IBM Automation Insider

A bimonthly round-up of useful information to help you automate all types of work at scale

January/February 2019

5 articles

25 min

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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Reinventing customer experience like your life depended on it

By Cheryl Wilson

This is a high-stakes customer experience story.

Imagine going about your daily routine when you, or a loved one, contracts an infection that damages the liver, heart or lungs. You need an organ transplant. There are 6,500 people on the waiting list, and an average of three people die every day waiting.

If you were the one waiting, what kind of organ allocation process would you want? One where everyone, especially you, had the best chance of receiving a life-saving organ transplant, right?

That was the opportunity and challenge that faced UK-based National Health Service Blood and Transplant (NHSBT), which facilitates thousands of organ transplants a year in the United Kingdom. How and why they adopted automation to help deliver a life-improving client experience applies to most industries with far less riding on their business operations and the underlying technologies.

And it began with four familiar problems:

  1. A key process was getting too complex and dynamic.
  2. There was no one left who could “work” the systems. 
  3. The process was too slow.
  4. It took too long to make changes.

In this workflow image, every red diamond and box represents a manual process that highly skilled NHSBT employees had to work through for each organ donor.

Reinventing customers experience

Fortunately, this client experience story has a happy ending, beginning with the allocation of hearts. The process is now digitized all the way from the time a nurse discusses organ donation with family members to the time a donation is offered to a transplant center.

How they did it

It took NHSBT six months to design and deploy a new heart allocation scheme with the help of cloud-based process mapping, business process management (BPM) and operational decision management (ODM) technologies.

  • Process mapping allowed them to have a conversation with the people who actually do the work and map the processes the way they can understand them before automation. “It’s the clinicians who design the schemes, and then we work with them to turn that into something that’s implementable,” said Sally Johnson, NHSBT Director of Organ Donation and Transplant. “If I talk to them about cloud platforms, they have no clue what I’m talking about. But surgeons certainly understand it when I tell them we can adapt allocation schemes incrementally and routinely based on new data or research; we don’t need years anymore. That’s enormously valuable to them.”
  • BPM provided a supportive workflow to automate the allocation process, giving staff more time to talk to transplant centers and connect with donation hospitals to make sure families have the best possible experience.
  • ODM enabled them to build flexible rules that can be changed quickly.

Moving forward: The ability to apply things like AI and machine learning to the development of exceptional start-to-finish customer experiences is evolving.

“Will the nature of the data going into the system inform the way we design allocation schemes in the future? Could we get to a point where the system is almost learning for itself and helping us achieve the competing demands of equity of access and organ utility over time? I think yes. We absolutely see this as being a step towards more intelligent allocation schemes over time,” said Aaron Powell, Chief Digital Officer, NHSBT.

Automation is about using a combination of talent, technology and process to support your core purpose – like helping people to do something extraordinary every day to save and improve the lives of others.

Read the full case study

Watch the video of Aaron Powell, CDO, NHSBT

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Seven features of a successful automation center of excellence

By Benjamin Chance

Many otherwise successful organizations can struggle to establish the optimal integration of their existing teams and technologies with the transformative nature of robotic process automation (RPA) and artificial intelligence (AI). RPA and AI have ushered in the fourth industrial revolution, requiring enhanced internal collaboration to rapidly embrace new ways of working. 

At the intersection of these human and technological challenges is the automation center of excellence (CoE).

Why an Automation CoE?

Automation isn’t just a technology journey, it’s the transformation of people, culture and the nature of work. It’s the job of the automation CoE to ensure you have the muscle to start to work in new and disruptive areas — to embrace the resultant human change and ensure that automated processes run smoothly and are strategically improved with new technology.

Specifically, these CoEs can help you operationalize your automation and digital strategies. This includes establishing the governance and metrics; identifying and prioritizing the pipeline; and designing, developing and managing the automations. Throughout that cycle, the CoE guides technology selection, resource management and benefits realization.

As automation creates a hybrid workforce where humans and digital workers excel together, the automation CoE is also there to help human staff join forces with their new digital co-workers. It can help you identify areas where your human workforce can expand their previous skills – now automated or augmented – to provide higher value for your customers.

What does a successful automation CoE look like?

Given the pace of business disruption, speed to value is key. Automation CoEs must have agile in their DNA and rapidly iterate through new technologies and business opportunities to deliver benefits at scale. Ensuring the smooth, timely delivery of automation is a vital measure for CoEs and their stakeholders. In order to achieve that and other objectives, successful automation CoEs tend to have seven capabilities in common.

A successful automation CoE…

  1. Has an engagement model to lead your organization through design thinking to envision the future of your automated enterprise and establish its strategy.
  2. Has a proven methodology to help prepare all members of your ecosystem for the automation-driven changes to employee and customer experiences.
  3. Has a targeted set of education materials to help develop new talent models and career paths.
  4. Can help you build a responsive governance approach across potential operating models (federated, hybrid, centralized) to continuously address business and customer needs.
  5. Can help you accelerate business value identification through automated process discovery and design thinking that optimizes your hybrid workforce.
  6. Can help you develop skilled resources and reusable assets across a variety of industry standard platforms.
  7. Can help you ensure smooth delivery of automations to achieve business benefits with minimal impacts.

Business and IT leaders need an engaged, human-centric approach to kickstart and evolve automation as a lever to turn their innovation strategy into action. Having an automation CoE can help.

At IBM, we’ve been working with clients over the past five years to establish and expand their automation CoEs. If you’re interested in learning more, watch the replay of a webcast where an Everest Group analyst and IBM expert discuss the challenges clients face with intelligent automation and offer practical guidance for tackling them. Watch now or later.

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“How do I make the business case for automation?”

By Katie Sotheran

Much has been written about the benefits of automation, and the challenges of monetizing those benefits are becoming well known. For example, organizations are using robotic process automation (RPA) to automate tasks and reduce human effort. In theory, this gives people time back, which they can spend on value-added work. However, building a business case from those kinds of productivity gains can be challenging, and it misses the larger opportunity to truly transform the way work gets done.

When building a business case for automation, the benefits can and should go beyond cost takeout. An initial reduction in operating costs is a great start, but this can only be realized once. When automation drives growth (for example, through revenue expansion or customer retention), the benefits continue to accrue. Therefore, identifying the ways in which automation can generate or enable new revenue or improved cash flow is an important exercise.

Having said that, it often makes sense to look for simple cost-takeout benefits from productivity gains as a first step. It’s the most easily understood benefit, and the simplest to track. As a result, it can win hearts and minds and help an automation program become self-funding.

So, how should you start to build a case?

1. Establish a baseline.

Consider the existing costs and benefits generated by the workflow. The cost could be primarily headcount. For larger teams, you might consider the cost of space, licenses, hardware and so on. From a benefits perspective, does the workflow directly or indirectly generate revenue for the business, or does it have an impact on, say, cashflow or customer retention? 

When establishing a baseline, it’s important to consider the “dark process” activities (undocumented coping or workarounds) that the team has tacitly developed. These workarounds can accelerate or hinder benefits realization.

2. Identify quick wins and easy-to-measure benefits.

Selecting processes and technology that can deliver early results can be challenging — and ensuring you have the right stakeholders who will be early adopters is a task that’s equally as important.

Here are some considerations to help you identify quick wins and easy-to-measure benefits:

  • As alluded to earlier, your simplest benefit calculation can be time saved. In practice, saving partial FTE is hard to monetize. Consider an initial optimization of the workforce, using a hybrid human-digital team. As you free up some of the work via early automation, the team can start innovating on the process for a more transformational process redesign. 
  • Consider what that time saved can deliver – and think beyond cost takeout. Are you freeing up resources to deliver greater throughput or reducing the time to market for a key revenue-generating product? For example, executing the invoice-to-cash process faster and more accurately will save some people time, but it can also improve the days-sales-outstanding performance, impacting capital expenditure, which will likely exceed any savings in labor costs. Or think about the benefits of reducing manual errors that may be causing rework or liability.

3. Iterate and expand.

It’s important to measure the performance of your automated process on an ongoing basis. Review that performance against the KPIs you identified. Track and celebrate the benefits. Use success as a door opener for opportunities to expand into adjacent domains.

4, 5, 6 … and beyond. Scale and transform.

Those first three steps should be enough to justify, and measure the success of, a fairly straightforward automation deployment. As your initial automation deployments prove their tactical worth, you’ll be ready to scale.

At this point, the business case becomes more complex – and more compelling. Now you’re ready to reimagine workflows and design a new digital workforce to execute against them. This is no longer about incremental productivity gains. It’s about an entirely new operating model. And that’s a topic for another article.

If you’d like to read more on this topic, get the Forrester report: Automation, AI and Robotics Aren’t Quick Wins -- You Can Derive Value Today, But You're Really Investing For The Decade-Long Journey

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Automating work at scale just got smarter and simpler, Part 2

By Jordan Carlson

In the last issue, we highlighted product developments designed to make our automation platform smarter and simpler to use. Some of the new capabilities didn’t make it into that issue. We’re highlighting them here — in  Part 2. As with all of our platform offerings, you can mix and match them based on your business automation requirements.

Let’s get right to the five new or improved offerings — starting with what’s new to help you automate tasks with robots.

1. Attended bots. IBM Robotic Process Automation with Automation Anywhere now includes an attended bot, which allows a human worker to trigger a bot script versus the control room scheduler. These bots act like a personal assistant to your end users.

  • How does it make our platform smarter or simpler? With attended bots, knowledge workers can act as the coordinators of their tasks. Time-consuming administrative work, such as sorting through spreadsheets or copying and pasting data from one field to another, can be executed on-command or directly in response to a human-generated event.
  • Feature or benefit highlight? By facilitating new opportunities to quickly introduce task automation, attended bots can increase the productivity and effectiveness of knowledge workers. For example, a call center agent can get help from an attended robotic process automation (RPA) bot in near real-time during a live customer call.

This new feature is available in the Enterprise Edition only. To learn more, read the blog: The difference between attended and unattended RPA bots.

Next up: What’s new to help you capture, classify and extract data from content?

2. IBM Business Automation Content Analyzer. Content Analyzer is an intelligent, cloud-based service that helps you digitize, classify and extract data from unstructured document content. Designed to work with our automation platform or any non-IBM content management or process automation system through its RESTful API, it can also enable IBM Watson®  and other AI technologies to reveal business insights from your documents.

  • How does it make our platform smarter or simpler? It uses AI and simple document training tools to make data classification from unstructured documents simpler and faster.
  • Feature or benefit highlight? The document training tool reduces reliance on templates and can be configured by a business user instead of a technical expert. Using a simple API, Content Analyzer can be embedded in any process system, capture tool or business application, allowing users to understand and act on data within unstructured documents quickly. 

Next up: What’s new to help you automate and manage your business decisions?

3. IBM Operational Decision Manager 8.10. This version of the decision automation product has been enhanced with a new decision modeling feature that simplifies how decisions can be authored, tested and then executed within your enterprise applications. This feature is also available in IBM Operational Decision Manager on Cloud and a SaaS tool called IBM Decision Composer.

  • How does it make our platform smarter or simpler? It makes it smarter and simpler in two ways:
    • The decision modeling feature enables business users to visually represent decisions, break them down and understand how they’re structured.
    • Decision Composer features a built-in generator for interactive UIs that RPA bots can operate. In doing so, it can make bots smarter by making it easier for non-technical people to create intelligent bots that invoke automated decisions. The same generator is available in IBM Operational Decision Manager 8.10 as an open source contribution.
  • Feature or benefit highlight? It’s the decision modeling feature mentioned above — along with the no-code/low-code environment that makes it easier and quicker to discover and implement business decisions. This helps customers expand to new use cases where no-code decisions are key to modern apps, such as chatbots, IoT and other areas driven by the business.

If you’d like to try IBM Decision Composer, click here.

Finally, what’s new to help you share and manage enterprise content?

4. IBM FileNet Content Manager. In the second half of 2018, we added a new “External Share” capability to this offering to support more secure workforce collaboration, such as legal teams working with contractors, healthcare teams working with out-of-network specialists and service providers, or insurance and banking teams working with independent brokers.

If you’re not familiar with FileNet Content Manager, it’s an industry-leading, scalable software offering designed to enable security-rich, mobile, anytime access to your content stores. It can be deployed on public and private cloud or on premises. 

  • How does it make our platform smarter or simpler? The "My Shares" view enables an internal employee to view and monitor all shares activated, to change permissions and expiration dates, and create audit trails and reports. It makes content sharing more secure, traceable and controllable.
  • Feature or benefit highlight? The external share capability provides external users with a level of security and traceability not always seen with cloud providers. External users are registered using standard access protocols. They can access, alter and upload documents while every step is tracked and available for reporting and regulatory compliance.

For companies that can’t use basic cloud file share services, like Box or Dropbox, because of content-sharing visibility and control requirements, these features could be helpful.

5. IBM Enterprise Records. This offering is built on IBM FileNet Content Manager to help you capture, declare, classify, store and dispose of electronic and physical records according to fiscal, legal and regulatory requirements. It also supports IBM Content Manager.

  • How does it make our platform smarter or simpler? In a world of increasing privacy protection regulations and penalties, IBM Enterprise Records streamlines records-based activities and helps enforce compliance with retention policies — with or without user participation. It’s also available on cloud for faster deployment and management services.
  • Feature or benefit highlight? There are two notables:
    • Automated records capture: As documents enter the organization as part of a business process, they can be automatically added to a file plan and committed as a record according to company policy.
    • Retention and disposition: Document and records personnel have more ways to control who has access and when a document is disposed. It also generates reports on demand to prove a document's security — what is often called a Certified Chain of Custody.

That’s all for this issue’s product update. Check back in a couple of months or sign up to get an email alert when the next issue publishes in March.

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What automation opportunities are out there? How do you get results?
Every other month our experts share five pieces of strategic content to help you drive growth through automation.