Intelligent automation – time to slow the AI rush?

COMMENTARY
 
Just as mainstream businesses are getting used to the idea of robotic automation of elements of office work, we’re told that we need to be moving beyond robotic automation to intelligent automation. Is it really that time already?

If you’re already familiar with Robotic Process Automation (RPA) or Robotic Desktop Automation (RDA) technologies, chances are you know that there are two separate markets that they serve: Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) providers, and enterprises across an increasingly diverse set of industries (starting with banking, but certainly not ending there).

RPA and RDA saw their first proving grounds within the BPO community, as providers sought to find ways to differentiate, increase service quality and efficiency and reduce human involvement in tasks that very often were already highly routine, high-volume, repetitive and rules-based. Now, though, the more diverse ‘enterprise adoption’ wave is hitting – as enterprises look for ways to drive more automation, particularly (but not exclusively) in contexts where time is wasted interacting with sets of legacy systems in order to complete transactional work.

For a moment, let’s look at the BPO community and where those providers are with respect to work automation.

Genpact is a BPO provider that is undergoing its own digital transformation – offering a rapidly-broadening set of digital technology-powered propositions that go far beyond traditional BPO. Earlier this week it announced its intention to acquire its partner RAGE Frameworks, which offers a platform of machine-learning services that can be composed to create ‘intelligent machines’ – automating large chunks of financial services processes like loan origination, providing Real-time Intelligence in capital markets, and so on. For Genpact, simple rules-based transaction automation isn’t enough. And it’s not only Genpact: everyone from Accenture to Xerox is at it.

This makes complete sense: BPO providers need ways to continue to differentiate, both against each other and to guard against being made irrelevant as the ‘enterprise adoption’ wave of robotic automation is hitting and some enterprises start to wonder “if we can automate work within our own organisation, do we really need all those offshore human resources?”

But it’s not only BPO providers like Genpact that are taking part in the AI land-grab. The RPA and RDA technology providers themselves are doing it too. For example Workfusion is in the process of launching a free RPA tool, while promoting its ‘cognitive automation’ capabilities.

So the common refrain from technology product and services providers seems to be “RPA isn’t enough, cognitive is where it’s at.”

However there’s danger here: by shifting too quickly to promote ‘intelligent’ or ‘cognitive’ automation tools and downplaying the impact of RPA and RDA, suppliers are at risk of overshooting many enterprise customers’ requirements.

This kind of message will work well in the BPO community, but it’s counterproductive for mainstream enterprises. Enterprises need to make judgements and investments in a nuanced way, in line with carefully-considered automation strategies. Yes, ‘intelligent’ or ‘cognitive’ tools probably have roles to play in the context of some business processes; but a simplistic sell from suppliers along the lines of “robotic automation is old, cognitive is where you should really be focusing” is not going to end well.

COMMENTARY

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