IT automation is nothing new. Enterprises for years have looked for ways to reduce or eliminate manual processes that can slow down service delivery, introduce errors into systems, and increase costs.
But the idea of automating all types of processes seems to have taken on a greater sense of urgency of late, as IT organizations continue to grapple with the monumental impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, which finds them under more pressure to keep costs down while supporting enormous numbers of newly remote, home-based workers as a consequence of workplace lockdowns.
Whether it’s a matter of launching IT automation initiatives for the first time or accelerating activities in this area, automation is playing a big role at companies — and likely will continue to in a post-pandemic business world.
While many of the automation initiatives might take years to show the full benefit, companies are also looking to establish quick wins with their automation efforts, addressing key problems that have risen in the wake of COVID-19. Here IT leaders share hard-earned tips for achieving quick, sustainable IT automation success.
Create and leverage cross-functional workgroups
It might not sound like something an IT executive would want to do to achieve quick returns on automation, but for many companies it pays to bring in experts from various disciplines to collaborate on an automation effort. It’s even better if the work groups are already in place before the need for automation arises.
Brinks Home Security, a provider of home security systems, recently launched an initiative to automate its customer interactions as part of the company’s customer retention program. The program includes informing the customer base about customized offers Brinks makes available to them.
“We wanted to be able to expand our outreach program to a larger percentage of our customers,” says Jason Chancellor, CIO. “However, we were limited by our capacity to reach out to them manually. We have also recognized that our customers prefer to use digital channels to interact with us, making a digital solution attractive.”
To address the issue, Brinks built and tested an SMS chatbot that leverages the Quiq business messaging platform. The new platform enables customers to interact via standard SMS text messaging with an automated bot that gives them their available offers, helps them select the right offer, and ultimately sign up for it.
If a customer asks the bot a question that the bot can’t handle, the chat is automatically turned over to a human agent to complete — without the customer realizing they have moved from a bot to a human agent. The results have been positive, Chancellor says. Customers have adopted the new communication channel enthusiastically, enabling Brinks to offer more upgrades without the need for additional staff.
What helped make the initiative a success was that Brinks had formed cross-functional working groups designed to hypothesize, measure, and test ideas to solve complex business problems.
“For this particular bot, a group of top performers from across the organization were brought together and given the goal of expanding our customer retention program’s capacity,” Chancellor says. “The team quickly formed and ideated options, hypothesized on their value potential, and then selected the best options to test.”
Because all the necessary participants to execute an idea are on the cross-functional team, “they were able to quickly spin up functional prototypes, see how the customer reacted, and then continue to refine the bot,” Chancellor says. “The result was an exceptional customer experience delivered in record time, that has produced strong results for the company.”
Enlist business leaders to help identify key quick-fix problems
IT organizations need to ascertain where automation is really needed, and which problems it can help resolve. Oftentimes the ideas come from business leaders and end users.
That’s what the New Jersey Court System has done during the coronavirus pandemic that forced significant changes in operations.
“During the COVID transition we have seen dozens of ideas from both the business leaders and IT staff,” says Jack McCarthy, New Jersey CIO, Judiciary.
“They all start with a problem statement and the question ‘is it possible to do’ a particularly technology solution,” McCarthy says.
Following the identification of problems, the next step “is to get the right people on a video call who understand all the components we have in place across the enterprise, and how they could be used to meet this need,” he says. “We find incredible value in putting applications in the field and allowing the users to tell us what works and what doesn’t.”
In one recent example, the court system deployed a robotic process automation (RPA) platform from UiPath to help process court payments online. With state courts closed due to the pandemic,
judiciary systems were faced with the issue of having to re-engineer their legacy payment system of record to retrieve payment information from web payment portals across different counties.
To support the transition, the court system used RPA to build a quick integration between payment portals and the legacy system. The results include increased efficiency, with the payment process reduced from about one minute to 20 seconds per payment. As a result, the state is able to process more than 1,000 payments per week.
At G&J Pepsi-Cola Bottlers, a Pepsi franchise bottler, listening to business partners to identify key areas of need has been a vital component of the automation strategy.
“These are the people that make your business what it is, and listening to their input is key to success,” says Brian Balzer, vice president of digital technology and business transformation. “Have key stakeholders involved in providing requirements” and feedback.
Also, grassroots support will drive adoption and passion around an automation platform. “When it makes their jobs easier or faster, they will be quick to adopt” the system, Balzer says.
The company adopted a Microsoft suite of tools, such as Power Automate and Logic Apps, to automate business and IT processes across the company. For instance, G&J has been able to automate and improve the employee onboarding process by taking new hire information and loading it into other systems via Power Automate.
What used to be a manual process has been automated and integrated with HR, finance, operations, sales, and IT, significantly reducing hours and improving the onboarding process for new hires.
Develop a centralized business plan
While quick automation wins are great, long-term success on a broad scale is even better. That requires developing a centralized business plan for IT automation, including the deployment of RPA.
“All too frequently, organizations wanting to get started with RPA will start with one business process, just to see how it works,” says Rogerio Mendes, CIO at real estate company WAM Group.
“Then, if that succeeds they’ll move onto the next one. And the next one. You need to have a centralized vision and business plan — typically coming from an RPA center of excellence that has dedicated resources to help the various business departments roll out RPA based on a master strategic plan,” Mendes says.
The plan should be specific about expected return on investment and other benefits that make RPA a good business case. “For true scale and sustained success, you need to build the recipe for success and then continuously repeat it,” he says.
The company’s Brazilian operation deployed an RPA platform from Automation Anywhere to eliminate repetitive and manual processes and improve efficiencies within its finance, tax, and research departments.
The first bot WAM implemented using the RPA platform was a relatively simple one of resetting passwords. The bot, which the team named “Marvin,” was built in just 10 days. It was “an important first quick win to show the value of RPA to employees and how bots could help make processes more efficient in just a short amount of time,” Mendes says.
The company has since automated additional processes with Marvin, which works 24 hours a day automating data entry. Previously, a business analyst spent more than six hours a day on the same work the bot does now. While WAM’s RPA program is still in its early stages, the company has already reduced its operational costs.
“Realizing the value and benefits of intelligent automation, we continue to scale our RPA program to allow it to provide digital offerings quickly amid the shift to remote work,” Mendes says. “We have additional bots in production, [which] will be used to automate billing, finance, data entries, and data gathering.”
Over the next few years, WAM hopes to have more than 15 bots in production across 10 integrated systems, with the goal of saving 40,000 hours annually and reducing costs by $1 million. This will be made possible by having a central plan.
Make automation part of a process redesign
Another long-term view of automation is to consider its role as part of a larger process redesign effort.
That’s the approach insurance company Unum took when it deployed an RPA platform from Pegasystems to enhance its email system.
Unum used the Pega Email Bot with natural language processing (NLP) capabilities as a service to perform email topic detection for its client-facing operation.
Through this capability, Unum can automatically triage and route work to the appropriate queues at its business process outsourcing (BPO) provider for more than 90 percent of email volume, says Melissa Harris, director of IT delivery, US Technology Shared Services, at Unum. This has allowed the firm to decrease its turn-around times by about 60 percent, she says.
The main driver for deploying the technology was low customer satisfaction scores due to high turnaround times in the firm’s contact center. “The goal was to decrease those turnaround times to hopefully influence an increase customer satisfaction,” Harris says.
Unum’s IT operation was able to complete the deployment, including multiple platform integration and service creation, in six weeks. But the project is part of a long-term process redesign.
“Overall, our best practice for automation assessment is to ensure that any request for automation is a part of a larger process redesign initiative,” Harris says. “Automations on their own, except for end-to-end process automation, typically do not provide much value unless they are included in an overall process management initiative.”