I have been meaning to revisit one of the sessions at last month’s Appian World conference, as it featured senior representatives from some of the world’s largest systems integrator/analysis/consultancy companies talking about not just examples of the application of Appian’s low code/AI/workflow environment, but also some of the wider issues of why businesses should even consider bothering with such technologies, and what they really ought to be thinking about as the underpinning of their top-line objective of digital transformation.
Perhaps the most fundamental thought to emerge was an extension of the idea that business managers need to be evolving their thinking well away from the traditional ‘technology solution’ goal – often decided by that combination of which tech vendor has the most persuasive sales teams, post-sales technical support and, of course, pricing structure.
Instead, they should be thinking about not just an outcome-based business objective but a bigger, broader business goal that is made up of multiple, inter-related business goals that could extend from the widest extremes - ranging from the hard-nosed ‘make maximum possible profit in the shortest timescale’ - to the almost certain extreme opposite - ‘invest in whatever is needed’ to `leave every customer gagging for more’.
Business transformation has nothing to do with technology, even though it is technology that makes any of it remotely possible; instead it is about re-building a business in the image of the business environment as it changes and develops. One example that came out of the panel session concerned the business of financing automobile sales, which has increasingly moved not only online but also become contactless for purchasing and delivery. These are new business methods that have then run up against the need to meet regulatory standards that were never designed to cope with such approaches.
This has led players in that business to target little pieces of the overall business process, which requires some deep dive task mining to understand what is really involved. It has also involved identifying what elements of the process can be automated and what constitutes an area where humans can add real value, setting it all against a deep understanding of what the business needs to achieve and why those needs are really important.
For example, a growing number of businesses will say that they need ‘an Amazon-like experience for their users’, regardless of whether that is really true, or whether there is a better way of meeting the real needs that customers and users have of a vendor or indeed, as in this example of auto-finance and banking, whether having the banking community know quite that much about their customers is to the advantage or detriment of various parties involved.
Pandemic = automation objective
The four panelists were Cameron Krueger, a managing director with Accenture’s Specialty Finance Practice; Carrie Maloney, the Lead Alliance Partner for Appian within Delloite’s Alliances and Ecosystems organization; Yogi Kumar, a Senior Manager with Ernst and Young’s Daily Automation Practice; and Himanshu Arora, an Associate Vice President at Infosys, running the Digital Process Automation Practice globally. What follows is largely geared to letting the themes of their collective wisdom flow, regardless of specific speaker.
One of the first questions put to the panel concerned the general state of the user domain at the moment. Inevitably the pandemic featured heavily, particularly as a driver of change. Handling business continuity and business resiliency has prompted a large influx of automation opportunities coming in, especially in areas such as cutting operational costs and improving the bottom line. The trend now is towards bringing in Intelligent Automation which is localized, such as RPA, AI and Machine Learning, with the objective of leveraging across front office, middle office, and the back office in areas such as contact center transformation, investment management and compliance needs. The user technology landscape continues to be more and more complex, not least due to the growing range of integrations required between new cloud native applications and existing legacy applications that remain important to the business.
Automation is also starting to feature strongly in the area of regulatory and governance processes, particularly in the Public Sector, where there is a growing urgency focused on the need to run regulatory processes faster, but with the same emphasis on quality. But the consensus view was that automation has become the area that everybody is talking about and wants to start exploiting. Users clearly understand the importance of cutting out as many manual processes as possible so that they become more efficient.
Verging on convergence
Another strong theme the panelists were seeing was convergence, and not just the interconnection of old and new technologies so that they talk together, but a far deeper look at how that convergence of ‘what can now be achieved with converged technologies’ plays out in the way fundamental business processes can be adapted and enhanced. There is now an opportunity to drive value in the convergence by re-thinking the actual business processes, most of which have not changed that much since the age of the quill pen.
The move now is for them to encourage clients to start with a blank piece of paper and work out how to bring together all the different required components of a process that are necessary and bring them together in one orchestrated environment. As part of this, they also need to think about what constitutes a defensible competitive advantage. If that is not yet an obvious step, then they should go for the low-hanging fruit that drive out costs and drive up outcomes.
This is the core notion of orchestration, where a conductor ensures that all the different components come into play effectively in the lifecycle of a businesses relationship with its customers. These need to be addressed efficiently and appropriately in the here and now, while retaining the ability to change over time. This was summed as ‘not just automating old processes, but to think about how to automate the perfect process’. And that ‘perfect’ process may now need to include psychological as well as technological tools. For example, where direct customer contact is a core part of the process, building empathy between customer and vendor becomes a vital capability and technologies can help deliver and monitor that.
One area where the availability of a convergence platform comes into play is where systems need to be able to talk to each other, especially where there is also the need for individual players to keep their data where it is.
Having a centralized convergence platform to enable them to communicate with each other allows them to work toward a common goal, a capability that is already often important and, in the panel’s opinion, only likely to become far more important in the future.
Orchestration is also going to grow in importance as part of that need, particularly as many users carry a large quota of technical debt. It will be needed to bring together the complex patchwork of different pieces as businesses go through a digital decoupling process that can take years. What is more, that multi-year change program now has to be achievable in months, if not weeks.
Their apt description of this process was ‘rebuilding the plane while in flight’.
The culmination of this is that users are starting to understand, and work towards, goals based on business outcomes rather than technology exploitation (especially of the ‘bleeding edge’ variety). But the shift is still slow, focusing more on picking off little goals one at a time, such as building definable intelligent processes, like intelligent document ingestion and creating intelligent workflows.
This also involves re-imagining the role of the human in the whole process. In particular this involves recasting the humans into tasks that add real value, while taking the perfunctory parts of their job and automating those out and ultimately creating a focus on what really matters. The panel members argued that one of their key jobs is to ask users what they really want from a system and to forget about having a ‘really cool application’.
It is also important for the SI/consultant community to know their customers and their business objectives as well as possible, so it is not that difficult to postulate that businesses should know themselves at least as well. This is, perhaps now one of the key roles for the CIO out into the future, to be that focal point of information, knowledge and understanding.
`Rebuilding the plane while in flight’ is one of those marketing phrases that specialist consultancies might charge a million bucks to action, but it does perfectly capture the issue now facing all areas of the C-Suite of any business these days. The classic three year replacement cycle where business processes, once set up, were held in stasis till the next major upgrade, is now gone – or really should be by now. Using new applications is now like a rock gig - set up the rig, sound check, play the gig (with some new songs added and old songs dropped), break it all down, and off to the next gig tomorrow night.
No gig is the same, every day is different, and the plane needs a continual rebuild, and it all has to meet an underlying purpose managed by someone who understands not just what is going on, but why any of it needs to happen. That is the new role of the CIO, the orchestrator, conductor, services broker, and Chief Keeper of The Company Vision.