Imagine you’re an orchestra conductor and you want to lead your musicians in a symphony. They all have their instruments and you have your baton, but the sheet music only contains the melody. Each section will have to improvise, and the result is not exactly harmonious.
This has been the traditional approach to process automation, which has typically been in the hands of an IT team offering one-size-fits-all solutions. When automation was in its infancy, the approach was acceptable, but as more business processes become automated, a more individualized and collaborative approach is necessary.
While businesses are ramping up their adoption of automated processes to better serve customers, increase efficiency and boost productivity, prospective employees are sizing up possible employers based on these very same processes. Particularly among younger generations, workers want to work for companies that use their time efficiently — and that means automation.
If this all sounds a little bit like yesterday’s hit song, hang on. We’re talking about a more sophisticated process automation: Next gen, which enables fast, agile and solution-driven end-to-end process automation and digitization.
Not your parents’ automation
Not too long ago, if you wanted to automate a process, you went to your IT team and explained what you wanted to do. They’d come back with an in-house or external solution, and then build it out as well as they could. Sometimes the result wasn’t exactly what you needed and you often couldn’t optimize it to evolve with the process it was meant to serve, but you made do.
Next gen automation solves many of these issues, leveraging the cloud to allow end users to use no- or low-code solutions that don’t necessarily require assistance from professional developers in the IT department — thus resulting in better, faster and more flexible automation solutions with a dramatically higher return on investment.
Next gen also gives the line of business and less technical stakeholders a seat at the table, empowering them to drive automation and optimization of processes alongside the IT teams. Though next gen encompasses a range of technologies, from robotic process automation (RPA) to artificial intelligence (AI) and intelligent process automation (IPA), at its core it’s as much a methodology as the harnessing of technology.
It’s not about buying tools
Next gen automation is about enabling and empowering employees to make and execute automation decisions focused on significant improvements at the line of business level. It also confers those employees with the ability to quickly respond to market developments or changes in the external environment.
This shift has allowed innovation around integration with process mapping and process definition, where the latest innovation is leaning toward collaborative environments and tools. This enables users to look at how the processes are being executed today and how they can be optimized for the future. Crucially, next gen goes a step beyond, not only taking repetitive tasks out of the hands of humans, but cutting time-to-market dramatically — all while continually improving the process through AI and IPA.
When the revolutionary becomes de rigueur, it’s time for a new revolution
Remember when the PDF was revolutionary? That static form doesn’t seem so cutting-edge compared to the auto-populating forms today. Next gen automation embraces the idea that just as technology evolves, so too does the application of that technology.
It’s a continuum of complexity with respect to where we’ve been and where we’re going Automation started as simplistic point-to-point integration, but increasingly sophisticated technology can now be applied to automate and/or digitize entire processes.
For instance, AI can take that static PDF form, interpret the data on it to automatically build a form specifically tailored to a business need — or extract business-relevant data and information that can then be used in other AI-enabled analytics, decision engines, etc. AI can also detect anomalies in the form’s inputs and outputs and recommend improvements.
This ability to continue to use existing artifacts — like a PDF form — in conjunction with next gen technologies, is critical for highly compliant or regulated industries, such as insurance. In these industries, the language and even the fonts on the forms have been approved by a regulatory body, so they must be retained. But now we can take that PDF form and generate an interactive web or mobile-based experience to collect the necessary information and put it back on the form. The end result is the same, but the user didn’t have to print out a form or fill it out online and scan it back into the computer. Also, the risk of errors in the form has reduced exponentially. So it’s merging the physical and the digital worlds.
But the whole point of next gen is meeting and empowering people where they work. Next gen also includes RPA of course, but RPA is principally for automating manual tasks. These are typically related to on-prem legacy applications — behind the firewall — that don’t lend themselves to API type of orchestration.
Accordingly, it’s not just AI or just RPA; it’s both — plus workflow, plus document generation, plus process mapping, plus process mining. It’s all of those things, and then you have to have your cloud workflows and cloud process automation integrating seamlessly with the ability to reach the desktop or server. It all has to converge together as an end-to-end process.
The possibilities are endless
And once you’re in the next gen space, you’ve got a huge surface area to work in. Let’s look at a very simple application that’s relevant in today’s environment: signing guests into a facility. Pre-COVID, you might have had a paper form with a pen that 100 people touched with their fingers. Now, we want to digitize the form. But where do we put it? We can put it on an iPad, but now you’ve got everyone’s dirty fingers on the iPad.
What if, instead, as your guest enters the building, they get a prompt on their phone to sign in or fill out a short form? “Hey, here’s who I am. I’m checking in.” Now you’ve got their info in your system and it can be disseminated and used in other processes.
Not only are you meeting people where they are, but you’re getting a wide opportunity of places to engage with them, and the technology just works. So the people who might have been using some automation or were thinking about next gen before COVID, are able to come up with — and execute on — these extremely innovative solutions in real time that would have been difficult to even imagine if you hadn’t started down the digital process automation path.
Getting everyone on board
One way for organizations to get started is to start small and clearly identify the problem or the problem space you’re trying to address. Getting some early wins will build confidence in the organization and start to create tailwinds.
What we see in many organizations that have successfully adopted next gen in a large way is to establish a centralized authority or a center of excellence with respect to understanding the toolsets and the methodologies. This also instills confidence.
Each small success can build on itself and by leveraging cloud computing, next gen allows for highly scalable solutions at an attractive ROI.
Next gen empowers employees to create solutions tailored to their needs, but with empowerment comes accountability, which is why it’s important to build in controls. Without these, you can end up with chaotic implementation and confusion across the organization — not to mention possible security risks. The trick is to balance empowering your citizen developers with necessary guardrails.
If properly designed, next gen is autodidactic. So with the right collection of data in the analytics you’ll be able to look at the patterns that evolve. And you can discern the patterns in terms of figuring out how you operate as a business with respect to those different sets of variables and the relationships between them.
For example, if the process is slowed down when decisions have to be made, and the data tells you that given a certain set of variables the decision is going to be the same in 100% of cases, AI could stand in to make that decision. Now you’ve further improved the process and accelerated decision making.
Remember though, action must follow the analysis — whether through machine learning or AI or something else. It’s not enough to use automation to change something and then walk away. For instance, analytics can tell you that you ran seven automation projects. Now what? Is that good? Is that bad? Who’s engaged? Where are you saving time? Analytics can not only tell you what to do next but how to do it better and how to leverage the analytics and AI in the next design. And the next. Now you’re harnessing the analytics to implement internal and external benchmarking. Because analytics for the sake of analytics is just trivia.
Be the disruptor, not the disrupted
Still not convinced that you need to make the leap into next gen? Many of your competitors are already adopting it. Your customer base is expecting you to operate more fluidly, more quickly and to deliver a better user experience. If you don’t provide that experience, be prepared to lose customers over time. You will be disrupted.
Your employees and potential employees might expect even more than your customers. We live in a digitized world and (particularly younger) employees expect processes to be as seamless at work as they are at home.
Next gen automation means having the right tools, functionality and technology working in harmony to solve the right problems at the right time.
In her role as VP of Product Management at Nintex, Zoe Clelland is passionate about building world-class products based on customer-centricity, empowered teams, and a deep belief that software must work for humans, not the other way around. Zoe has focused on defining every aspect of digital user experiences for more than 20 years, and holds a Ph.D. in Human Factors Psychology.
Nintex Chief Product Officer Neal Gottsacker brings 30-plus years of management experience leading product management and technical teams in a variety of high-tech industries and within enterprise software companies. He is passionate about delivering on Nintex’s core mission of improving the way people work through process management and automation.