schaefer.

Businesses have been deploying technology to automate repeatable tasks at an increasing pace — and in 2020, the pandemic was among the factors contributing to a perfect storm of circumstances leading to a big uptick in automation adoption, according to Automation with Intelligence, Deloitte’s latest survey on the subject.

In a conversation with BizTech, Deloitte Managing Director Gina Schaefer, who leads the global business consultancy’s U.S. intelligent automation practice, explains what’s driving the growth and how businesses at every stage of maturity can take advantage.

BIZTECH: More businesses are adopting automation technologies. What’s driving the interest?

If you look at the trajectory that intelligent automation has been on in the five years we’ve been doing the survey, it’s been a hockey stick shape, straight up. This year was a pretty massive jump, from 58 percent to 73 percent, but it wasn’t unanticipated. More important, we’ve seen increases in reported value.

At the same time, the current environment has increased the visibility of automation, as people had to respond at a very rapid pace to things that were completely unanticipated. That’s tailor-made for intelligent automation, especially when they’re cloud-based. For example, companies that had to respond to spikes in activity to call centers. There’s no way you can scale a human workforce in the amount of time that, say, a bank needed to respond during the pandemic when it was also involved in processing Paycheck Protection Program loans.

So that’s a situation where you say, “Let’s get some help with digital workers on a cloud infrastructure that we can spin up in a matter of hours if need be,” at a pace that you couldn’t even touch with human workers. Who would have thought a bank would have to triple its call center workers or its loan processors overnight?

BIZTECH: Is automation still a better fit for enterprise businesses, or is there an opportunity for midsized and even smaller companies?

The massive digital workforce deployments are being seen at the large banks, the large life sciences companies and other enterprise companies. However, that doesn’t mean they’re the only ones suited for this. It’s really not just for the large. Even for the very small, though a full-scale cloud-based infrastructure that they host and deploy themselves might not be the solution for them, a more contained model might be right. Who is it suited for? Gosh, anyone with a significant volume of repeatable tasks, or where we can replicate human judgment with algorithms to process a task.

Early adoption came through large banks because they were prepared well for it, but now we see organizations of all sizes and in every industry gravitating toward tech-enabled process transformation.

MORE FROM BIZTECH: More businesses are using artificial intelligence to drive user experiences.

BIZTECH: What do you think the ideal organization transformed by intelligent automation looks like?

Several things characterize such an organization. There’s greater job satisfaction among employees, because the human workers are valued for the things that are uniquely human — for greater, more complex and challenging tasks. The organization can respond with agility to changing environments because it has the ability to apply this technology at great speed and efficiency. It has a competitive advantage because it has better data, faster processes, deeper insights and greater customer and employee satisfaction.

BIZTECH: In your survey, you note that many companies are still in the piloting stage of automation deployment. What’s the long-term potential for those organizations with this technology?

It’s a lifecycle. Those piloting companies are the ones that have gone out and grabbed the low-hanging fruit. It’s super easy. You can automate anything; you can trip over automation opportunities. At first, that’s how folks approach it, without always taking note of the full ROI. So, yes, there are basic automations you can do and have great returns.

Those are characteristics of companies in the early stages. But as our survey said, organizations that are able to reimagine business processes are twice as likely to scale. That really gets you into the next layer of opportunities. There’s the low-hanging fruit, and then there’s that set of stuff where you can tweak a business process and look to move some things around and you’re able to automate with some process re-engineering. Then, there’s the end of the spectrum, where you really scale.

For example, we’re helping a travel and hospitality organization figure out how to optimize its labor deployment in the current environment, using automation capability. The company is globally fragmented, which is the biggest obstacle to automation. And it’s looking at, “OK, can we standardize our business processes globally so we can better automate what we do?” So that’s the spectrum, and organizations that have scaled lean into that end of the spectrum.

BIZTECH: What about companies that aren’t even at the piloting stage yet but recognize the value? What’s the best way to start?

First, they should think about what they’re trying to accomplish with this capability. Some organizations are like, “That’s another arrow in the quiver, and we’ll just put it out there and see what happens,” and others think, “This is going to be the fabric of how we run our business processes.” Think about your objectives: Are you aiming for labor savings, employee satisfaction, customer satisfaction or a mix of those?

Next, we say, “Think big, start small, scale fast.” Think about the vision. Start somewhere small, knowing that this technology does work. Then, test it out in your organization and get all those hoops jumped through.

I would also say to master the basics of governance. Automation has to be thought of as a program and not as a one-off software deployment. Ask questions like, “How are we going to allocate resources? Who’s going to own the automations once they’re deployed, not just from a maintenance standpoint but from a digital worker standpoint?” Thinking about governance and how it’s going to run in the organization is important.

Last, remember that running a digital workforce is not a break-fix thing. It’s a lot like having a human employee. Much like you wouldn’t let human workers go to work on their first day and not keep an eye on them, you wouldn’t do that with a digital worker. Likewise, as they evolve, you give them stretch goals, make sure they’re meeting their objectives and figure out how to optimize their work.

You also have to think about how the humans integrate with those machines. If something has stopped working as it should, who’s responsible for that particular automation? It might be the same person who was responsible for it before it was automated.

Ben Rollins