The Benefits and Pitfalls of Intelligent Process Automation – Part 1 of 2

May 13, 2020 | Delivery & Operations, Process and Change, Skills and Knowledge, Technology and Partner, Vision and Strategy

Intelligent Process Automation (IPA) has the potential to transform how an organisation operates, delivering multiple benefits to the organisation, its customers, suppliers and partners. Here I consider these potential benefits, discussing how automation can deliver each benefit but also why many organisations fail to achieve these benefits at scale.

The potential benefits can be grouped into:

  1. Transforming the customer experience
  2. Improving products and service delivery
  3. Reducing process lifecycle time and increasing throughput
  4. Removing mundane work, freeing people time for higher value tasks
  5. Increasing employee satisfaction
  6. Improving accuracy, quality, consistency and reliability of processes and data
  7. Expanding management and business information and insight
  8. Reducing risk and enhancing compliance
  9. Improved security
  10. Significantly reducing operating costs

Before focussing on each of these benefits, a key principal to highlight is that IPA needs to be part of a wider digital transformation programme in order to maximise what can be achieved by automation. For example, digital transformation will enhance the availability of structured rather than unstructured data (structured data is easier to process automatically than unstructured data even with AI in the mix). Digital transformation will also typically look to enhance customer front ends (through providing customer facing APPs, transactional websites, chatbots etc), these enhancements (done well) will increase the levels of automation that can be achieved behind the scenes. Unfortunately, one of the common mistakes organisations make is to run the automation programme disconnected from digital transformation. This often leads to automation of as-is processes rather than delivering transformational automation, achieving some benefit but not at the full scale and range possible. In the below analysis I’ve assumed a healthy combination of tactical automation of current processes with transformational automation (I also consider Lean thinking to be important in this space as well).

Transforming the customer experience

Customer engagement can occur through multiple channels including web, APPs, chat, email, telephone, face to face and even paper. Additionally, digital transformation should be driving the adoption of new technologies and approaches to customer engagement such as chatbots, smart devices and even virtual/augmented reality interfaces. Enhanced capabilities can also be provided to customer service staff improving how and what they can achieve when engaging with customers. Providing a modern, accessible, responsive and engaging customer experience is key to customer satisfaction, particularly if provided through an omni-channel approach (consistent and joined up across channels).

Automation provides the ability to reliably make data available from multiple sources at the point of need, to responsively process customer questions, requests and orders, to proactively keep customers informed, to appropriately promote the organisations products and services and to enable customer services staff to focus time on the customer rather than on having to interact with the multiple disparate business systems used by the organisation. Combined with successful product and service delivery (see later) these improvements enhance the customer experience and lead to improved customer satisfaction.

There is a tendency to seek automation opportunities based on as-is processes. In this case using automation separately and in different ways across channels, for example, automating processing of a web form submission for the web channel or providing automated call-wrap automation for customer services. This can deliver benefit but is unlikely to help deliver an omni-channel customer experience, it will require the construction of multiple automations and can lead to inconsistent outcomes across channels. Transformational automation will consider the similarities between customer engagements across channels and look to create reuseable cross channel automations even when there may be differences in the user interface. This approach streamlines implementation and provides the ability to gain improved management information and insight.

The combination of attended and unattended automation also offers significant opportunity for customer service scenarios but they need to avoid the situation where advisors end up being unproductive as they watch automations happen (which can be a risk with attended automation if not done intelligently).

Reducing process lifecycle time and increasing throughput

Automations can interact faster than people with systems. They also don’t get distracted, don’t need to have breaks and can run 24×7 (often just limited by availability of the systems they interact with). An automated process therefore completes quicker than a manual one. It’s also a lot easier to scale out the volume of parallel running automations (e.g. more bots) than it is to get more people to manually perform the process due, for example, to a peak in demand. Automations can therefore be more consistent and responsive in their performance.

These benefits are though dependent on how well the automation has been implemented. Automations that are not robust and regularly fail will often require human intervention. Developers end up hand holding processes (which is costly) and operations teams need to have resources available to handle exceptions manually (often less efficiently than if they had done the process in the first place). There can also be a big impact on the organisation when a business-critical automation fails and the knowledgeable operational resources aren’t available anymore (reassigned or no longer in the organisation) for manual processing. Ultimately the solution is to ensure processes are robust, this is where approaches such as design thinking rather than ploughing straight into implementation will enable automations to be architected for robustness and to effectively be able to handle exceptions (which will happen).

Another consideration is the end to end process, to have the maximum impact on overall lifecycle time and to increase business throughput needs an understanding of where bottlenecks exist. Automating a sub-process which then increases the pressure on an existing bottleneck or introduces a new one further down the end to end process will not lead to the scale of overall business benefit expected i.e. reduction in lifecycle time and increase in throughput.

Improving product and service delivery

Product and service delivery is achieved through many, potentially long running, business processes. For example, delivering a physical product will potentially involve processes for order handling, supply management, manufacturing, stock control, invoice/payment processing, customer management etc. These processes may be departmental/business function based but often they will form parts of larger end to end business processes.

Automating the component parts of end to end processes will deliver incremental improvements to product and service delivery. To achieve the maximum benefit, consider the end to end process as well, including how the component processes fit together and the dependencies that exist between them. Often, it’s possible to find ways to change, for example, one component process (manual or automated) to significantly improve the level of automation that can be achieved within another component process. Additionally, increased reliability and accuracy within automated component processes can provide the opportunity to eliminate or reduce other stages, such as secondary manual quality/validation checks.

The important aspect here is to look at the end to end processes rather than just at a departmental/sub-process level. There will often still be benefit in delivering the sub-process automation on its own but with some design thinking future refactoring can be reduced and enhanced benefits can be achieved quicker. Also, apply Lean thinking to reduce the complexity of processes before automating and don’t blindly automate an ‘as-is’ process that is obviously poor (a rubbish process is still going to be rubbish if automated as-is!).

Removing mundane work, freeing people time for higher value tasks

Repetitive actions, tasks that can be done without any real need to think, copying information from one system to another etc are all examples of manual operations that are good for automation. These are all operations that people aren’t actually that great at (see quality, accuracy benefit) but came into existence, often, due to shortcomings in legacy systems and the disconnected nature of many system centric rather than process or service centric enterprise architectures.

Removing this mundane work from people will free up time for them to potentially perform other higher value work. This is though dependent on the priorities of the organisation. Automation is often considered as a cost reduction initiative only without considering the bigger opportunity to allow existing resources to support business growth by, for example, spending more time interacting with customers increasing customer satisfaction, upselling products and services etc. This may require staff to be retrained or moved into different roles, which will need to be factored into the overall automation/transformation programme so that it is planned and managed effectively in sync with automation deliveries (automation isn’t just about technology it also needs to include the management of change). Where cost reduction is a priority, this may only be achievable through head count reduction. Fortunately, due to the mundane nature of the work, the effected staff are often in roles with relatively high turnover. Careful resource planning/recruitment reductions combined with incremental automation deliveries and staff retraining/reassignment can reduce the need for forced headcount reductions.

Increasing employee satisfaction

Employee satisfaction to a significant extent is linked with the removal of mundane work and using this as an opportunity to upskill resources to perform higher value work (for example, interaction with people rather than systems). Care should be taken not to move people to perform work that is already on the candidate list for automation as this will have a negative impact on employee satisfaction for these people.

Ultimately people want to see that they are valued and are contributing to the organisation. The automation programme presents an opportunity to do this, but it requires good communication and upselling of the opportunities it presents. Most people don’t like mundane work but if they don’t know what will happen when this work is automated, they will be concerned about their future. The automation programme must therefore not only have a communication strategy but also an employee strategy to ensure affected staff understand what will change and the positive opportunities it presents for them.

Operational staff can also be directly involved in the automation programme, they are the process experts and can contribute to process documentation and design. The more they are involved the more they will understand and the more positive they are likely to feel about the automation programme. Additionally, many of the automation platform vendors are promoting the concept of citizen developers where operational resources are given the tools to implement automations themselves (there are pros and cons for this approach though which is something for a future blog – please get in touch with your opinions on citizen developers!).

So far, I’ve covered the first five benefits, the next five are discussed in part 2 of this blog which you can find here. If you found this article interesting you can subscribe to our newsletter below or follow us on LinkedIn so that you will get notified when we publish further blogs, articles and news covering the business application of AI, Automation and related intelligent technologies.

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About the author

This article was written by Dr Steve Sheppard, CEO of Combined Intelligence. Steve has many years of experience in leading the construction and delivery of transformational digital, automation and AI solutions. Steve is happy to connect via LinkedIn with others working with or just interested in intelligent technologies.