Companies are exploring ways to automate manual business operations but few have the institutional knowledge to do so. Jeff Donaldson, however, does. Donaldson, who spent 16 years building IT systems for video game retailer GameStop, is building a methodology that combines robotic process automation (RPA), artificial intelligence (AI) and design thinking to help companies automate manual and routine tasks such as data processing and workforce optimization.
But here’s the kicker: If it works as Donaldson hopes, it will provide enterprises a way to automate work to augment rather than replace humans. Such a method could help stave off job elimination.
“Processes drive all of our organizations and almost anything can be automated so long as you can identify and use appropriate tools to define what that process looks like end to end,” says Donaldson, founder and CEO of Intriosity, a new consultancy whose goal is to create "force multipliers" in business productivity. "I get a real kick out of creating a design method that is not about taking jobs. It's about amplifying human endeavor and making people more productive."
Process automation gaining steam
As defined by Deloitte, RPA includes software that automates repetitive processes usually performed by people. RPA software can replace manual data entry by automatically populating electronic forms, recording data and performing other tasks, such as guiding call center staff during interactions with customers. Gartner predicts the market for RPA software will grow at a compound annual growth rate of 41 percent from 2015 to 2020.
Donaldson is interested in "smart" RPA. Today's RPA systems include a knowledge base and an inference engine but their use is limited to the rules with which they have been programmed. They can't adapt. However,an smart RPA system leveraging AI and machine learning can iterate on and improve its capabilities.
"Where you jump into AI is better decision-making based upon data you’ve created from training and algorithms to make a better decision," Donaldson says. "That smart automation is the most interesting and gets you the highest value… that’s the realm of AI in process automation."
IBM and Salesforce.com, along with dozens of startups, are building such software and Gartner says that most RPA tools will incorporate AI capabilities by 2020. Moreover, well-heeled consultancies Deloitte, McKinsey and Accenture have beefed up their practices around using automation to bolster corporate efficiency.
But Donaldson is crafting a model that applies design thinking, or human-centric design, which explores how customers and employees interact with the organization, what their pain points are, as well as their motivations and desires.
"So long as you apply design thinking you can find those things that help you to automate processes so instead of just standardizing or making processes more efficient you’re making decisions on behalf of an organization to serve a customer," Donaldson.
Donaldson is currently still crafting his design process model, buthe already has some retail, financial services and healthcare scenarios he says can benefit from his design method:
- Retail: Retail organizations struggle to maintain the proper inventory levels across stories, building forecasts from sales data and trends. Donaldson says this entire process can be automated with software, ensuring the proper inventory level.
- Finserv: Financial services companies collect a wealth of data when they decide to take on new customers. They perform background checks for loan processing and other manual, paper-intensive tasks, another process Donaldson says can be performed with software.
- Healthcare: Physicians create their own paper trails, with some help from their insurance company partners. When a physician engages an insurer to get paid, he submits a code associated with each diagnosis to the patient's insurer, commencing a back and forth paper exchange in which the insurer decides who must pay for what. Donaldson says this, too, can be performed with software.
Donaldson also says smart RPA can improve staffing optimization across every industry. It’s a tricky task he became interested in during his 14 years as CIO of GameStop. He envisions creating something of an "Uberization of a corporation," where new services can be called up on demand, then scaled back as necessary, with minimal impact on staffing.
"In my job as a CIO there were all sorts of activities we couldn't undertake because we couldn't afford to hire a staff to operate them," Donaldson says. "With automation, I can deliver the service associated with that activity because automation makes it affordable. If that activity operates at a scale of 10x for a year and then suffers a loss of demand I can scale back to 5x very easily without going through the gut-wrenching process of staff downsizing."
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