January 14, 2021 By IBM Consulting 4 min read

Mike Gilfix is VP of IBM Automation and Chief Product Officer, ensuring a close alignment between IBM Cloud offerings and the needs of clients.

 Q: When we think about automation, many people just envision replacing workers with machines, but IBM views automation differently. What is that difference?

A: Automation is the gift of time. It’s an opportunity for people in many different roles to use their time differently to create more value. It’s an opportunity to dramatically unlock the power of labor to focus on what matters most.

Just think of the things you’re spending time doing every day; how many do you actually want to put on your resume? Most are probably low-level tasks. Imagine a customer advisor in any industry; do you think they want to put “I entered 50 clients into my database today” or “I filed my TPS reports today” on their resume? Or would they rather write, “I recruited five new customers today ” and “I grew my book of business by X amount”?  Intelligent automation can handle low-level tasks so you can spend more time focusing on the things that deliver those meaningful results.

Q: What’s the difference between intelligent automation and traditional automation that businesses have been implementing for decades?

A: Intelligent automation—or hyperautomation or extreme automation, as it’s also called—is different because it’s not just mechanical in nature. It focuses on information, using artificial intelligence and hybrid cloud technology. We’ve had automation for mechanical processes and some simple clerical tasks for a long time. But in the last few years, intelligent automation has advanced to the point where it can now help achieve important goals in other vital areas—including information technology roles and business roles. The common thread in these roles is that they’re information-centric in nature.

Given the proliferation of data in the digital era, without intelligent automation, many of us would spend our days sifting through piles of info just to figure out what is actionable. Instead, AI can now quickly process and synthesize vast amounts of data for us, using algorithms to determine the next steps needed. This lets people spend more time on the things that truly matter, such as human judgment, empathy, relationships, creativity and ideas.

Scale is another difference. Traditional automation typically focuses on isolated low-value tasks, while intelligent automation operates at the organizational level and spans the entire enterprise. It leverages powerful information-centric processing to comprehensively rethink the workflows between people and machines—bringing both together into a new way of working, a new seamless operating model.

Q: Does this mean artificial intelligence is now a driving force in automation?

A: Absolutely. AI is accelerating automation. We’ve recently hit a critical convergence of key technologies such visual recognition, natural language processing and machine learning, and these have opened up incredible new possibilities. Just five years ago, those three technologies were in their infancy, but now they’re becoming mainstream. They power tons of different AI technologies that can be applied in many different scenarios.

Automation in IT is especially important because every business is digital now. And when everything you do is digital, then clearly IT is the key by which you’re going to facilitate innovation. AI-powered automation could reduce manual IT processes by up to 80% and operations expenses by 75% by 2022. Across enterprises, AI-powered automation could free up more than $130 billion in labor within two years. These are huge opportunities. Given that we’re all digital enterprises now, intelligent automation is a key technology to enable sustainable growth.

Q: What kind of results are individual companies achieving through AI-powered automation?

A: One example is the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Processing claims was a manual process for them; they needed about 200 people to go through reams of mail, sort and digitize paper letters by hand and do a lot of data entry. Turnaround time was typically more than seven weeks and the process was extremely error-prone. We helped them automate their entire workflow end to end to capture, classify, and extract data from content and intelligently automate decisions and subsequent actions with business rules to reduce their turnaround time by 90%, handling urgent claims in as little as five minutes. Best of all, automating that sift-through process lets their people spend much more time on the high-value part of their job, which is figuring out how to better serve each veteran.

I can also mention Nextel Brazil, which has more than 25,000 network elements running their telecom service. When something goes down, they have to pinpoint the problem in a massive infrastructure. It’s a classic needle-in-a-haystack problem at a vast scale. We helped them apply AI-powered automation to locate root causes quickly and achieve an 83% reduction in response time to network incidents—going from about 30 minutes down to five minutes.

Q: What strategic advantages does IBM offer in helping companies implement AI-powered automation?

A: First, IBM is the only company that has a single platform for both business and IT automation. That’s important, because using both together is key to unlocking rapid innovation in the digital era.

Secondly, IBM has deep expertise in helping companies run their core business processes. We understand their industry and infrastructure needs, and we know how to bridge them from where they are today to where they want to be.

Third, IBM builds technology for enterprise use. When we went into the area of AI, approached hybrid cloud issues and created automation solutions, we did so with the needs of our enterprise customers in mind. We built from the ground up to solve specific large-scale business problems. And while we’re at the forefront in natural language processing, machine learning and the other technologies in AI-powered automation, what makes IBM unique is that we’re focused on the needs of enterprises and making sure that technology works for them.

Finally, we keep the human impact of automation at the center of every strategy. Again, automation is about giving the gift of time, and helping you use your day differently to focus on the things that matter most to you. Used wisely, it can make us all more productive, more capable people.

This Q&A is part of the Built for Change Perspectives series that is exploring trends in business transformation. Learn more.

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