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Survival of the Quickest: How to Hack a Pandemic with Intelligent Automation (Part 1/2)

Roland Alston, Appian
July 9, 2020

Muthulakshmi (Lakshmi) N, Global Head, Intelligent Process Automation and AI, TCS

Nobody knows for sure what the post-COVID world will look like. But you can certainly bet it's going to be different. The pandemic has already pummeled the global economy and exposed weaknesses in supply chains and vintage software systems. But it has also accelerated automated delivery of goods and services, autonomous customer interactions and forced companies once skeptical of work-from-home culture to embrace it more than ever before.

"And, yet, for many executives," says Muthulakshmi (Lakshmi) N, Global Head, Intelligent Process Automation and AI at Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), "a major roadblock to scaling automation is the misconception that aggressive, holistic automation will produce widespread job loss. But this view fails to imagine the new types of jobs that will be created when automation frees employees from work that can be done faster, better, and less expensively by artificial intelligence (AI)."

TCS is a $20+ billion IT services company with more than 400 thousand employees across 46 countries. Lakshmi runs the company's intelligent process automation practice. Contrary to the naysayers, she argues that intelligent automation is not about helping clients replace human workers with digital labor, but about delivering business value with automation, artificial intelligence, and analytics in every aspect of the enterprise.

"Businesses need quick, smart and stable solutions for the post-COVID world," says Lakshmi. "This includes intelligent automation with integration of robotic process automation, business process management, AI and analytics, combined with low-code application development. That's the foundation you need to create adaptable and resilient organizations for the future."

Automated systems are being put to the test more than anyone ever imagined. In this Digital Masters interview, Lakshmi breaks down why intelligent automation is a critical success factor for businesses that want to be more agile in making decisions, adopting new business priorities, and adapting to massive change amid the global pandemic.

Appian: So, to kick things off, talk about your role and scope of responsibilities at TCS.

Lakshmi: Sure. I am the Global Head for Intelligent Process Automation, and I'm also the strategist for defining our Machine First Delivery Model (MFDMô) for digital transformation. I am responsible for strategy, growth, profits, and customer success in Intelligent automation including robotic process automation, low code and digital process automation services and cognitive solutions that underpin our automation offerings

Appian: So, what is Machine First Delivery, and what does that mean?

Lakshmi: MFDM redefines the whole approach to automation by empowering humans to give the first right of refusal to technology. In other words, it's about driving process automation with a combination of technologies including analytics, AI, automation, and low code development to achieve straight through processing. This is something I've been passionately working on over the last couple of years.

Appian: And how long have you been with TCS?

Lakshmi: Since 2005. It's been almost 15 years. And it's been quite a journey with multiple roles across functions and countries. I have done many digital transformation projects but my journey with intelligent automation began about two years ago.

Appian: That was before COVID, social distancing and the business lockdown became a reality. Businesses everywhere have been hammered by the pandemic. So, what role will intelligent automation play in the coronavirus story?

Lakshmi: Well, COVID-19 hit us hard in mid-March and long-term strategic initiatives were put on hold by our customers. But intelligent automation offered an immediate solution to much of the unprecedented disruption that the crisis created. Organizations with the right automation foundation in place could adapt quickly to the new normal.

Appian: Speaking of adapting, I've read that before COVID-19, only 20% of TCS employees worked from home. But now, nearly 90% of your employees are working from home because of the pandemic.

Lakshmi:That's right.

TCS's over 400,000 employees were able to work from home in a matter of a few days, which is quite unbelievable. We were able to adapt so quickly because we had a strong foundation of intelligent automation and Agile already in place.

We call it our Secure Borderless Workspaces operating model, which enabled us to acclimate to the new normal quickly.

Appian: So, what impact will the pandemic have on demand for intelligent automation? Do you see COVID-19 driving demand for intelligent automation as companies try to adapt to the new normal?

Lakshmi: Yes, for example, low-code automation offers the resilience large organizations need to respond to a crisis and recover quickly. Before the pandemic, having this capability was a nice-to-have. But now it is essential. Priorities have changed because of COVID-19. In the past, efficiency was the primary focus of intelligent automation and artificial intelligence (AI). But that's completely changed, and it practically happened overnight.

Beyond Automating Stuff

Appian: Earlier, you mentioned low-code. Talk about the impact that low-code has had on the evolution of intelligent automation.

Lakshmi: Sure. So, first it's important to understand that low-code automation is not just about being able to automate stuff like mundane work in the enterprise. Yes, low-code offers a lot of efficiency in building applications.

But it also gives you the capability to quickly combine technologies, orchestrate processes and focus on how human-machine interactions are designed into your processes. This changes the game completely.

So, for example, if you have to automate the lending process of a bank. There will be many (digital) screen entries, paper documents, and data collection from forms. Then, you'll also have a system for someone to approve a loan.We help clients leverage low-code automation with multiple integrations to completely orchestrate these processes and make them seamless for customers in the bank and also for digital consumers interacting with the bank via laptop or mobile device.

But we also use low-code to create a seamless end-user experience for a bank's employees. Why? Because in the era of COVID and social distancing, employees are working remotely more than ever. And low-code gives companies the capability to do that as seamlessly and conveniently as possible.

(Tune in next week for the final episode of Survival of the Quickest, a conversation withMuthulakshmi N (Lakshmi), Global Head, Intelligent Process Automation and AI at Tata Consultancy Services.)