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The Changing Face of Automation, Part 2

Roland Alston, Appian
January 28, 2021

It's amazing how much we can get done by automating business processes.

Whether it's augmenting human labor, reducing risks, or making customers happy, when we do automation right, we can make big things happen in any organization. Perhaps this is why:

    • Automation is a top 10 strategic technology trend according to major industry analysts.

    • The robotic process automation (RPA) market is poised to explode from $7.7 billion to $12 billion by 2023, according to Forrester.

    • Gartner says 65% of organizations that deployed RPA will also introduce artificial intelligence, including machine learning and natural language processing algorithms by 2022.

In other words, falling behind the automation curve could be lethal. Coming out on top means automating as if the future of your business depended on it.

Which brings us to the final installment of our two-part blog on Neil Ward-Dutton's essay in HYPERAUTOMATION, a collection of expert commentary on low-code development and the future of business automation. A mix of expert insight and actionable advice, Ward-Dutton's chapter reminds us that companies have been automating workflows and processes since the industrial revolution.

But instead of arguing automation is bad, he gives us a playbook to scale automation without sacrificing the things we care about most. Including combining the best of human labor, artificial intelligence, and digital labor to deliver hyperautomation.

Ward-Dutton is Vice President, AI and Intelligent Process Automation European Practices at IDC and is also one of Europe's most experienced and high-profile technology industry analysts. His essay is an indispensable guide to the history of business automation.

From about 2000 until 2015, says Ward-Dutton, large organizations basically had just three tech choices to automate work:

    • Implement packaged software applications.

    • Build custom applications with traditional software development tools.

    • Use platforms focused on workflow and business rules automation.

Historical Context

Business automation goes back a lot further than you might think, says Ward-Dutton. In 1785, American inventor Oliver Evans built an automated, water-powered flour mill near Newport, Delaware. Using a variety of automated mechanisms, Evans' invention enabled the mill to operate with just one person rather than four.

The Second World War-era military efforts and NASA's spaceflight program through the 1960s and 1970s, says Ward-Dutton, all fueled the next major wave of innovation in automation. The first computers went to work in business administration settings, as well as in manufacturing processes and scientific environments.

Through the 1960s and 1970s, computers in business were principally used to automate the work of clerks in accounting, payroll, and other relatively simple administrative functions, at scale automating "standalone" functions and creating and managing large sets of administrative records.

Then came the introduction of digital computers, time-sharing systems, mainframe systems, local-area networking (LAN) technology, PCs and so on. But businesses continued to focus on automating distinct administrative procedures and processes. It was only with the emergence of Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) as a business discipline, in the late 1980s, that IT systems were built and operated to integrate automated business functions at scale. We're talking about everything from HR to finance and accounting, to production planning, and so on.

The rise of rapid application development (RAD) in the early 1990s, says Ward-Dutton, triggered an explosion of invention in networking technologies, server, and PC platforms, which helped mainstream computers for a wider range of businesses.

But many of the "first-wave" low-code application development tools, user interfaces, business logic and so on, were forgotten in the early 2000s, says Ward-Dutton. Today the pendulum has swung back and it's hard to ignore how low-code tools have permeated the business automation landscape.

Elephant in the Room

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, we stand on the threshold of a major transformation in how we work and do business. Companies have more automation options now than ever before. But understanding these options, how they relate, and knowing how best to connect and orchestrate them across the entire organization is essential to getting automation right.

The elephant in the room is workforce disruption. But automation is also a super power that augments human labor, multiplies worker productivity, and creates new higher-skilled, higher-paying jobs for people. That's not to say disruption won't happen.

"It's probably a bit of both," says Ward-Dutton. And I think the thing that will determine how it plays out is company culture."

"I've worked with quite a few (companies) where their whole approach to intelligent automation is not like how can we take people out of this process?' These companies think more about people and asking them how best to automate the mind-numbing aspects of their job and thus make them more productive?"

Tools and Platforms that Scale

To paraphrase Ward-Dutton: Getting the most out of automation means setting up your organization to scale your initial automation success.

Through the 1990s, says Ward-Dutton, businesses and vendors built and deployed tens of thousands of relatively simple, team-focused business software applications.

"Many of the 'first-wave' low-code application development tools, user interfaces, business logic and so on, were forgotten in the early 2000s. But the pendulum of demand has very definitely swung back from when web-based application development was dominated by technical developers working with relatively low-level tools, " says Ward-Dutton.

It's hard to ignore how low-code tools have permeated the business automation landscape. As you start to explore opportunities to apply these new automation tools and techniques, says Ward-Dutton, there's one more thing to consider: How should you set up your organization so that initial successes can really scale?

"As low-code approaches increasingly dominate, and as cloud-based subscription services become increasingly popular, It's fast becoming a challenge to apply the right technology to the right problems in the right ways," says Ward-Dutton.

The thing is to pick technology tools and platforms that scale both in terms of supporting applications that can support hundreds or thousands of users and high processing volumes across even the largest organization. But here's the million dollar question: How do you strike a balance between the freedom and flexibility of automation on one hand and maintaining control and governance on the other?

Ward-Dutton's HYPERAUTOMATION essay is essential reading to crack the code on that.

(P.S. Check out part one of this two-part posthere. Be sure to download your free copy of the HYPERAUTOMATION book here.)