Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything. – George Bernard Shaw
Automation is nothing new. In fact, it's been influencing manufacturing processes for centuries, allowing human beings to produce without constantly keeping their hands on the wheel. But as the head of a business process automation company, I can see that we're on the cusp of a Fourth Industrial Revolution that will see automation pushed to new heights and change our thinking in the process.
Cognitive automation, or using automation to complete information-based tasks, is poised to transform business as we know it. Bots like NASA’s George Washington, for example, can already log in to financial software and enter budget information, perform tasks based on received emails and report completed work to a manager. It sounds advanced, but over the next decade, continuous breakthroughs in natural language processing and machine learning will allow tools like George to resolve even more nuanced issues just as well as humans — maybe even better.
The potential here for heightened accuracy, efficiency and scalability is nothing to sneeze at. Unlike human employees, AI tools don’t receive paychecks, don't require lunch breaks and can be quickly scaled to meet growing demand. That scalability is key. It's easy to talk about automation in hyperbolic terms, but consider Gartner’s prediction that 40% of data scientists' tasks will be automated as soon as 2020.
From manufacturing and operations to customer service and a whole host of other nodes in the interconnected business ecosystem, cognitive automation is set to catalyze the Fourth Industrial Revolution. To prepare your organization, take the following steps.
1. Pin down use cases.
Automation technologies will impact different businesses in different ways. In industries such as manufacturing, automation has already ingrained itself into essential processes, but many businesses still perceive automation as just a flashy gimmick or, at best, a small supplement to traditional business practices. That viewpoint may not last long, though, given that Gartner foresees a 25% drop in customer retention this year among companies that fail to harness the power of automation.
To stay competitive, start by constructing an automation road map, identifying realistic use cases within your company. It's tempting to want to wow everyone with external-facing automation projects — think Amazon Go stores — but it's better to focus on value-driven, behind-the-scenes changes first. For example, automate your payroll, leave-of-absence requests, and billing and payments processing before moving on to the more visible areas of your business.
2. Conduct a workforce assessment.
Once you've determined relevant use cases, lay the groundwork for smooth implementation. You don’t want to funnel a fortune into automation only to find out later that it caused major disruptions to associated workflows. Make it a priority to gain buy-in from employees, especially the boots on the ground. Conduct workforce assessments to gauge employee sentiment toward automation. And hold hands-on training sessions to articulate the value of the change in tangible terms.
Members of my generation have conducted business through paper for almost our entire lives, so it's particularly important to help older employees see how automation will make their lives easier. First, explain why paper isn't always necessary — or efficient. This might seem obvious for digital natives, but for baby boomers, it can be a hard pill to swallow.
A few years ago, I made the switch to a completely digital mail system for my personal use. Because paper mail was all I'd known before, I hadn't realized how time-consuming it was to manually sort and read my mail and how unreliable my system for organizing bills and statements had become. Now my mail is automatically collected, digitized and sent to me via email, which allows me to read through it quickly and easily search through it later on if I need something. I’m to the point where I can't imagine doing it any other way. The same thinking can be applied to manual paper processes that your employees complete every day.
3. Consolidate databases.
Today, automated systems are commonly referred to as "smart." Smart speakers like the Amazon Echo respond to voice commands, and smart locks turn the deadbolt on your front door when you leave for the day.
These technologies seem like they're very much in the realm of hardware, but AI is software, and it relies on rules and processes to perform as intended. When the data that powers these systems is disjointed, the systems don’t run properly, and this point is all the more salient for businesses that depend on automation to manage large data sets.
To clear the way for automation, start by consolidating and scrubbing your data. When all your data is in one place, it is far easier to utilize it to the fullest extent. If physical consolidation isn’t feasible, you still have other options. A smart approach would be to integrate your data using a federated search solution that taps into disparate data sources simultaneously. This way, you can continue to maintain multiple data sources but still access each of them from a single entry point and enable your automated systems to do the same.
More than one-third of American consumers have bought into the idea of the automated, connected home, but the potential applications of cognitive automation mean commercial adoption is about to increase rapidly. As businesses embrace automation and all its operational benefits, those that choose to retain more antiquated processes will quickly be left behind. With some preparation, though, you can reserve your company’s spot in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
This article was originally published on Forbes.com March 8, 2019