Investing in automation can be an expensive venture for large companies — and an outright impossibility for smaller ones. What options are available for companies navigating the marketplace?

Matt Fleckenstein: Traditionally, automating business processes has meant spending many months (years?) and millions of dollars to scope, build and land a robust, IT-driven project. Increasingly, we are seeing companies who are leading in digital transformation, regardless of size, adopt a portfolio approach to process automation. While the most complex processes are handled by the IT department, a growing number of business processes are being automated in weeks or even days using no code intelligent process automation platforms. Using SaaS-based tools, companies only pay for what they consume, so often a company can get started with digital transformation for less than $20,000. This democratizes process automation, enabling it for companies of all sizes.

David Eddy: The automation marketplace is comprised of ERP, BPM and RPA options: each with different purposes, complexity and investment. Of the three, RPA’s cost advantage uniquely qualifies it to removes the barrier of impossibility for small business.   However, the automation decision must fit both need and budget. Companies also have open source options. This software does comes with feature or support limitations -  but also big cost savings. For ERP: iDempiere is a good example; for BPM: jBPM; RPA has no open source as such, but  UiPath’s commercial product is free to small business, academia and individuals.  

What is the promise of automation and why are so many organizations adopting it?

Alastair Bathgate: Organizations are vying to digitally transform themselves. Digitally transformed banks, car companies, retail brands, insurance companies and many more are on the horizon. We are seeing a rise in adoption and an organizational need for a digital workforce to augment existing human talent. Leading this transformation is robotic process automation (RPA) and intelligent automation technology that is pervasive, non-invasive and gaining rapid adoption. In my time in the software industry, I have not seen an investment to return ratio in less than 12 to 18 months, with time to value starting in 6 to 8 weeks, like I have seen in the RPA market. This congruous trifecta of efficient investment, return on investment, time to value of return is seldom seen in industries. So, the adoption is there because the returns are quite lucrative.  A recent study by Forrester identified a 229 percent return on investment in just 15 months, citing quantifiable total savings of $49 Million.

Many in the sphere fear that the widespread adoption of automation will reduce overhead by eliminating jobs from the U.S. labor market. Do you believe that is the case? And how can automation and/or robotics improve a company’s bottom line through process or product innovation?

MF: When it comes to intelligent process automation, there are six essential capabilities: sophisticated workflow, modern forms, document generation, robotic process automation, process intelligence and machine intelligence. Of the six capabilities, only robotic process automation (RPA) is really focused on eliminating the needs for humans. The value proposition of RPA is to automate rote data entry tasks (e.g., manual data migration from legacy systems or human form fills) with a robot. The other five capabilities help to make humans more efficient and effective, but aren’t designed to replace the humans. Rather, intelligent process automation is most effective when these capabilities are designed to help humans make better decisions, conduct faster document reviews and decrease the time lost waiting for an individual to complete a task... all designed to free up humans to focus on being strategic, creative and innovative.

AB: Automation is about humans and robots working together to create a hyper-productive digital workforce. Human potential is enormous. Certainly, some jobs will be automated, creating unprecedented ability to accelerate innovation by unshackling humans from mundane, repetitive tasks that machines can perform quickly and free of errors. There have been waves of automation in the past. The first era was in the 19th Century, when machines took away the dirty and dangerous tasks leading to creation of industrial equipment, from looms to cotton gin, relieving humans of manual labor. In the second era, around the 20th Century, machines took away the dull, with automated interfaces and with airline kiosks to call centers, relieving humans of routine service transactions. In this era, the third one, machines take away decisions with intelligent systems, from airfare pricing to AI solutions, that could make better, faster choices than humans.

What’s common in every era is the human resilience to rise above. This wave of technological change may seem scarier for people than previous ones because it may be hard to see the higher ground to which humans might move. I see this not as a zero-sum game with machines taking over, but growing possibilities and opportunity for augmentation. It’s about talent augmentation rather than talent reduction.

There is a growing list of success stories on how organizations are improving their bottom line. For example, a leading retailer in the United Kingdom, called Shop Direct, automated 130+ processes, returned 328,000 hours back to the business using automation and significantly improved their customer intimacy by reskilling their talent. We helped a major global bank automate their banking transactions for higher efficiency and productivity and automated reporting. Another customer, Telefonica, realized over 650 percent return on investment in just three years, with 80 percent reduction in customer requests and automating 500,000 monthly transactions.

DE: Automation’s raison d'être is to perform work previously done by employees, but that doesn’t mean automation can’t lead to new employment that sustain and improve the U.S. labor market. Based on what I see at companies currently deploying automaton, I don’t believe automation is reducing jobs. Remember, companies have invested in large ERP and BPM projects since the 1990’s. However, today’s automation is different, because it uses AI technologies on activities that require only part of an employee’s day. This rarely leads to a job loss. Why? Because this automation enables managers to increase performance and value without hiring more employees. 

And how can automation and robotics improve a company’s bottom line through process or product innovation?

DE: With RPA, for example, the perfect accuracy and instant scalability of software robots optimize process performance, resulting in a better bottom line through greater productivity. The robots never get sick, have a bad day and always volunteer for nights and weekends. AI Chatbots are a specific illustration: this innovative product allows customers to receive service support without navigating time-consuming phone menus and wait times. Customer experience and retention improves, and, at the same time, profitability does as well.  

What are the most exciting applications of automation you’re seeing in business? In manufacturing? In transportation? In health care?

MF: There are many exciting automation applications these days across virtually every industry. However, the most exciting is not any one application but rather the plethora of applications that are being deployed rapidly across enterprises. The recent advances away from low code automation platforms to fully “no code” approaches has enabled business ops professionals and power users to automate their own processes. At Nintex, we have large enterprises across industries, ranging from pharma to banking to government, that have automated thousands of business process, ranging from new drug discovery to compliance to new employee on-boarding. Traditionally, automation has focused on areas such as robotics for manufacturing or logistics for supply chain management, but what is most exciting is how intelligent process automation is being applied to every aspect of every business across the globe. This is evolving digital transformation from a focus on cost savings to a focus on business efficiency and better customer/employee experiences. 

AB: We’re seeing widespread adoption across the board. For example, in manufacturing with customers like Coca Cola, nPower and more; in health care with customers like Pfizer; in transportation with Schneider National; in retail with Shop Direct; in Banking with Lloyds, Barclays, BNY Mellon; in insurance with MetLife, Aviva and many others. Our partnership with Microsoft, Google & IBM is also driving broad adoption in various verticals industries. We provide an enterprise class of software that meets the highest requirements for audit, security and compliance while incorporating cutting-edge cloud and artificial Intelligence (AI) capabilities.

DE: It’s exciting to see healthcare insurance companies integrating ERP, BPM and RPA automation to adjudicate complex claims much more quickly. The excitement comes from seeing that a steady rise in healthcare costs isn’t inevitable, and customer experience can also improve. HR onboarding is where I see exciting business automation. Companies are using RPA to reduce onboarding times by up to 85 percent.  That may not sound exciting, but anyone who’s landed a job, only to wait days for a laptop and a place to work, knows what I mean. Not to mention the hours of productivity gained by the company.