It sounds contradictory. The only way to take advantage of the benefits offered by digital technology and workflow automation is to invest in people? But that’s the assertion by Accenture in its recent report, Technology Trends 2016.

In particular, there’s one section of the report called “Intelligent Automation,” a conglomeration of the same sort of big data/artificial intelligence/Internet of Things/algorithms trends that all the other analyst firms are focusing on. The company also surveyed more than 3,100 IT and business executives to determine their interest in this trend.

For example, 82 percent of executives surveyed agreed that organizations were being increasingly pressed to reinvent themselves and evolve their business before they are disrupted, Accenture writes.

In particular, one of the compelling arguments in the report is that intelligent workflow automation has become a key enabler of the changes companies need to make. 70 percent of corporate executives reported they were making more investments in AI-related technologies than they were two years ago. In fact, 55 percent said that they plan on using machine learning and embedded AI solutions extensively.

AI is one of those technologies that people have been talking about since the 1980s as the “next big thing.” So what is making this all happen now? Two factors, according to Accenture:

  1. As more business processes and, through the Internet of Things, even objects are touched by software, the scope of what can be automated has grown.
  2. Due to developments ranging from cheaper storage to IBM’s Watson and the semantic web, AI technology has advanced.

Much of the recent emphasis on AI has been in the context of people concerned that they will be replaced by robots or software. But lest you worry that you will intelligently automate yourself and your staff out of a job, Accenture says that’s not the case: All this workflow automation is intended to put “people first.”

In other words, instead of replacing people, it is intended to augment people by doing the repetitive, boring, or unpleasant tasks that the people themselves would just as soon not do. “Far from killing jobs and creating a dehumanized future, pioneering companies are using intelligent automation to drive a new—and much more productive—relationship between people and machines,” Accenture writes.

Instead, the people’s jobs will switch to teaching, managing, and maintaining the machines that are doing these tasks, Accenture writes.  For example, while Siemens has implemented a “lights out” manufacturing plant that is completely machine-operated, it still requires 1,150 employees to support it, the company notes. “They just have different roles than before, as many are now focused on programming, monitoring, and machine maintenance.”

Where all these people are going to come from, when we can’t find data scientists and other skilled technologists now, Accenture doesn’t say.

On the other hand, Accenture provides intelligent workflow automation plans that companies can implement over the course of 100 to 365 days, including some of the following recommendations:

  • Take an inventory of labor-intensive business processes and identify appropriate opportunities to invest in automation and machine-learning capabilities. These can help to improve operational capabilities and scale analytics.
  • Identify specific applications that require frequent and manual updates, rapid scaling, data extracts, and/or a high degree of personalization. If an application relies on data, classify it as a top candidate for artificial intelligence, such as machine learning for self-evolution.
  • Map these examples/use cases against your current business processes and corporate strategy to prioritize specific opportunities—to catch up or gain new advantages.
  • Map the implications of tasks being automated—the changes to roles, organization, processes and skills. Determine what needs to be done fundamentally differently once certain automated tasks are removed from the human side of the workforce.

What Accenture is describing is essentially to “Create a workflow” by looking at:

  • How do users generate content?
  • Where is the information from that content being recorded?
  • What is the point of the content?
  • Is the information source used again?

And remember that once you’ve created the workflow, you can use workflow management software to keep it running smoothly. It doesn’t have to be used only for high-end processes such as self-learning. Documents can be automated, too.

Following these methods to define the steps of a process, and then look for ways to streamline it, can’t help but improve how your company functions. This is true even if all the steps continue to be performed by people and your company never implements intelligent automation per se. And you can switch over that much more quickly, when AI tools become available.

Or when your robotic overlords tell you to…

Get more information on the top trends affecting today’s workplace – including cloud, mobility and workflow automation – in this exclusive IDC research, “The Future of ECM: Code-Free Integrations and Anywhere Access.”

 

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