Recently I had the opportunity to participate in a Video Roundtable on Google Hangout with a two Cognizant colleagues of mine, Kevin Benedict and Rob Brown. Both Kevin and Rob are part of Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work (cFOW). Kevin, our host, is Head Analyst for SMAC (Social, MOBILE, Analytics and Cloud) at Cognizant. Rob, a co-author of the wildly popular Robot and I whitepaper, is Associate Vice President, Global Head of Cognizant’s cFOW Market Strategy and also responsible for outreach for Business Process Services.

Kevin had some great questions on the genesis of process automation for today’s large organizations and outsourcing industry and also asked us about the all-important nexus between Big Data and Analytics and what we at Cognizant call Intelligent Process Automation. Excerpts from Rob and my answers follow. (Of course, I also urge you to check out the video when you have time to take in the full discussion).

Kevin: “Automation” is the industry’s new hot button; everyone has jumped on this and is coming out with their own automation practices. Haven’t we been “automating” forever? What’s different this time around?

Rob and Matt:

Traditional tools for automation are either technology “heavy”, meaning they take quarters or even years to implement, often require code level integration to the applications they are automating, cost a great deal and generally require processes be reworked to fit into their models.

On the other end of the spectrum are light tools such as macros, screen scraping and keystroke recorders. These are considered very brittle in IT terms. They don’t scale, they aren’t reusable, and they aren’t suited for many corporate back office environments (most can’t work across Citrix or Virtual Desktops for example).

Today’s automation technologies are characterized by these traits:

  • Low cost relative to BPMS or ERP type automation
  • Rapid implementations
  • No hardcoding into the applications being managed
  • Scalable – often object oriented based
  • Operable in a remote or virtual desktop environment
  • Embedded security functionality
  • Output logs of detailed transactional data

There are two ways to apply traditional RPA:

  1. ASSISTED AUTOMATION (automation working in tandem with a person, e.g., in a provider verification process). Cognizant’s approach to this is called “Interactive Automation”.
  2. BATCH PROCESS AUTOMATION (where the automation works independently, often in a data center or other hosted environment, e.g., claims adjudication). Cognizant’s calls this “Autonomous Automation”.

[NOTE: Gartner calls these two forms of process automation “Adaptable Automation”: the ability to mimic a process through automation].

Kevin: We are hearing a lot about “RPA” (or, Robotic Process Automation) in the industry… What’s that all about? How is Cognizant’s automation practice different from the offerings of other service provider firms?

Rob and Matt:

Intelligent Process Automation, or “IPA”, is Cognizant’s term for smart robots that automate processes to complement smart people. IPA is enabled by a powerful, proprietary framework of technology, methodology, best practices tools and integrated analytics. IPA helps business leaders to LEARN from their processes AND meet the dual mandate of run better, run differently.

[NOTE: Gartner calls this “Orchestration (Intelligent Process Autonomic Services)”: the ability enable a process through configurable autonomics]

The reality is that digital labor won’t supplant knowledge labor, but rather work in tandem to make smart humans smarter and businesses more agile. In fact, many of our clients find the greatest benefit of IPA is accelerating their journey toward the next, and fast approaching, levels of process automation and analytics.

Kevin: Lots of talk about the real benefit of process automation being all the powerful data it generates. Is it really meaningful data or is just lots of it?

Rob and Matt:

In the right hands it’s incredibly meaningful. IPA drives not only efficiency gains, but provides critical business value by generating rich data that can extend the creative problem-solving capabilities of human beings.

Our IPA technology generates gigabytes of “audit log data” per client per day – available to Cognizant analysts focused on root-cause analysis and predictive process optimization.  Instead of reacting to issues, we are preventing them from reoccurring and delivering even greater outcomes to our clients.

Data feeds the Artificial Intelligence elements of automation; it improves analysis and “decisioning” capabilities. It may help clinical diagnostics systems make better treatment recommendations. It may improve recommendations for financial portfolio management. It could be used to optimize loan approval processes or streamline medical validations for faster treatments.

Forward thinking and fast moving organizations are digitally automating work completely by harnessing the power of emerging digital technologies, such as social, mobile, analytics and cloud (or the SMAC Stack). By igniting the digital information surrounding these processes – or Code Halos — organizations can realize business insights in far greater fidelity than has ever been possible before.

Kevin: Rob and Matt, a final question for this chapter of our roundtable. In the industrial revolution people feared that the human job market, as they knew it, would disappear. That didn’t happen. But are critics right this time?

Rob and Matt:

In the 20s and 30s, as factories were retooling themselves for that eras’ waves of technology, workers responded by adapting and developing skills complimentary to these new innovations. Electrical machines like typewriters, dicatphones, assembly and production machines all created roles and opportunities that were new for that era. Later, those bookkeeping, clerical and other repetitive positions were replaced again by automation and technology (PCs and word processing replaced typing pools for example).

Most studies suggest that is happening again, just maybe not as fast as some want it to. We already see examples of that in digital arts (computer based graphic design and illustration, digital media and content creation), and social media management positions just to name a few.

Kevin: I think that aspect of this discussion, the future of jobs in the face of all this automation and digitization, is a great topic topic for another video roundtable. I look forward to talking with you both again soon!