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Stuck in Neutral with BPM? Shift to Digital

Roland Alston, Appian
October 30, 2017

An Interview with Clay Richardson: An on-going series of thought-provoking interviews with big thinkers, authors, scholars, and visionaries on all things digital transformation.

Clay Richardson is Co-Founder & CEO of Digital FastForward, a digital skills accelerator that delivers immersive workshops and consulting on design thinking, digital innovation, and lean startup strategies.Formerly with Forrester Research, Richardson led research there on the intersection of business process management, customer experience, and digital transformation.

He is a frequent keynote speaker at industry events, technology conferences, and customer forums around the world. He is a certified facilitator of the Edison Award-winning IDEO Experience Innovation methodology, and also serves as an Entrepreneur-In-Residence at The American University Center For Innovation.

In this Trailblazer interview, Richardson shared his insights on:

    • How not to fall prey to digital predators.

    • Why combining BPM, RPA, and Low-Code will drive digital transformation across your organization.

    • How and why digital automation is shifting from efficiency and costs savings to revenue, productivity and top line growth.

Read the full Q&A below:


Appian: You were with Forrester for over seven years. Now you've co-founded a new company called Digital Fast Forward. What is Digital Fast Forward about?

Richardson: We're focused on helping companies make the shift to digital transformation. Many companies lack the digital skills to do thatÖ

Appian: From a digital skill standpoint, what's the biggest disconnect you're seeing out there? And what can business and IT leaders do to bridge the gap?

Richardson: The biggest gap I see is around creative thinking. My background is computer science. So, in IT, we were taught to approach problem solving in a very logical way relational databases, Java development and so on.

Which is a great skill to have, if the problem is staticÖ

"But in the digital economy, we need creative problem-solving skills for problems that are more dynamic. We need to be able to compete against competitors that we didn't see before. Think about Blockbuster and Netflix."

Blockbuster was aware of streaming and related technologies. But they weren't able to reimagine their business model to adapt to a fast-moving market. So the skill gap I'm talking about is the need for creative, more abstract problem-solving skills.

Appian: The World Economic Forum has said that by 2020, the skill set that's needed by companies to be competitive in what they're calling the Fourth Industrial Revolution will be completely different than what it was in 2015...what's your take on that prediction?

Richardson:The research is showing that this new revolution is a big challenge for IT teams, particularly given the speed that innovation and disruption are taking place. It means that our business models, talent, culture, and organizational structure will have to be rethought.

Digital Migration and Wildebeests

Appian: In a recent BPM interview, you mentioned the concept of digital predators and digital prey...and you gave a wildebeest analogy. How does this analogy apply to digital transformation?

Richardson: The wildebeest analogy came from a trip I took to South Africa. We were on a safari, and we got to see the annual migration of wildebeests. And it made me think about the many BPM teams that are migrating to digital from the traditional BPM world. But there are crocodiles in the water, if you will, when it comes to making this transition.

"The thing is, not to just focus on the process model. And I think this is where many companies fall prey to digital predators. When you're transitioning from traditional BPM to digital, you have to focus on the customer experience, empathizing with the customer, and building solutions that meet customer expectations."

And part of that is about using various technologies in your BPM platform in different ways. But the main idea is that you have to move past process as your primary focus for design. Whether you use BPM technology, Robotic Process Automation (RPA) or other complementary technologies...when it comes to digital, the focus should always be on the customer and the customer experience.

Low Code Fulfills BPM's Promise

Appian: Let's talk about the convergence of Robotic Process Automation, BPM, Low-Code and other complementary technologies...What role does this convergence play in the digital transformation story?

Richardson: It's about enabling the entire organization to get involved in digital transformation and digital innovation. The key is that, historically, BPM has been sold as a platform that business analyst and pretty much anyone could use. The reality is that, in most cases, developers are required to do 90%of the work.

"What we're seeing now with low code is that the vision for BPM is now becoming a reality... Non developers can now get involved in building solutions, and testing them out with customers. And so the takeaway is that digital transformation and innovation can't just be in the hands of a few people in the organization. That's a recipe for failure."

I've seen this scenario play out with customers, where you have a handful of people on an IT team that do all of the innovation. Pretty soon the team becomes a bottleneck. And people just see digital transformation as just another buzzword, and nothing gets delivered.

But low code allows non developers to design, build and test new ideas with customers, so they can validate changes to products and services that can have a huge impact on an organization.

So low-code provides a platform that you can put out to all parts of the amp up innovation and creativity. Where RPA fits into the picture is in being able to have a simple way to bring robotic automation in to help clients.

People tend to think of RPA as a complex implementation. But low code simplifies the automation process. Which frees up developers and back office and front-end workers from doing menial, routine they can focus on high-value tasks instead.

Appian: How does this digital convergence tie back to the customer experience?

"When I was at Forrester and now at Digital FastForward I've talked about the convergence of low code, RPA and other digital technologies as digital automation. Low code helps you expand opportunities for digital automation. And RPA and BPM? They give you the ability to drive digital automation throughout the organization."

Richardson: It's not about the traditional approach where you're trying to automate a core process. It's about bringing all of these elements into play. But it all comes down to focusing on the customer experience...and using process automation to deliver a better digital experience that connects the front end and the back end of your organization.

Beyond Process Automation

Appian: What about the concept of Digital Process Automation (DPA)...How does DPA fit into the scheme of things, in terms of digital transformation?

Richardson: It's an expansion of the concept of digital automation. When I first began talking about digital automation several years ago, people would ask: "But where's the process in it?" It's like I said before, process is not the leading piece.

You could be dealing with a front-end scenario that's very fragmented. So to me digital automation and digital process automation are synonymous. Some people prefer to stick the word process in there to make it clear that we're still talking about BPM.

The conversation about digital and automation includes BPM and RPA, and customer journey is in there too. During the economic recession, automation was a bad word there was the fear that automation would take away jobs. But fast forward to 2015, And you begin to see CIOs and CXOs looking at automation differently.

"It wasn't just about process anymore. It was about how to free up workers to focus on high-value tasks. So automation became more of a battle cry to drive more revenue for the organization, as opposed to cutting costs."

That's why it's important to focus on the concept of digital automation as a way to do automation across the entire organization, not just the back office. It's about freeing up people to focus on revenue generation. I think this is critical...

Appian: So you see a shift from efficiency and costs savings to revenue, productivity and top line growth?

Richardson: Exactly.

The Digital Transformation Challenge

Appian: You spend lots of time talking to C-Suite executives. What's their view of the digital transformation conversation?

Richardson: Honestly, I think there's a sense of fatigue. Most of the senior leaders I talk to get it they know they have to be digital. Where the frustration comes in is when the concept of digital transformation and digital innovation become conflated with just modernizing IT... like: "We're just going to put in some new system."

I'm seeing more executives saying that they need to define what digital transformation means for our organization, so that it just doesn't become a buzzword word for IT change.

For many organizations, digital transformation is about creating something new...Moving to a new business model that allows you to better engage customers via a variety of channels...Or having a platform that allows them to deliver new products and services in a digital way.

So that's the challenge the C-suite has to overcome. And, it's the same story in government, where there's such a focus on IT modernization. But you're starting to see different agencies make the distinction by saying that they are driving digital transformation by focusing on IoT, RPA, and AI...all very specific, targeted, areas versus just IT modernization.

So government agencies are also trying to make sure that digital transformation doesn't just become another buzzword in the organization.

"When you look at all of the indicators, they're saying that we've now moved beyond digital transformation as being just hype. Yes, some companies are just rubber stamping the concept. But others are getting serious about it...wrapping their minds around it. They're identifying specific new products and services that they're going to deliver in a new digital way, in a way that they couldn't do beforeÖ"

Appian: Back to BPM...You've said that the BPM discipline as we know it will not survive, but BPM technology will...What did you mean by that?

Richardson: I've been in BPM for a number of years, doing business process re-engineering at various points in my career. Business process re-engineering isn't going anywhere. I think it's more about the methodologies executives see as delivering value.... When I look at it, I see BPM as a methodology declining for the last several years.

At Forrester, we did an annual survey, looking at which methodologies companies were adopting or scaling back on. And BPM was a methodology that we saw going into a steady decline. What that says is that companies are pulling back on focusing just on standardization, cost cutting, and efficiency. The investment levels in these activities is just not where it used to be.

But if you look at BPM software vendors...revenues are growing we're still seeing growth on the software side.

The difference is that software vendors are re-purposing their platforms to support digital transformation. They're building capability around user experience design...around IoT...around RPA. So I think we need to move away from talking about BPM platforms that we used 5, 7, 10 years ago. Today, these are digital platforms...with very strong UX, UI design capabilities...Classic BPM modeling is just a small part of what these new platforms are capable of.

The companies that are best positioned to complete are unlocking new innovation potential in these platforms. So they're looking at new digital transformation scenarios that they can build with the platforms, which goes beyond BPM.

"RPA is a good example of this. But what really gets me excited is when you start mixing RPA with Artificial Intelligence, that's where the sizzle is. Just doing RPA on the back end may save some money. But when you connect RPA with AI, now you have customers that can talk to Siri or talk to Alexa, and these digital assistants can handle a process for them... That's a very different world."

And that's why we can't just call it digital process automation. Yes, there is process. But you also have an intelligent digital assistant that can drive back-end automation. You give it a command. It can use AI to come back with different recommendations.

And, on the back end, you've got Robotic Automation to execute the customer's request. We work with clients to bring that kind of innovation forward.



Pssst! Before you go, check out Gartner's latest Magic Quadrant for Intelligent BPM Suites report, andLearn why Appian was named a Leader in the iBPMS Magic Quadrant.