Amid a frenzy of innovation in robotic process automation and artificial intelligence, CIOs are scouring their enterprises for tasks that can be automated. In a recent survey of tech-sector business leaders, the Consumer Technology Association found that just 10 percent of respondents aren't planning to automate any job functions over the next five years. That means that on the order of 90 percent of firms plan to automate at least some job functions.
"Automation with AI is being valued not just for the efficacies it delivers but also the experiences it makes possible," says Bridget Karlin, vice president of automation and CTO of IBM's Global Technology Services Business. "You'll see that it is freeing up mundane tasks that essentially enable the practitioner or the person to handle more interesting work"
Karlin urges CIOs to think strategically about automation, understanding that they won't be able to automate everything at once. To get started, she suggests, look at your business and identify where employees are still relying on spreadsheets to do their jobs.
"I always recommend trying to avoid random acts of automation," Karlin says. "That's because what you really start to realize is automation with AI is very much a journey."
So where should CIOs start on that journey? Here are the top eight areas where business leaders are looking to introduce automation.
More than any other type of work, back office operations are the most likely to be upended by automation in the next five years, according to CTA's survey. And it's no wonder that 52 percent of respondents are looking to automate basic administrative support tasks such as low-level IT functions. McKinsey reports that automation in the back office can sharply reduce a firm's operating costs while greatly driving up efficiencies, predicting that back-office automation will be a defining factor separating businesses that thrive from those that fall behind in the coming years.
"Those cost differentials will grow with the increasing use of automation," McKinsey writes in a report. "As the pace of automation accelerates, the opportunities for improving performance will only increase."
Warehouse operations, such as operating a forklift or picking and packing shipments for distribution, are rapidly giving over to robotics, while processes such as receiving shipments and scanning pallets increasingly are being automated, dramatically reducing the need for warehouse personnel.
"Today, we have much lower-cost technology that enable all of that to be automated," Karlin says. "You're still not at a completely zero-footprint warehouse, but the mundane tasks have been automated."
Customer relationship management
Customer relationship management (CRM) is a prime example of an area where elements of automation can free up employees to focus on higher-level work, such as pursuing leads and interacting with customers.
At a low level, CRM automation can take over functions like keeping contacts lists up to date or using online forms to generate leads. More sophisticated analytics applications can generate insights into a customer's business and identify sales opportunities — a variation of Amazon's "since you bought that, you might be interested in this" formula.
"In the CRM space ... you want to go in understanding and being able to predict what clients may need, what they want," Karlin says. "The person who does the relationship really effectively is using analytics and AI to understand, develop and expand the relationship."
Automating a manufacturing plant is not simply a matter of replacing a worker with a robot in a one-for-one swap-out. Instead, a manufacturing environment offers CIOs an opportunity for a more wholesale reimagining of their operations.
"Automation technologies enable you to design [manufacturing] processes on a scale that vastly exceeds what's possible manually," Forrester analyst J.P. Gowdner writes in a report.
Gowdner cites a Chinese factory that replaced 90 percent of its human employees with robots, only to see quality improve and productivity soar by 250 percent.
One way to distinguish customer support from CRM is to think of it as a more responsive process, one in which customers actively engage with a business to answer a question or address a specific problem. Microsoft views automation in this area as a way to address customers' basic needs, while reserving a firm's human capital for more challenging issues.
"One key opportunity for automating customer support is through virtual agents," says Brenda Brown, general manager of Microsoft Business Applications. "Conversational virtual agents can help service organizations to automate resolutions, freeing up time for them to focus on more complex customer questions."
The retail giant Lowe's is active in this area with the trial run of its automated LoweBot, an in-store service robot that can engage with customers in multiple languages, help them navigate the store and monitor inventory.
Just over one-third of respondents to the CTA survey say they plan to automate accounting tasks, and McKinsey sees ample opportunity in that area. The consulting firm estimates that about 20 percent of the tasks in the flow of a recording and reporting cycle for a typical finance unit can be completely automated, needing no human intervention. And nearly 50 percent of those tasks can be mostly automated, with technology handling the lion's share of the work. CIOs could consider looking at the ways their accounting department collects, processes and reports financial data. Many firms have been automating the process of producing and submitting regulatory filings, for example.
Businesses in machinery-driven industries such as oil and gas production have an opportunity not only to lower costs and improve productivity, but to improve employee safety. Dutch energy giant Shell, for instance, announced a major partnership earlier this year with C3 IoT and Microsoft to improve its drilling operations and perform predictive maintenance on valves, compressors and other equipment.
"Whether you're in construction, whether you're on an oil rig — these are the kinds of things that used to be a real health risk," Karlin says. With automation, firms can "have someone very safely sitting inside an office" monitoring those machines remotely.
Leaving aside the irony of automating "human" resources, McKinsey sees ample opportunity here, estimating that nearly a third of all "hire-to-retire" HR processes can be fully automated, while nearly another third can be mostly automated. Low-hanging fruit in this area include tasks such as applicant screening, employee file management and onboarding functions like IT access and equipment provisioning.
In surveys, businesses report that many of these tasks are still performed on physical paper. Even if the company has graduated from actual paper, many are still using spreadsheets, which Karlin says is a flashing red light calling out for automation.
"You'll have different entry points by company," she says. "Try to find one or two areas that you can automate to get the biggest bang for the buck."