Zen and the Art of Intelligent Automation

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“What if we’re not thinking big enough?” That’s a question for anyone wondering why automation isn’t having a more profound effect on their business.

The secret, we’ve discovered, is that it’s not about size. The issue is often that automation is treated as a discrete project – like rolling out a new piece of software or a new product. Intelligent Automation is a little more profound: it’s a way of expressing the connections between people around the business – from suppliers, through employees, to customers – in new, digital, scalable ways. It demands a form of self-enlightenment.

Profundity needn’t be daunting. The Zen master just asks simple questions with an open mind in order to shift focus from the world around them to that state of enlightenment and understanding.

Don’t worry – Intelligent Automation doesn’t require you to imagine the sound of one-hand clapping. In project management parlance, we’re simply talking about a category shift – from ‘project’ to ‘programme’. So, what’s the difference – and how does the change in mindset help?

 OK, so what is the difference?

The Association for Project Management (APM) has some useful definitions. Its glossary defines a project as: “a unique, transient endeavour undertaken to achieve planned objectives.” The most important word here is ‘transient’. A project is time-limited and narrow in its objectives. It moves something – an organisation, a process, an asset – from one state to another.

A programme, on the other hand, is: “a group of related projects and change management activities that together achieve beneficial change for an organisation.” The focus here ought to be that last phrase – ‘beneficial change for the organisation’. If we lose sight of that as the over-riding objective, individual projects won’t just fail to achieve their aims – they can be actively detrimental to the organisation.

 Wait – does that mean it’s ‘all or nothing’ when it comes to intelligent automation?

No. Like any innovation, it’s sensible to trial and test to see how it might be applied to different processes. But it’s thinking more broadly that delivers the full potential value. Intelligent Automation is a suite of technologies that can address lots of different problems. The elegance is in how people match their business issues to those capabilities – which may be partly revealed by these test cases.

 Got you: I identify a problem then work out how different IA projects solving elements of that problem come together as a programme.

A big question is how broadly you define your problem. Some organisations will identify ‘cost reduction’ as a key aim, for example – they can see inefficiencies sucking value out of processes. Intelligent Automation can focus on that. But we've had conversations  with dozens of clients that start with issues connected to cost that quickly reveal adjacent challenges related to risk and compliance, or reporting hassles, or resource allocation.

So, we might address data ingestion issues, analyse then automate a process… ‘and what do we do next, to maximise the value?’ asks the client. The answer is joined-up ‘programme’ thinking; it’s a natural extension of that search for value. The challenge is the perception that an organisation can simply plug in some bots and value will magically appear.

We’re not talking about a straightforward plug-and-play approach, then.

That’s right, a really powerful Intelligent Automation approach emphasises the unique needs of an organisation, its people and its strategy. And IA is not component-specific. The effect it has on a business isn’t defined by a specific tool or a cookie-cutter approach.

For example, we worked with a banking client on a system handling 16,000 payments a day. Each one came into the bank as un-formatted text. We were able to build decision-making into an RPA engine to determine what might be wrong with the details, identify the correct dataset for the payment, validate target bank accounts and execute the transactions.

That’s a whole raft of decisioning logic. We could have built it using machine learning; in fact, we worked with the people in the team handling that part of the business to develop rules based on their own understanding. Either approach has the same objective: develop a sophisticated insight into how the process can deliver more value.

But that wider concept – defining decisioning rules to make the organisation more effective and efficient – is a potential programme for the bank way beyond that discrete process. Within that programme, individual projects can automate particular processes. And each of those projects can be delivered using a variety of components, tools and approaches.

Does that mean if one part fails, it all fails?

Definitely not. And what organisations learn from projects that face challenges is incredibly valuable, too. But a programme delivers effectively when there is co-ordination between different elements – a commonality of tools and approaches, and shared lessons learned about how they dovetail with the organisation’s employees, customers and other processes.

Back to the APM glossary: a Project Management Office (PMO) is “a group or department within a business, agency or enterprise that defines and maintains standards for project management within the organisation. The PMO strives to standardise and introduce economies of repetition in the execution of projects.”

This is the secret of scaling those individual success stories – the projects – into a scaled-up change programme that delivers value across a range of areas and create narratives that engage human workers to create lasting beneficial change.

“The many in one, the one in many,” then?

Yes – this is the Zen of Intelligent Automation. Like a brain, the more synapses we connect and the more seamlessly they interact with ‘the body corporate’, the better both the individual processes and the whole entity works.

Let’s conclude with one other definition, then – not, this time, from the APM. Wikipedia says Zen “emphasizes rigorous self-restraint, meditation-practice, insight into the nature of mind and nature of things; and the personal expression of this insight in daily life, especially for the benefit of others. As such, it de-emphasises mere knowledge and doctrine and favours direct understanding.”

Put another way, if you’re not interested in insights or progression, it’s fine to leave all the work to humans. If you’re looking for rigid doctrines to guide you, Robotic Process Automation might be enough. But to think bigger and achieve greater enlightenment, Intelligent Automation is the open-minded ‘way of many paths’ to a holistic understanding of the organisation.

Zen Intelligent Automation
Rigorous self-restraint Should never over-reach; IA projects should work together to reach a higher goal. 
Meditation practice Machine learning; rigorous testing.
Insight into the nature of mind & things Finding the essence of any process and it's underlying rules; how processes interconnect. 
Expression of insight in daily life for the benefit of others Designing solutions that put digital and human workers in harmony. 
De-emphasize knowledge and doctrine in favour of direct understanding.  Applying sets of rules about a single process is not enough. IA is about understanding a broader mission and delivering better decisions in support of it. 



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