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The operational and financial benefits of intelligent automation were already becoming well-recognised by C-Level executives prior to the pandemic. Our own analysis revealed a 75% increase in the number of mid to large-size organisations reporting on their use of automation technologies in their annual reports over a five year period to 2019.

However, the pandemic has proved beyond all doubt the advantages of deploying an agile and intelligent digital workforce. Across a whole range of sectors, those organizations that have been able to rapidly scale up their use of digital workers to meet sudden changes in customer needs, and to support their human workforces, have enjoyed a significant advantage. Traditional resourcing models have been found wanting.

As senior leaders now turn their attention from immediate fire-fighting to future-looking strategies beyond the pandemic, many boardroom discussions will focus on the benefits that intelligent automation can provide in an uncertain and turbulent marketplace. Organisations that are already deploying a digital workforce will be eager to scale up their use of intelligent automation and press home their advantage; those that haven’t had access to digital workers will be desperate to catch up.

The dangers of a bottom-up approach to automation

The temptation for C-suite executives when looking at Intelligent Automation, particularly when starting out, is to over-focus on smaller, rapid return automation opportunities, without considering the broader, long-term strategic value of automation across the business. 

This type of bottom-up, tactical approach will undoubtedly deliver a significant return on investment in the first six months and prove the value of automation in terms of efficiencies, but too often and too easily get stuck in a more tactical execution mode once those initial automation are delivered. Because there is no wider vision for automation beyond those early projects, the program quickly loses momentum and can easily grind to a halt. 

The real drivers of Intelligent Automation

It’s therefore vital that C-level execs adopt a strategic approach to intelligent automation, taking the time to understand the technology and then really considering its long-term potential within their organisation as an enabler of core strategic initiatives. This means shifting their thinking away from tactical deployment of traditional Robotic Process Automation (RPA) technology and recognizing how automation technology has moved on with the integration of artificial intelligence capabilities such as Natural Language Processing, Machine Learning, Computer Vision and other technologies.

With intelligent automation, the digital workforce shifts from being primarily a cost reduction focused to becoming a strategic asset to change and optimize the way that organizations run their entire operations. And with this shift, the benefits become greater – increased productivity, growth with reduced scaling costs, greater customer centricity, large scale shift of human capital towards revenue-generating activity and away from the non-revenue-generating activity, enhanced capacity and more fulfilling work for staff, and more agility and scalability of resource across the entire organization. 

Think big, aim high with Intelligent Automation

What we’re starting to see now with intelligent automation, particularly during the pandemic, is C-Level execs looking to build digital workforces to pursue initiatives that they simply wouldn’t have been able to consider using traditional resourcing methods. How often, as business leaders, do we feel hamstrung by the prohibitive cost and difficulty of finding good talent? How many potentially great ideas fall by the wayside because it’s unfeasible to invest in and find the people we need to pursue them? The fundamental problem leaders are using digital workforces to solve is that they don’t have enough qualified people. Digital workforces provide the scaling capacity businesses need to grow within the context of their capital constraints.

With intelligent automation, these barriers disappear. Businesses are now developing and launching new products and services which are built exclusively on the use of digital workers, whilst others are using their digital workforce as a platform to expand their operations into new territories. 

For these C-Level execs, automation isn’t about cost and efficiency improvements – although these quick wins are important. Instead, they are approaching intelligent automation with their eyes on a much bigger prize, re-imagining their entire operating model and empowering business heads to explore how a digital workforce can be applied in every part of the organisation. As part of this process, they are upskilling their workforces to ensure all employees can work effectively alongside and leverage digital workers, establishing a positive, automation-first culture.

With many industries continuing to feel the squeeze after a year of falling sales and tumultuous change, business leaders will be eager to claw back costs and generate operational efficiencies wherever they can. But they shouldn’t sell themselves short by focusing solely on short-term gratification and failing to grasp the broader transformational benefits that an AI-driven digital workforce can deliver for many years to come.

By Eric Tyree

Eric Tyree is the head of AI at Blue Prism and is an expert in the commercial application of AI and advanced analytics with over 20 years’ experience in related product and technology leadership roles. Eric has led the development of a wide range of data driven products and services in travel, consumer analytics, HR, pensions & insurance, portfolio management, algorithmic trading, retail banking and equity exchanges.

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