A Timely Introduction to Intelligent Process Automation

Intelligent process automation, and other ways of automating previously manual ways of working, has never been more timely or relevant.

Automating manual processes intelligently started to gain traction following the previous global recession (the financial crisis of 2007-08). Now we are entering a new one. Potentially a new recession, and certainly a Coronavirus (COVID-19) related crisis that is set to last for many months, if not years.

Until a universally scaleable and safe vaccine is ready, employees in many companies and organisations around the world could be working from home. Whole sectors are temporarily closed. It simply isn't possible to work as much or as efficiently as before this crisis started.

Why Intelligent Process Automation is needed?

Although productivity is likely to return to some sort of normal in time, this crisis again raises similar questions to other times of major disruption since the turn of the century, such as:

  • How much can or should humans do manually?

  • What can we automate?

  • How can we work more efficiently?

  • How can we do more added-value work if we automate more mundane tasks?

Intelligent process automation could solve a wide range of problems, across dozens of sectors. Firstly, we should quickly go over: What is Intelligent Process Automation?

Intelligent Process Automation (IPA) is the automation of processes using the most appropriate technologies, such as AI (artificial intelligence), ML (machine learning), computer vision, neural networks, and cognitive automation.

IPA projects often result in a system, or interconnected range of systems that streamline manual processes, taking the strain off human team members so they can work more efficiently on tasks and projects that require insight, imagination, and creativity. IPA can be implemented in knowledge-economy companies and those in the manufacturing sectors and supply chains.

Something this COVID-19 crisis has shown is the fragility of our global supply chains. It was first detected in Wuhan, capital of Hubei province, China, which is also where 40% of U.S. Fortune 500 companies (and many others from across the world) have manufacturing operations. Naturally, production was affected, and in many cases, is still down or under capacity. Tier 1 suppliers are struggling to get what they need from Tier 2 and Tier 3 manufacturers, causing problems for international clients. At the same time, there are cashflow problems throughout the global supply chain. It’s a fragile daisy chain, and only a crisis on this level can shine a spotlight on changes that clearly need to be made.

Within knowledge-based, digital, financial and professional service companies, intelligent automation would be equally welcome and useful. As a result of the last global recession, automation was considered a solution to a lot of problems. It could improve productivity, reduce costs, and make it easier for staff to undertake more useful projects and tasks.

Despite this, the insurance sector, for example, has struggled with digital innovation. Business leaders know they need to maintain and improve productivity, profitability, and focus on generating new value. Now those goals are more important than ever. During and after this crisis, we are likely to see companies that wanted to, but haven't implemented IPA projects yet, putting them on the front burner.

Business leaders know they need to maintain and improve productivity, profitability, and focus on generating new value

Results companies can expect from Intelligent Process Automation

In organisations that have already implemented IPA over the last few years, they are experiencing some impressive results.

According to McKinsey, the sort of results can be expected when IPA is implemented effectively:

  • Automation of 50 to 70 percent of tasks:
  • which has translated into 20 to 35 percent annual run-rate cost efficiencies;
  • and a reduction in straight-through process time of 50 to 60 percent;
  • with return on investments most often in triple-digit percentages.

Hence why we could start to see this become a core competency for many companies in the wake of this crisis. One of the advantages is automation “takes the robot out of the human.” With fundamental process redesign, work that is currently absorbing the skills and energies of a human team member could be managed automatically, with minimal human input.

Over time, as automatic and intelligent systems learn those tasks, they will get better at implementing them and should improve on the human processes. For companies wanting to embark on this journey, the promised results are enhanced efficiencies, increased productivity, improved customer’s journey, quicker human response times, and reduced operational risks.

How would Intelligent Process Automation work?

Intelligent Process Automation is a combination of the following technologies - although what this looks like within individual organisation depends on what systems are already operating and what needs changing.

  • Robotic process automation (RPA): Software automation that gradually replaces humans doing manual (e.g. admin tasks), with machines and machine learning. In one insurance company, RPA automated the management of 2,500 high-risk accounts, freeing up 81% of financial advisors to proactively manage more profitable accounts and generate new business.
  • Machine learning (ML) and advanced analytics. Algorithms are always going to play a key role in the design of smart systems. Whether algorithms are encountering and learning from structured or unstructured data, they are getting a chance to understand more clearly and improve outputs.
  • Natural language generation (NLG): Something we have seen extensive advances within is the creation of seamless and language-driven interactions between humans and machines. As this progresses it’s going to make a huge difference to the automation of tasks. NLG already plays a role in AI-powered bots, voice search and other voice-based assistants. NLG is already used in the production of financial reports for large companies, even the crafting of certain types of media articles.

When companies first look at IPA, leaders can be forgiven for thinking this is going to take a large amount of investment. It doesn’t, or shouldn’t, because many of the systems needed to bring this sort of thing together already exist. Often, a starting point are changes to the presentation layer of information systems.

Working with the right IT partner, one that is experienced in digital transformation and similar projects will make this significantly easier. You can expect project outcomes that generate real results and improve processes for staff across an organisation. When everyone can work more efficiently, customers really feel the benefits and profitability increases.