Oneill Art 0918by Tom O'Neill for Workflow

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, heating your home or business normally meant firing up your coal-fired furnace located in the basement of the building. To make sure you stayed warm during the day you made several trips to the basement to stoke the fire. Adjustments to various dampers, vents or valves controlled heat distribution throughout the building so rooms were warm and comfortable.

This was a very manual process, far removed from using the convenient wall thermostat we are pleasantly familiar with today.

It was through innovation that we are now comfortable and cozy through the turn of a dial or touch of a button. That innovation was driven by Warren Johnson, a professor in Wisconsin during the late 1870s.  Johnson got so annoyed with having to find the janitor to adjust the building’s furnace whenever his classroom got too cold, so he invented the first electric thermostat, which automatically rang a bell as a signal to the janitor to make the furnace adjustments. This new technology transformed what once was an ongoing manual process into something that changed the way we live and work.  

As years progressed, new technology and innovation improved the thermostat’s functions so it can now control heat, cooling, humidity levels and more. Adjustments can be made by mobile device or voice and even by the thermostat itself after learning, on its own, the best settings to use. The outcome is the same – comfort in any room of a building at any given time. But the efficiency, reliability and reduced energy costs of the entire process has greatly improved since 1870.   

Like Mr. Johnson, businesses today are, more than ever, confronting manual, time-consuming processes and figuring out how to improve them through automation. Adding new innovative digital technology or applying current technology in new innovative ways can help realize business outcomes more efficiently, improving customer experiences, increasing productivity and reducing costs.  

The digital transformation era continues to gain speed. More than 80 percent of organizations believe digital transformation is important or very important and 75 percent say process automation is a must do in business.i Forrester agrees, saying process improvement is required for digital transformation and improving customer experience.ii   

Digital technology innovations in the workflow resource ecosystem have already been applied to automate many core business processes. According to AIIM, the top processes being automated include: 

• Accounts Payable/Accounts Receivable 

• HR, Recruiting, Onboarding 

• Contract Management 

• Records Management 

• Legal 

• Technical Documentation 

Yet, two-thirds of enterprises report fewer than half of their processes are automated.iii New innovations are making it easier to configure, deploy and use process automation, and are making process automation available to small and medium-size businesses (SMB). Digital transformation and process automation provide a great future for customers and provide a clear opportunity for sales professionals.  

The process for automation innovation 

When automating and digitally transforming a process, the basic steps involved are: 

1. Capture the data that contains information required by the process.  

2. Extract the required information to move the process along.  

3. Validate that the information extracted conforms to what is expected.  

4. Act on the information to get to the desired business outcome.   

Hardware, software/services, and people are part of one or all of these steps, working together to affect the entire process. Innovations in each these areas help make the automation smooth and effective.  

Hardware 

Scanners and MFPs have their biggest role in the capture stage of workflow automation. Paper documents continue to be 56 percent of the documents processed for workflow processes. iii  While single-function scanners are used the majority of the time for this capture step, MFPs are used 33 percent of the time as the capture device, and this usage is climbing.iii  

Innovation in the MFP itself has now brought scan to email, scan to folder (and more), OCR, document conversion, and the ability to add metadata as standard or optional functions to the device. However, third-party capture applications are still important and 35 percent of companies report integrating scan/capture/workflow software solutions with their shared  workgroup printing devices.iv 

Cloud connectivity has enabled MFPs to scan to and print from various cloud services like Google Drive, Dropbox, Evernote, One Drive, etc. and enabled connection to the growing cloud-based workflow automation services. Many manufacturers have introduced app stores or marketplaces where scan applications, among other apps, can be easily downloaded and installed onto the MFP for quick simple automation of workflows.  

What MFP innovations may come in the future to improve the capture step of the process?  

• Embedded intelligence to index/classify documents automatically and route them to the next process step without user or third party capture software intervention  

• Machine learning (ML) that will enable the device to learn over time how to process and route a document based on the data in the document and its context  

• Natural language processing (NLP) will allow conversational voice activated device commands  

• More integration into or partnerships with cloud services to provide specific vertical and business process applications

Software, cloud and alphabet soup 

Software is clearly used in the capture step (Harvey Spencer Associates points out that more than $3 billion annually is spent just on capture software).v But the extract, validate and act steps are where it takes on the major role for automation. Software manufacturers and providers have introduced innovations that: 

• Capture data from multi-channels of paper, network, email, mobile, web forms, fax, video, etc.  

• Increase the accuracy of information extraction for improved validation productivity 

• Automate routing of the document based on the metadata or tags attached 

• Provide approvals by acting on rules programmed into the system 

• Deliver process analytics and reports 

Low-code and no-code applications make workflow configuration and installing easier and faster. With 35 percent of executives not satisfied with the speed of application delivery from their IT departments,vi these types of new applications are welcome.   

Delivery of application services via the cloud has grown and continues to grow, making workflow automation available to more and more business. In addition to services from OEMs and well-known providers, some unique services are emerging. Invisible, a company that defines itself as a “crowdsourced” RPA creator, will build automated processes for $10 an hour. The company uses a video call for the customer to shows an Invisible representative the work that needs to be automated. Invisible captures those instructions and builds processes for lead generation, prospect list building, web scraping, and data tagging and more.  

Some of the most exciting and talked about innovation is happening around RPA, AI, ML, and NLP. Look for more innovation to come from this alphabet soup of acronyms:

RPA 

Robotic Process Automation 

What automating those manual tasks in a process is all about by coding in processing instructions or rules. Forrester estimates that by 2021 more than 4 million robots will be doing office, administrative and sales related tasks.vii 

AI 

Artificial Intelligence 

What a machine or system knows after being programmed with those instructions or rules – it is intelligent because it knows what it is supposed to do. 

ML 

Machine Learning 

The ability of a machine or system to learn to make data-driven predictions or decisions based on statistical models; i.e., algorithms. 

NLP 

Natural Language Programming 

The ability of a machine or system to understand the nuances of human language to perform an action. 

CI 

Cognitive Intelligence  

The ability of the machine or system to “figure out” what to do through self-teaching algorithms that use data mining, visual recognition, and natural language processing.viii 

The future of process automation software, applications and services is exciting and change is rapid. It’s important for customers and sales professionals to stay informed of the changes and trends to make sure decisions of today are made with the most recent and relevant information possible to have the best outcomes for tomorrow. 

People — A new generation and citizen developers 

Innovations are also occurring in the people dynamic.  

The new majority demographic in workplaces today is millennials. This generation grew up with digital technology and understands how to put it to innovative use for personal, entertainment or work purposes. Workforce change management is an important part of any process automation project, but millennials will normally be more inclined to embrace digital change and even innovate to improve it. An even more tech-savvy generation – Generation Z – is already beginning to enter the workforce. This generation has never known the world without the internet.  

Citizen developers (once known as power users) can be found in line-of-business (LOB) departments building applications that improve those LOB processes. With IT overburdened managing larger core business processes, these citizen developers fill the gap by innovating and using new open source tools, low-code platforms and cloud services.vi This is a strong resource for companies to help move digital transformation into the smaller detailed task automations IT doesn’t have time to support. For sales professionals, these citizen developers can be a source of new solution and services opportunities. 

Wrapping it up 

Automating business processes is core to a company’s digital transformation to gain the benefits of delivering better customer experiences and improving company productivity. Knowing the innovations that have taken place and continue to take place within the workflow resource ecosystem in hardware, software, and people is important. Understanding how they can be put to use and combined to achieve process automation and the digital transformation outcomes companies want will bring success to both customers and the sales professionals who help them in their journey.  

Resources

i AIIM Industry Watch: The State Of Intelligent Information Management: Getting Ahead Of The Digital Transformation Curve

ii Forrester 2018 White paper

iii AIIM Webinar presented May 22, 2018

iv IDC Use of Software Solutions Integrated with MFPs, November 2017

v Harvey Spencer Associates

vi  Unisphere Research The Rise of the Empowered Citizen Developer 2017 Low-Code Adoption Survey

vii The Forrester Wave™: Robotic Process Automation, Q2 2018

viii IBM: Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and Cognitive Computing

Tom O’Neill is a marketing and product strategy professional in the enterprise imaging and print industry

This article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Workflow.