IBM Automation Insider

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

September/October 2019

5 articles

19 min

Don’t perfume the process pig (and other takeaways from Automation 2019)

By Cheryl Wilson

As our Automation 2019 roadshow hits the halfway mark, it’s time to pause, reflect and share some inspiration and education from these deep engagements. The following are two takeaways — and a few resources — you might find helpful or inspiring, whether you attended or not.

1. Don’t perfume the process pig

Most people are familiar with the phrase “perfume the pig” or “put lipstick on the pig.” It means you can’t take something ugly and make it pretty by dressing it up.

I was reminded of this phrase when listening to the keynote — The convergence of automation and AI. Rob Koplowitz (link resides outside IBM), vice president and principal analyst at Forrester, started with this provocation: Digital transformation is largely failing — at a rate of 70 percent.

One of the reasons, to paraphrase, is a tendency for companies to develop something pretty on the front end without automating the less glamourous, but oh-so important, back-end process.

For example, imagine you buy a high-end product, say, a car with lots of bells and whistles. It comes with a good front-end experience: mobile app, social monitoring, CRM. You can even tweet the CEO and get a reply. Then, your driver-side window is broken and replacing the glass is a bang-your-head-against-the-wall bad experience. No wonder, the process is all paper and spreadsheets on the back end. You should’ve bought that other car, the one that consistently delivers on its 24-hour replacement service level agreement (SLA).

According to Rob, what sits between the front-end customer experience and the back-end processes is digital process automation.

My takeaway: Most of us seek beauty that’s more than skin deep in our people, places and things. It’s natural to expect the same of the business processes that affect our daily lives. Digital transformation is about taking pretty to the core by applying digital business automation to the less flashy, but critical back-end processes like supply chain, vendor management and the like.

To learn more about the value, opportunities and limitations related to automating work, download The quick and practical guide to digital business automation (PDF, 294 KB).

2. Solve the knowledge worker’s dilemma

A knowledge worker is anyone who uses, thinks about and needs to act on information for a living. That’s a lot of people, and potentially a lot of lost productivity if they aren’t spending enough time on things that matter most to the business, such as finding new ways to grow revenue.

According to some estimates, two hours per day per employee could be saved by automating tasks.¹ If you figure 250 workdays per year, that’s 500 hours per year per employee. Multiply that by the number of knowledge workers in your organization, and the potential hours reclaimed through automation add up fast.

In his keynote, Jim Casey, director of IBM Digital Business Automation, attributes part of the failure of digital transformations to the cognitive load it places on knowledge workers as they deal with a lot of change-related information. Add to that overload an ever-increasing amount of low-value work — entering data, creating reports, managing documentation — and you get lots of knowledge workers spending less and less time doing high-value work.

This is the knowledge worker’s dilemma: You hire people with high skills to do high-impact work, but they spend more and more time on low-impact work. In effect, you hire a loan officer who can’t be great loan officer or a social worker who can’t be a great social worker. Probable outcome: A vicious cycle resulting in missed goals, low job satisfaction or unexceptional customer experiences.

Jim explained how to help knowledge workers reclaim the hours per day lost to low-value work. Here’s a quick summary:

  • What you need to do: You need to automate (that doesn’t mean automate everything) — but you need to do it in a repeatable and scalable way. You also need to maximize the number of people who can contribute so the automation can be applied wherever needed.
  • How you do it: To do the above, you need to be able to do three things:
    1. Create automation capabilities or services, like automating decisions or defining and assigning tasks
    2. Combine those services with AI to create digital workers who automate or augment work
    3. Build the applications employees need to do their jobs with digital co-workers

My takeaway: As a knowledge worker, the estimated two hours per day that could be saved by automating tasks seems conservative. What seems imperative is solving the knowledge worker’s dilemma, especially for customer-facing employees, if you plan to grow productivity. 

Watch Jim’s keynote (27:00) for more detail on solving the knowledge worker’s dilemma, including client examples. He also covers two areas where IBM Automation is innovating over the next 6 to 12 months to help solve this problem.

Finally, if you’d like to learn more about the financial analysis behind the 675 percent ROI referenced in his keynote, get it here.


1. Mousa Ackall, “Unpacking AI & Automation: Our 2020 In(Sight) Report,” Workmarket, Accessed  11 September, 2019, (link resides outside IBM)

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Burnout and the future of work for social services

By Leah Dienger

“I don’t know how you do it!” a friend said. She was referring to my job.

At the time, I worked in the youth justice system as a social worker and had a bursting-at-the-seams caseload of defiant, rebellious teenagers. I got used to hearing this exclamation throughout my 25-year career working with abused and neglected children, individuals with substance abuse and mental health issues, and families deeply entrenched in generational cycles of poverty. The profession took a toll on me while I clung to the hope of making a difference.

I wasn’t unique going into this caring profession. I knew there was a high likelihood my career would be cut short by the stressful demands of the job. Like a lot of social workers, I witnessed many passionate and highly competent colleagues leave the profession, run down and weary. All the while, I wondered: how can social services agencies retain these talented workers without burning them out? And then I left the profession to work for IBM.

The turnover trauma

Governments depend on compassionate and committed social workers to support the service delivery models designed to meet the needs of their most vulnerable citizens. Yet, workforce instability is a reality. In the United States alone, jurisdictions can experience up to 90 percent of frontline worker turnover each year.¹

Over my 25-year career, I’ve seen how workforce stability and case load size directly affect client outcomes and worker satisfaction. When worker recruitment and retention are high, performance and case outcomes are high. When worker recruitment and retention decline, job morale declines and those needing help suffer.

This dependency is particularly poignant in child welfare programs where the stakes are high. Worker turnover in this service line has a devastating impact on a child’s chance to be reunited with their family or to be adopted:²

  • Children with one case manager have a 75-percent chance of reunification or adoption
  • Children with two case managers have a 17-percent chance of reunification or adoption
  • Children with four case managers have a 2-percent chance of reunification or adoption
  • Children with 6 - 7 case managers have a 0.1-percent chance of reunification or adoption

What can be done to reduce turnover?

Examining the social worker experience

Let’s start with the fact that, for many, social work is akin to a calling. Helping people in need provides great, if not the greatest, job satisfaction. But commonly voiced frustrations threaten motivation, such as:

  • Navigating lengthy government compliance processes
  • Managing complex ecosystems
  • Manually executing heavy paper-laden and administrative tasks

Even social service agencies that turned to technology years ago to help with compliance and documentation tasks now recognize how complex, inefficient technologies may have contributed to social worker frustrations and burnout.

While user-friendly, assistive technology is readily available in the commercial market and our personal lives, it’s not plentiful in the public sector yet. But it can be one of the keys to reducing turnover.

Freeing the frontline

Frontline social workers can spend up to 80 percent of their day executing administrative tasks.³ This leaves only around 20 percent for client-facing activities, which is too low to improve long-term outcomes and reduce government social program dependency. As someone who’s been on both sides — social work and tech — there’s available technology that can help flip those numbers now.

But where do you start?

Start by looking at the types of work social workers do. Figure 1 below shows the time social workers typically spend performing expert, departmental, administrative or ecosystem tasks today and how that time can be rebalanced with the application of intelligent automation.

  • Expert work includes tasks performed by skilled human social workers, such as conducting in-person visits and administering social, emotional and behavioral assessments.
  • Departmental, administrative and ecosystem work includes tasks that are often required, especially for compliance with government policies and regulations, but are mostly redundant or repetitive.
Graphic representing how intelligent automation can be used to rebalance the social workers’ workload

 Figure 1.  Rebalancing the work performed by social workers with intelligent automation

Many redundant or repetitive tasks are ripe for automation, such as typing handwritten notes and forms into agency systems or manually requesting verifications or background checks from external systems. Expert work — which requires creativity, discernment, empathy and an alchemy of skills and experiences — is where social workers want and should be focusing more of their time to achieve best client outcomes.

A new way: A hybrid human and digital workforce in social services

Seems odd to introduce digital workers into such a deeply human job. But as the nature of work changes, wouldn’t it be great if case workers had access to automated digital workers to help offload repetitive and administrative work so they could spend more time applying their skills to helping vulnerable citizens?

Good news: Social workers can get back to being social workers with the help of proven automation technology. By combining automation capabilities or services, such as automating tasks with bots, extracting and classifying data from documents and automating decisions, digital workers can be created with the skills needed to execute meaningful parts of end-to-end processes and to work seamlessly with human social workers to deliver exceptional experiences to government workers, citizens and families.

Benefits eligibility, foster care home approval and placements, and research gathering across ecosystems are just a few examples of where digital workers can provide support in social program delivery. By offloading the repetitive, low-impact work, digital workers can free human social workers to conduct more thorough professional assessments and offer more customized services for improving outcomes.

Figure 2 shows an example of the anatomy of a digital social worker built by IBM Automation Services. Child welfare social worker, Ana, is able to offload a number of repetitive, routine tasks to her digital workers.

Watch Ana’s story.

Illustration of how digital workers conduct tasks, allowing case workers to do a more satisfying level of work

Figure 2. Anatomy of a digital social worker

Why act now?

To recruit and retain a quality workforce in social program service delivery, it’s important to ensure social services and citizen-facing government workers have the time and resources to focus on what matters most when helping those in need.

If younger, talented workers are to be attracted to this field, they can’t be expected to move from a technology-rich personal life to an environment with limited technology and a relatively primitive work experience. To innovate, you don’t have to undertake massive system overhauls or prolonged risky transformations to provide social workers with technologies and methods to help them do their jobs better.

But this isn’t really about technology. It’s about the future of work for social services. By thinking bigger and taking the view that technology can execute some of the work alongside these professionals, more rewarding job experiences are possible for them, along with better outcomes for the individuals, families and communities served.

At IBM, we’re invested in helping to solve the problems facing our public sector clients. If you’re interested in what we’re currently doing, contact me, Leah Dienger: And if you’d like to learn more about IBM Automation, in general, contact my colleague, David Pewitt:


1. Child Welfare Information Gateway, “Worker Turnover,” (link resides outside IBM)

2. Florida TaxWatch, “Challenges Facing Florida’s Community-Based Child Welfare System,” November 2015, (link resides outside IBM, PDF, 2.6 MB)

3. Locum Today, “Social workers spend 80% of time on admin,” 29 May 2018, (link resides outside IBM)

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Three tips for more securely collaborating with your partners, suppliers and customers

By Joel Mazza

Collaboration is essential to business success. It requires clear and rapid communication, which often includes sharing valuable and confidential content. With many public options available for sharing content, how can you collaborate productively without adding security and governance risk to your operations?

Here are three tips for more secure and effective collaboration with any stakeholder: 

1. Avoid using unmanaged, unmonitored network folders

Creating a shared folder is the simplest way to enable collaboration between your workforce and external collaborators. An enterprise content services solution with external file sharing provides a high degree of security and information governance over all assets, including those created or added by external collaborators. True governance allows workers to collaborate productively even with sensitive information, such as personally identifiable documents submitted by a customer or confidential supplier price quotes. Look for the following features that enable more secure collaboration:

  • Administrators can set expiration dates on the file-sharing services to help automate the management of access rights.
  • Activity logging and tracking that provide insight into how content is being shared and used through rich auditing and lifecycle services.
  • Analytics that provide administrators with visibility and transparency into how workers collaborate with external parties to understand usage patterns and potential signs of misuse. This information can reveal new opportunities for improving how users collaborate.

2. Apply granular user rights and control over assets

Cloud-based file-sharing services efficiently enable workers to share content outside the enterprise, but it’s often with little or no oversight or meaningful governance. The security settings for most content services applications limit control to the folder level. This creates security holes where too many users inherit unintended access to confidential information.

File sharing with document-specific security controls discretely determines who, based on role and rights, can access and edit content at the folder and content level. Permission settings for external users limit actions to view and download only, or limit collaboration to new or existing content only. Trusted external collaborators can work in the system with more advanced rights, including the ability to create new folders and content. These settings can be managed centrally to help simplify administration.

3. Support many content types

Different business processes require different forms of content. For example, rich content, like audio and video, can improve collaboration, so it’s important to ensure external users can share these rich assets securely in a controlled environment. For faster and more accurate communication, users also need to easily apply metadata, annotate, tag and comment on — and within — videos and documents.

In summary, simple folder-based sharing works in small, safe internal environments. For many organizations, confidentiality requirements and regulations make this simple approach nonviable. The above three tips can make seamless and efficient collaboration possible without compromising the need for granular role and content level access (internally and externally), governance and auditability. The ability to collaborate securely with managed content services helps simplify the digitization of operations, a key step in any digital transformation journey.

Note: The capabilities highlighted in this article are part of the IBM automation software platform. They’re also available in IBM FileNet Content Manager.

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What is a digital worker, really? (And how do you get one?)

By Barry Mitchell

Not too long ago, the term “digital worker” described a human employee with high digital skills. That was before the market defined it as a category of automated co-workers trained to do specific job tasks or execute business processes alongside their human colleagues.

Unfortunately, there’s no single, industry-wide definition of digital worker, which makes the concept harder to grasp and the potential impact on your business harder to forecast. There is some consensus among major robotic process automation (RPA) vendors when it comes to the concept of digital workforce: software-based labor that can perform specific tasks. But that definition is limited when you look at what’s available and what’s to come, technologically.

Digital worker defined

From the IBM Automation perspective, a digital worker is software-based labor that can independently execute meaningful parts of complex, end-to-end processes using multiple skills — skills that go beyond what RPA tools alone can offer. For example, a cash application digital worker may be able to autonomously perform parts of three traditional job roles — customer service representative, billing agent and cash applicator or dispute resolver — to perform an Order to Cash (OTC) process.

A digital worker represents labor, and labor requires skills. In this context, a skill is the application of one or more base capabilities, such as vision, natural language understanding or decision making. That skill is used to execute a specific job task, such as prioritizing work or preparing a report. Think of how a skilled radiologist or physician uses two base capabilities — vision and analytical reasoning (and years of experience) — to interpret an MRI image.

In sum, digital workers are multiskilled so they can execute across a reasonably useful scope of work and interact with humans to perform a sequence of tasks and activities that form a complete workflow. For example, you wouldn’t hire an administrator who could book meetings but couldn’t respond to emails. In the same vein, you wouldn’t want to create, say, an SAP administration digital worker who could monitor SAP but couldn’t create a ticket in Service Now or fix an issue it finds.

How do you get a digital worker?

You can go to a bot store and download what some RPA vendors call a digital worker, but these are still mostly simple, single task bots that can open a spreadsheet, download some data and post it into an ERP system. They don’t combine capabilities, such as document ingestion, natural language understanding or reasoning, from across the automation spectrum into the skills needed to execute end-to-end processes, such as OTC or Talent Acquisition (TA). Most bots aren’t true digital workers.

To help catapult productivity, most companies will need true digital workers to elevate and scale customer and employee experiences. And to get one, you’ll need to build it, get someone to build it for you or use digital workers from service providers “as a service.”

Below is an example of a digital worker IBM Automation Services created to support multiple clients in our business process outsourcing practice. 

Meet Ocash

Ocash is a digital cash application specialist: the latest recruit for the finance and accounting function. It’s often helpful to consider and position your digital workers in the roles they fill within your enterprise’s operations as shown in Figure 1 below.

Graphic representing the digital workforce persona using Ocash

Figure 1. Example of how to position a digital worker in the role it fills

To create Ocash, IBM's services team began with the workflow outcome in mind. Breaking down OTC into component parts, the team then focused on one of the more manual parts of the process. Within the cash application process, tasks were identified that could be automated, augmented and those that would still require a human to execute. IBM designed the process so Ocash could execute tasks best suited for automation and then call upon its human colleague(s) when needed.

In Figure 2 below, see some of the skills and associated tasks of the OTC digital worker. Ultimately, this could amount to more than 100 individual skills as the digital worker is taught and learns more.

Graphic representing skills and associated tasks of the Order to Cash digital worker

Figure 2. Digital worker skills — cash application

See an OTC digital worker in action (03:44).

Best practices for creating digital workers

When designing and building digital workers, four important design principles prevail:

1. Think big and take the view that the technology could run large parts of some processes

Where humans are involved should represent the proportion of work that deals with more complex exceptions, escalations and interactions — and improves the customer experience. Train bots to find and flag exceptions for human teammates, freeing humans from mundane monitoring activities.

2. Take an end-to-end view

Regularly step back and look at how all work tasks connect in terms of data flows, dependencies and impact on straight-through processing. Something you can automate at the start of the process may radically change what happens downstream. For example, automating the verification of invoice accuracy with a customer at the start of the process can significantly eliminate the number of payment disputes later on.

3. Build on your RPA beginnings

Digital workers are more than RPA, but that doesn’t mean they have to be cutting edge. The use of machine learning requires a lot of data and at least some idea, or hypothesis, for how you want to improve the process. Neither the data nor hypothesis may be available until the digital worker runs for a while, so don’t ignore the technologies that continue to serve you well.

Keep it simple to start: You can make the robot and the process smarter by enabling intelligent data capture, or you can help the digital worker make decisions — to know what to do next — by adding complex business rule engines.

4. It’s a people thing

You must consider the human element. Take a persona-based view. Enterprise design thinking can help you determine how you want humans to interact with digital workers to enable the intelligent workflow.


One of the key tenets of IBM’s future of work point-of-view is that we need to rethink how work gets done. In the new workforce, true digital workers will be working seamlessly with their human counterparts to get work done and deliver exceptional experiences to customers and employees. Digital workers can help take the robot out of the employees, freeing up your most important resource, your humans, to do the most important work. The key to digital workers at scale is to make them configurable and adaptable, in the same way our human workforce has been for decades.

Note: IBM Automation Services can provide prebuilt digital workers as a service, or help you purpose-build digital workers. And, in October, the IBM automation platform team will announce new software capabilities that include guardrails and tooling for building your own digital workers. We'll dive into the new AI and automation capabilities in the next issue.

Reclaim productive hours. Learn about the new intelligent digital worker tool for reconfiguring how work gets done.

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Removing obstacles to digital transformation with content services

By Joel Mazza

Digital transformation remains a big theme driving investment priorities for many enterprises. To meet the demands and capitalize on the opportunity, businesses need to be able to access and organize more accurate data — structured and unstructured. Attempts to solve this using distributed enterprise content management solutions have run into obstacles, such as too many siloed and redundant content repositories serving specialized use cases.

IBM FileNet Content Manager continues to evolve to help close the content gap between systems — an essential first step in building a comprehensive, secure and consistent content services foundation for digital transformation and AI.

Here are six new or noteworthy product features and associated benefits that can help you build that modern foundation:

1. Modern, cloud-native architecture

FileNet content services are now bundled and integrated with IBM Cloud Pak™ for Automation — a flexible automation platform for building and running automation services and applications anywhere, on any cloud. Using container technology, a fresh micro services architecture and modern storage options, system administrators can install, deploy and update FileNet applications fast — in a fraction of the time required previously. You can lower application total cost of ownership while enabling faster access to new capabilities.

2. External file sharing and collaboration

FileNet users can create a shared file or folder for simple collaboration with external collaborators, such as customers, suppliers and partners. System administrators can reduce the use of unmanaged and unmonitored network folders, while providing a higher degree of security and information governance over all content assets, including those created or added by external collaborators.

3. Faster, simpler application development and integration

Developing new applications can be time consuming and expensive, yet the demand for new applications seems endless. To streamline the application development process for those use cases that require or can benefit from content services, FileNet now features low-code design and development tools. In addition, FileNet APIs have been rewritten to support the GraphQL query language (link resides outside IBM), providing simpler, more efficient access to FileNet services and managed content.

4. Automatically organize and extract intelligence from content

IBM Business Automation Content Analyzer is now integrated with FileNet, providing enterprises with the ability to automatically enrich content from any source with accurate and actionable metadata. This capability can be applied to new or existing content to increase the metadata context and accuracy, making it useful to decision-making processes or other business applications, including AI tools. With native integration, Content Analyzer is easier to deploy for a wider range of applications that use FileNet content services, reducing development time and cost.   

5. Comprehensive governance through federated services

While these capabilities have been available in FileNet for years, federated content services are important once again as repository sprawl becomes a digital transformation obstacle.

As IBM continues to invest in innovative capabilities, the value of federated content services from FileNet grows in parallel. External file share, intelligent content enrichment, rich media collaboration and many more capabilities can be applied to content that’s spread across a fragmented landscape of content repositories. These federated capabilities provide the necessary governance to create a rich and consistent content foundation that can feed virtually any system or automation application from a single point of configuration and administration.

6. Efficient, flexible any-cloud deployment

For cloud or hybrid deployments, FileNet is fully architected for containerized deployment on any cloud. With the launch of IBM Cloud Pak for Automation, FileNet can be deployed as a turnkey containerized solution on RedHat® OpenShift® on IBM Cloud™ with all the licensing flexibility included in IBM Cloud Pak. 

Bringing it together in one platform for digital transformation

Digital transformation initiatives are multifaceted, requiring a range of capabilities across different disciplines, including content services, data capture, workflow, decisioning and operational insight. Integration is the difference-maker when applying these capabilities in an agile development model. IBM Cloud Pak for Automation integrates these capabilities to deliver an open end-to-end application development platform with IBM FileNet Content Manager at its content core.

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