Have we entered the Automation Economy, or is intelligent automation just buzzword bingo? Automation Anywhere's CEO on what's next

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed January 13, 2023
Is "intelligent automation" buzzword bingo, or a genuine step forward to an Automation Economy? Automation Anywhere CEO Mihir Shukla fielded my pesky automation questions - and explained how customers can avoid RPA silos and get a better automation result.

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The automation software market is not for the seasick. Before the pandemic, Robotic Process Automation (RPA) was facing tough ROI (and funding) questions. Fast forward, and every vendor has an automation strategy - leaving customers with the tough job of identifying the effective from the hype.

Buyers have the additional burden of making sense of a slew of new automation buzzwords. RPA, perhaps tarnished by limited results, is now giving way to catch phrases like "hyperautomation" and "intelligent automation."

I am notoriously buzzword-allergic, but I grudgingly accept these phrases. Why? Because they point to a bigger ambition - end-to-end process automation, rather than the drawbacks of automation silos. But we still need to ask: do these new automation buzzwords signify genuine advances in tech and customer value, or are we putting lipstick on pigs yet again?

We're a long way from RPA - or are we?

That's a cheerful starting point for a virtual sit down with Automation Anywhere CEO and co-founder Mihir Shukla. Given that Shukla has been pressing the automation imperative since 2003, what is his take on this suddenly-crowded market, with everyone from ERP vendors to process automation specialists getting in on the act? Is this a validation of Automation Anywhere's approach, or do we now have a tech bandwagon with too many carnival barkers? Is Shukla feeling annoyed, or vindicated? As he told me:

I think it's a validation of the category and everybody recognizing it. It is immensely helpful. In terms of our commitment to the mission, which is to bring the power of automation to the billion-plus knowledge workers, the fact that everybody talks about it creates an awareness - and emphasizes the need for it. Smart customers will always pick the better solution. So it ends up benefiting us immensely.

For Shukla, the biggest change is not the decline of the RPA buzzword, but what that decline represents: a shift from back office thinking. Shukla now puts automation at the center of our economic circumstance.

I think historically, the automation category itself has always been pursued as something that is in back office processes. But where the technology has now come, we have to think about it very differently. It is about democratizing the power of automation to every single employee. We are witnessing an emergence of a very different economic environment; I call that the Automation Economy.

We are living through this time of high inflation, where there is less working population. Even after the recession, the total working population every year for the next ten years will be less than the year before. So we cannot keep thinking about running our businesses the way we have in the past. Remember, there was an Internet economy. The people who mastered it significantly outpaced everybody else. People who master the Automation Economy will outpace all other competitors.

I've been forced to concede on this point: I don't see the tension between AI-powered automation and talent I was expecting - not yet. Today's machines are very good at many things, but humans are still needed in many workflow loops. With talent at a premium, companies must excel at both automation and human talent. Shukla:

That's absolutely right. A few years ago, there was some concern about this, as it is with any technology. But as people understood the technology, they realized: this is not about replacing people. This is about helping people. This is about making work more human. This is about allowing people to be able to do what they're best at. We weren't put on this planet to copy from one screen to the next.

We call them bot buddies, or digital co-workers. They're the most productive digital workforce there is on the planet, because they're 24/7, at the speed of computers, and allow us to do what we would hate to do. [Bots] allow us to be more efficient, effective and happy. All three things are important, and effectively make businesses more profitable.

Intelligent automation versus RPA - notable difference, or buzzword mischief?

So, about those automation buzzwords: Automation Anywhere is big on "intelligent automation" - one trip to the home page makes that clear. How do we distinguish between this and RPA?

I would say customers will continue to use both terms. RPA acts as a foundation for digital transformation, by integrating many applications and automating them. But without a doubt, almost every conversation, even if it starts at RPA, goes into intelligent automation. For example, we have a process intelligence solution called Process Discovery. It is an AI-based solution that creates a kind of neural network for your entire business. It maps your entire business and says, 'Here are hundreds of product, and thousands of processes, and here is how they work.'

This process map can be surprisingly revealing - even for company insiders.

I have never seen a CEO who knows every process in it. Nobody knows - it's distributed in so many people's heads. Sometimes there are 16 variations of it. Seeing an entire map of it allows you to understand how work happens today. That's immensely powerful, because of what can you do with it: you can decide, 'I don't want the 16 variations of the process; it should happen in two different ways - that's about it.' That's a great start.

Shukla says this makes subsequent automations more strategic:

I don't need this to happen manually. I need this to happen automatically. Or, I don't need this to happen at all. It is not adding me any value. You can completely redefine the future of work when you have a map of your entire business that way... That is now part of the intelligent automation conversation.

Shukla believes automation itself is a more effective/mature discipline. If so, that's good news, because many companies are still bogged down in inefficient, manual processes (see: Southwest). In this economy, the price for legacy processes is steep. Shukla added:

There is still lots of paper around, in all forms. Some of our bots have seen 100 million invoices in 18 languages, and they have learned from every interaction. There's not a single human being with that kind of an experience... It has reached a level where it really adds a great deal of value, and that's a great use of AI as well.

Can automation deliver in an economic pressure cooker?

That gets us to the two issues I believe customers care about the most: one is value. If you can't demonstrate how automation can pay for itself - not years from now but this year - then this is just an academic discussion. Second, you may be able to give me a comprehensive view of my processes, but if you can't identify a handful of automations with quick/high impact, I'm not going forward this year. However, as Shukla points out, being able to clearly articulate your overall automation strategy also has impact:

In many cases, boards are asking, 'Hey, what's your automation strategy?' So you can take a screenshot of one of our dashboards and say, 'This is where I was, and this is where I am. And this is where I'm going.'

I see today's tech spending environment as a "pressure cooker." IT spending is happening, but only with priority projects - and an emphasis on transformational tech that can also provide quick wins.  So how does Automation Anywhere help customers that are getting started notch those quick wins?  Is that where the process analysis and orchestration piece comes in? Or are there like common use cases where there's a quick automation win to pull out? Shukla:

We often get them started on two parallel paths. Most of the customers that you visit, either they have a clear idea of what they want to do, or we have a clear idea where most efficiencies are that they can immediately achieve.

For example?

In areas of finance, supply chain,  HR and various operations in contact centers, we have a menu of one hundred different processes. We now have 5000+ customers; we even have a best-of-the-best operating model. So, we can say, 'If you automate these six processes, based on your size, you're likely to save this much.'

The second part is to start putting this process mapping in place. So that in two weeks, you will have a list of fifty other processes. This is about things you don't know about. Every company has unique aspects of how they operate. In two weeks, when you see those fifty processes, when people look at it, it is eye opening, - and there are immediate saving sometimes within a month. So take an approach on both sides to make progress. It creates a great pipeline for this transformation to continue.

Makes sense - but Shukla also emphasized the democratizing power of automation. Therefore, we need examples of employees having impact who are not RPA diehards. After all, aren't employees in a particular line of business the best ones to help automate those processes - and point to breakdowns? Shukla told me a story about an intern - an intern who saved their company a big chunk of change.

People are amazing - they are. But only if you take them on the journey, and share with them what this could do. They know so much about their world; they will take the charge forward, and create amazing things out of it. We see that every time  - an HR person created some unbelievable outcome out of it, or some intern created a bot that produced six million more in revenue. People find amazing ways to leverage automation and transform their business. That's the power of innovation, right? [That's why] automation shouldn't be limited to five people.

Intern details, please?

It was one customer that had a tiered pricing model. They used to change the tiered pricing based on every month, because you have to check systems and usage and whatnot. And the intern wrote a bot that will query in real-time every 15 minutes, and then update the pricing tier.

My take - automation maturity models needed

I've run out of space before I could even get to the problematic buzzword of hyperautomation. I also wanted to drill into what Avantra CEO John Appleby calls the "automation paradox" - when the exact people you need to drive automation through the organization are the ones in shortest supply. Shukla has interesting answers to both of these topics; now I have no choice but to do a follow-on piece. Why?

Because when I brought up the need for an automation maturity model, Shukla mentioned a new Automation Anywhere program called Pathfinder. Given that customers can get stuck with one-off automations that don't connect the process dots, I asked Shukla:  "If we just simplify this for a moment, and, and bracket customers into beginner, intermediate and advanced, where do your customers breakout between those three areas? He responded:

There are a few people who are in the advanced stages, and have hundreds of millions of dollars of benefits. And they've taken this to tens of thousands of their employees. So you have that segment, then many people are in the middle, where they began the journey two or three years ago, and they reached a certain scale, and are getting ready to transform across the organization. And there are still quite a few people who are at the beginning.

Shukla was candid about where some companies get stuck:

One challenge we see is in the automation market elsewhere: although 95% of people believe that automation is the path forward, and they're committed to the journey, only 13% of people have been able to scale.

Shukla and his colleagues don't want that to happen to their customers:

One of our value propositions is to drive automation success across all of our customers. And how do we do that? How do we help every customer scale and transform? One of the things that we introduced a few months ago is a program called Pathfinder. Pathfinder is a well-defined path of seven missions. When followed, it creates a very deliberate, well-defined path for every customer to succeed on this automation scale journey. 13% is not acceptable. Every customer must succeed with automation.

I'll do a walk through of the Pathfinder program, and let you know what I think. That's a good stopping point for now. Though I do have a request for Shukla: can we solve automation for real estate and car purchases? If that happens, maybe I'll become an unlikely evangelist for intelligent automation. Oh - and as I joked to Shukla: I hope that intern got a full-time job.

Updated 8am ET, January 13, with a number of small corrections for reading clarity that didn't make it into my original copy for some unknown reason. Also updated January 17, 8:00 pm with an important clarification on Pathfinder to more accurately explain what the program is.

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