Automation, IT Management & Operations - What's it all about?
Business Process Automation has been a hot topic for business, the IT Press [CW] and many IT organisations since the beginning of this decade. The Harvard Business Review [HBR] distinguishes the centuries of automation:
Machines take away the dull - automated interfaces from airline kiosks to call centers, relieve humans of routine service transactions and clerical chores.
Machines take away decisions - intelligent systems, from airfare pricing to IBM's Watson, making better choices than humans, reliably and faster.
Before Business Process Automation (BPA) the IT industry tended to focus on Business Process Management.
The Springer Lecture Notes argue that “Business Process Management (BPM) includes methods, techniques, and tools to support the design, enactment, management, and analysis of operational business processes”.
BPM is still very important for BPA
It is the approach to defining and managing the business processes that organisations want to automate.
Mature organisations identify business processes they want to automate, do the BPM thoroughly, put the processes under the governance of BPM and then automate them using BPA methods.
In the field of BPM there are many tools in the market that coordinate or orchestrate business processes that are supported by computers.
These tools tend to tie transaction processes that are coded in computers into a longer and often richer business process.
There is some overlap between BPM and BPA, but the most commonly cited types of BPA tools are:
- Screen Scrapers – tools that interact with web or client user interfaces by processing data displayed in the UI and entering data in the UI. These tools are usually scripted to just understand the screens in the UI and therefore are easily impacted by any screen changes. The latest generation of screen scrapers can be deployed as “robots” or pieces of code that mimic human interact with screens.
- Job Schedulers – tools that interact with computing processes, scheduling and managing their operation, automatically without human intervention.
- Robotic Agents – tools that mimic humans interacting with human users such as Virtual Agents over Chat interfaces. The Virtual Agents can be programmed to ask the human user well defined and well scripted questions that the human user must answer with a limited set of answers. These are called Interactive Voice Response (IVR) tools that we find when calling Call Centres. The latest technology employing Artificial Intelligence provides Virtual Agents that are built on Deep Learning and Natural Language to interact with the human user with a realistic conversation.
There are a number of benefits from automation:
- Cost Reduction - often the number 1 driver for organisations; automating business processes can reduce the cost of labour by reducing headcount
- Quality - under the right conditions automation can improve the quality, consistency and predictability of process execution.
- Resilience – Machines can perform longer without downtime than humans
- Speed - Machines invariably execute repetitive manual tasks quicker than humans.
- Monitoring - it is often much easier to monitor and measure the performance of a machine because of the way they can automatically record execution and because they are usually dedicated.
- Scalability – Automated process can often scale quicker and more easily. To scale human driven processes requires training and recruitment of more people which can take time
- Security – Machines can enforce segregation of duties and improve compliance
Because machines that automate tasks are often more reliable and predictable than human organisations turn to machines to improve their operational efficiency and productivity.
What is NGA HR doing?
We're using a number of tools to automate certain processes.
1) Redwood Cronacle is a tool specialising in job scheduling for SAP.
We use it for triggering, monitoring, alerting and reacting to the execution output of programs, scripts and managing the daily movement of files. Redwood has a strong relationship with SAP and is a good tool for managing the scheduling of batch jobs in SAP.
2) Globascape EFT is a file transfer management system.
We use this to exchange data in a secure fashion between NGA HR and clients/vendors without touching a file manually. This is accomplished using Scripts that are built to automate the solution for each of our clients/vendors.
3) Kofax TotalAgility is a Business Process Management software.
NGA HR uses it to transform existing business processes that require human decision making, data sets from multiple sources, presenting this information to the users in a methodical and efficient workflow to minimize time and error.
It uses a Business Process modelling tool to graphically build process models and execute them as workflows.
4) Blue Prism is a Robotic Automation tool.
We use it to take existing manual, resource intensive and tedious tasks of inputting data via a user interface to applications that are completely deterministic, and automate these steps verbatim by the use of software robots acting as humans.
5) Winshuttle is a data management tool focused on SAP.
This is used to load data into euHReka. It is integrated with Microsoft Excel where data can be manipulated and prepared. It can then load data to SAP much like LSMW.
All of these tools provide essential runtime support for NGA HR HR Operations and Service Readiness.
In Application Services and Technology Operations, the use of tools for automation is sporadic and largely ad-hoc. Certain IT Processes are supported by our business oriented Automation tools such as password reset using Blue Prism.
On reflection, most of our automation is probably focused between Harvard's 20th and 21st Century paradigms of automation.
Automation is taking on dull tasks and making limited decisions but none of our implementations could be called truly cognitive and they are certainly not able to learn.
What are the challenges?
There are many. Automation is not easy. It requires a lot of analysis up front.
- Resistance to automation by the individuals impacted by the process change
- Lack of definition and documentation of the process to be automate
- Automations tools are not cheap and the skilled resources to implement, develop, configure, maintain and operate them are not cheap
- Too many automation tools on the market and each one has significant constraints - no one stop tool
- Each tool integrates differently with the system we want to automate and many focus on specific systems
- Each automation tool has its own idiosyncratic approach that means a learning curve to use effectively
- Each automation tool requires its own skillset as there is no standardisation across the tools
- Automation is only effective when the target procedure and the data is well understood
- Volatility of change in target procedures and data causes change pressure on automation
- Most automation methods are definitive and therefore intolerant of variations of the target procedure and data
- Most machines (automations) are not able to auto-diagnose or self-heal and often need highly skilled and costly human intervention
- Security is a big concern
To mitigate the risks of automation and address the challenges:
- Any automation initiative should follow a standardised business case including:
- Benefits of cost reduction and process improvement
- Costs of implementation, management, maintenance and automation infrastructure
- Security risks to the business
- Business continuity risks in the event of automation failure
- Look for opportunities to improve productivity - Determine the biggest impact to the business and prioritize accordingly
- Make sure we understand the business process
- Implement Business Process Governance to ensure correct ownership of processes, e.g. by region or business unit
- Implement Automation Governance linked to Business Process Governance to ensure alignment of automation and business processes
- When we analyse and define the procedure to be automated make sure we identify the unhappy paths and build in automation to deal with those
- Assess the complexity and variability of data for risks to automation
- Carefully assess the availability of additional technologies for automation
- Ensure best fit solution, not most available resource
- Build in measures and human intervention to deal with automation error
- Make sure we have the right governance in place to manage change and mitigate the impacts of change
- Design Security in from the start
A guide to business process automation software, Computer Weekly http://www.computerweekly.com/guides/A-guide-to-business-process-automation-software
Beyond Automation by Thomas H. Davenport and Julia Kirby, June 2015 https://hbr.org/2015/06/beyond-automation
“Market Guide: Robotic Process Automation Tools” Cathy Tornbohm, Gartner Symposium, 6 –10 November 2016, Barcelona, Spain
Gartner has analysed tools and companies in the Business Process Automation field. They prefer the term Robotic Process Automation (RPA). They define RPA as...
“Tools that provide an executable to move structured digital data automatically between systems - any systems.… using the existing user interface pathways in the presentation layer or the integration tool of choice.”
Robotic Process Automation Specialists
Multiple Software Offerings
IT and BPO Service Providers
 “Business Process Management: A Survey”, W.M.P. van der Aalst, A.H.M. ter Hofstede, and M. Weske, http://staff.icar.cnr.it/staff/ruffolo/public_html/progetti/projects/23.Semantic%20BPM-%20in%20OntoDLP/Business%20Process%20Management%20A%20Survey--10.1.1.14.2433.pdf