Is Automation the Key to Modernization?

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Automation and modernization have been tightly linked for centuries.

The Jacquard loom brought automation to weaving in the 18th century, transforming a craft into a modern factory enterprise. Similarly, early digital computers brought automation to banking and other industries, heralding the transformative modernization that characterized the mid-20th century.

Today’s automation technologies represent the pinnacle of such technological process. From digital process automation to artificial intelligence, from enterprise content management to robotic process automation, today’s enterprise IT leaders have a plethora of automation technologies to choose from.

You would think, then, that leveraging such technologies to modernize the enterprise would be a straightforward affair. Replace the hand weavers with automated looms or replace human ‘computers’ with mechanical ones and you’re done, right?

There’s just one problem: modernizing your technology is not the same thing as modernizing your organization. The plentiful variety of automation technologies on the menu today have served to obscure this basic principle. What, then, is the key to modernization?

The Power of Automation

In his recent white paper for Camunda, The Surprising Role of Automation in Modernizing the Organization for the Digital Era, Intellyx principal analyst Charles Araujo calls for a different way of looking at automation. “In a rush to automate at all costs (based on the perception that automation was synonymous with progress), many organizations have simply applied automation to bad processes,” he writes.

Automating bad processes enables organizations to do things poorly, only quicker – not exactly a recipe for successful transformation. Instead, organizations should focus on the difficult work of organizational transformation.

Such transformation is particularly challenging, simply because people are both risk adverse and resistant to change. Assemble individuals into organizations, and a deep-seated inertia results. The way things have ‘always been done’ becomes the default position, and no one wants to take the risk of doing things differently.

Araujo describes such limitations to change as constraints. “The rigor, structure, and control, implemented for a time in which there was no technology to manage the workflow complexity, have now become constraints that organizations have embedded within the automation that they have applied to these processes,” Araujo writes. “Constraints, as it turns out, are the hidden source of many process inefficiencies.”

Only by breaking down such constraints, therefore, can organizations hope to succeed with their business transformations. And while technology isn’t a substitute for organizational change, automation can help drive such change by helping people resolve constraints – as long as the organization uses it properly.

The Paradox of Modernization

If automation can help an organization break down its inertial constraints, and removing such constraints is the key to transformation, does that mean that automation leads to successful business transformation?

Not necessarily. The problem: modernizing technology isn’t the same as modernizing the organization. “Organizations have come to associate the term with modernizing the technology stack, rather than modernizing the organization itself,” Araujo continues. “And that’s the problem.”

Nevertheless, automation remains a part of the solution. “The real power of automation is its ability to enable teams to reimagine and reinvent how they function by allowing them to do rapid experimentation and testing as they do so,” Araujo points out.

In other words, the focus of automation shouldn’t be on existing business processes – it should be on innovation.

This conclusion is counterintuitive. Innovation, after all, requires a mix of experimentation, imagination, and luck. It is largely unpredictable.

How, then, can automation drive innovation? “When you remove the constraints and throw out the way you’ve always done things,” Araujo explains, “and when you combine this approach with a technology-agnostic view of the world in which you stop focusing on narrow bands of technology silos, you can experiment and innovate on a cross-functional and cross-process basis.”

The Two Paths to Modernization

We thus have two starkly different perspectives on modernization.

The first: the conventional route. Organizations that choose this path focus on automating manual processes. Modernization thus becomes an exercise in upgrading existing technology.

The result is greater efficiency. Productivity goes up and costs go down. Success by any measure, right?

The second perspective on modernization: organizations that leverage automation technologies as transformational tools. The courageous leaders at such companies will be able to reshape their organizations from the ground up, leveraging automation to transform how they function.

The short-term results from this second approach include a rapid return on investment – but longer-term benefits are more significant. “Their use of automation platforms…will have also created a transformational competency that allowed them to continually shift and adapt with the market,” Araujo says.

In other words, business transformation – digital transformation included – ideally doesn’t lead to an ideal, transformed state. Successful transformation is more about instilling change as a core competency within the organization.

The Intellyx Take

There are two subtly, but profoundly different approaches to modernization. First: organizations that focus modernization on technology, leading to better automation of existing processes. And second: organizations that leverage technology to modernize themselves.

Automation technologies play an important part of both approaches, but to different ends. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the best automation technologies for each purpose will vary depending upon the end goal.

The first approach leverages traditional automation technologies that focus on replacing manual processes with automated ones. The second approach focuses on empowering people within the organization to experiment, iterate, and in the end, innovate.

Both approaches lead to business benefits, but only the second leads to transformative modernization.

Copyright © Intellyx LLC. Camunda is an Intellyx customer. Intellyx retains final editorial control of this article. Image credit: John R. Southern.

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