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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