2019: The race to create intelligence is on

By Cheryl Wilson

To kick off the year, I asked Mike Gilfix, VP, IBM Digital Business Automation, to share his take on the automation landscape and what that might mean for business and IT leaders.

Here are the highlights of our conversation, starting with a look back at 2018.

Let’s start with some free association. If you will, complete the sentence: “2018 was the year of [blank].”

2018 was the year that automation became front and center in the enterprise. Enterprises started to proactively ask how automation can change their business operations, instead of being a concept pushed by vendors.

Last year also marked a key milestone for IBM when we introduced our new automation platform designed to change the way organizations look at digitizing their operations.

What do you think caused automation to become more “front and center”?

I think the meteoric rise of robotic process automation (RPA) technology, and the hype around it, had a lot to do with raising the awareness of automation’s value. It brought big challenges to the forefront that go beyond what RPA can deliver. People are now looking to automation to scale workflows, provide new forms of self-service, reduce errors in decision making and use business data in new ways — without having to add a ton of people to get value. 

Before we move to 2019, any lessons learned from 2018?

One stands out for me. There are different ways you can drive scale in an organization, so it’s important to identify the pinch-points preventing you from scaling. For example, are your people spending too much time sifting through documents to figure out what action to take? Or, is it more about coordinating the decision making across your business? Organizations can get stuck as they try to figure out how, and where, to get started with automation technology. Having the right framework can help you identify these pinch-points so you can scale.

Now, if you will, complete the sentence: “2019 will be the year of [blank].”

2019 will be the year of truly intelligent automation.

The race to create intelligence is on. And it’s on for everybody. Vendors are feeling the pressure to deliver on their promises to integrate AI and machine learning. Right now, we’ve only scratched the surface of enabling technology to participate in areas where only humans could participate before, such as processing unstructured business data.

This year, I think we’ll see a maturing and evolution of the types of intelligent technology available in the marketplace to support adding intelligence to your operations.

We’ve already started on this path. In the fourth quarter of last year, we laid some of the groundwork with our IBM Business Automation Insights capability, which allows you to start capturing the digital exhaust or data that can come from your operations. Business automation insights (BAI) can be integrated with machine learning, and we’re planning to make that a more seamless integration this year.

What advice would you give companies this year? Where should they focus their resources?

Intelligence is built on a foundation of data. The richer the data set, the better the intelligence can be “fed.” Companies know this, but they struggle to get high-quality data. A lot of time is spent trying to clean up the data.

One of the opportunities we see is around unlocking high-quality data from operations to feed AI efforts — simplifying that process. I encourage organizations, if they don’t already have some work underway, to build up that high-quality data set and start experimenting with it. Once you do that, you can start looking at areas where you can use intelligence to support automation.

Companies might also consider a project to experiment with how they can apply things like machine learning to three classes of problems that are driving automation today:

  1. Information extraction: How people can get information from unstructured business data like documents and images.
  2. Workflow assistance: How people can use recommendations on task completions or have low-value tasks handled by the system.
  3. Decision making: How people can improve real-time decision making across the organization.

Should we pay attention to any low-hanging, high-impact use cases?

Many people jump to their core business processes when applying automation, but there are many supporting business processes in legal, accounts payable, vendor management, onboarding and so on that can drive great returns for the business.

What opportunities should decision makers prepare for down the road, beyond 2019?

Digitize as much as possible. Digitization has many benefits, such as better and easier change management. Digitization also leads to the integration of the intelligence. The more digital your operations, the easier it is to automate them. I know that sounds basic, but there are a lot of companies that still need to do that.

Now, for something lighter: “Free the humans” is at the core of the IBM Automation manifesto or creed, the why behind the what you do. What one thing would you free humans to do this year if they were given, say, an extra five hours a week as a result of automating certain aspects of their job?


I think that’s at the top of a lot of people’s list.

Think of how transformative sleeping an extra hour a day could be — to how we feel, how we think.

I think we just solved the world’s problems.

(Laugh.) I’d also add learning something new. What could we learn to make ourselves more valuable to our organizations, our communities, society?

If you had five more hours a week, would you sleep, would you learn something new or something else?

Probably a little of both — sleep and learn something new.

Final thoughts?

In a way, this is an exciting time for business leaders and tech providers. I think there’s a revolution going on and a big evolution in how people approach knowledge work. We’re at the ground floor of what’s going to be an exciting journey.

I’ll be at Think 2019 in San Francisco, February 12 - 15, with other IBM Automation executives and experts, and our clients, to discuss all things related to the evolution of automating work at scale. If you’re interested, here’s a look inside Automation sessions and activities at Think.


Disclaimer: Statements regarding IBM's future direction and intent are subject to change or withdrawal without notice and represent goals and objectives only.

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