söndag 6 juni 2021

Digital business Automation – the Swiss army knife of information management



The One Tool - how can a new tool improve on the too many tools problem?  

In the early days of my career, I had the pleasure and privilege to work at an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software company.  Back then, with some consolidation going on in the ERP market, it was easy to imagine a not-too-distant world where all conceivable business transactions would be handled within an end-to-end monolithic ERP platform (think SAP).

20 years on, the market and reality went in the completely opposite direction. We now have a plethora of systems and information sources which contribute to the overall IT landscape and working tools that we use on a daily basis. Each and every one of them are considered more or less necessary. We're stuck in a trap where even modern integration strategies and platforms come up short when it comes to reducing the number of systems required to support the business operations.

We’ve got external information sources, reference systems, real-time data streams, data lakes, data warehouses, systems of record (with our common set of databases), systems of interaction (desktop applications, web frontends, mobile apps) and everything in between. We’re trying to make up for fast-paced requirement changes in the customer base, pressures to improve quality, margin and efficiencies internally. As well as to expand and enable new capabilities, often with maintained or diminishing manpower resources and the result is too often a bolt-on, a quick-fix, something that fits into a short-term budget or time window.

Narrowing down the problem definition

The source of the problem is three-fold:

  • We cannot fully out-think the direction towards future customers. Instead, market- and business requirements will drive technological solutions. Reality will always move faster than our ability to fully design and implement support for the functionality “needed” to stay agile, competitive and customer focused with adequate profitability. This is usually expressed in the now classic conundrum of “two-speed IT”, “bimodal IT” or “shadow IT spending”.
  • Our IT landscapes and system investments are typically too shallow, focusing on functionality and short-term gains, diminishing or even removing the focus on underlying Master Data Model and process coherence across macro processes and geographies, despite such factors being crucial for long-term IT spend ROI.
  • Systems and software applications are developed on a spectrum from fully bespoke and tailor-made (expensive to build, expensive to maintain) to off the shelf industry standard applications (made for minimum effort support and maintenance, “easy” upgrades). Priced accordingly, too, and we tend to prioritize price over functionality and capabilities, in the sourcing selection process.

So we always have to play “catch up”, improving on the toolset, system map, expanded and new applications. We have to make up non-standard ways to use applications as the delta between standard workflows and each way of working in individual organizations differ slightly, and we have to compensate for maintenance and security shortcomings in application uses introduced from the business side rather than the IT side of the organization.

The practical result is a patchwork of applications, slightly disconnected and slightly the wrong fit, to be supporting the business in an efficient and conclusive fashion. We put ourselves, our time, attention spans, energy and bandwidths into the gaps between applications, compensating for shortcomings in the functionality and adjust our workflows and processes accordingly.

This takes us to the starting point of the argument for this post: How can a new tool improve on the too many tools problem? Well, if you start by looking at the existing IT landscape in detail, you’ll see that most applications are made up of components, usually cross process in some areas.  At some point, e.g. the OrderWarehousingInvoicing solution got connected to the CRM suite to facilitate transfer of records and improving on the related workflows. Automation and interconnectivity happened – within the application, and bit by bit we’ve adopted a system of systems rather than a set of standalone applications.

Leapfrogging in IT - step by step

Modern automation, using technologies like BPM or RPA, allow for an abstraction layer across and between applications rather than within , creating completely bespoke workflows which fit your organization and business model like a tailored suit, whilst leveraging the power of standard off the shelf applications. Depending on the information flow requirement or workflow properties, several of the labor intensive and repetitive tasks can be captured in process maps and logical conditions, that direct the workflow automation to free up time and resources from associated tasks.

Thus, limitations within applications or data sources, can be leapfrogged with “yet another tool”, allowing us to match our business requirements with a better functional fit, raising efficiencies and quality, and to build a system of systems which as a biproduct also allows us to focus on problem solving and creative tasks rather than rote repetition.

One tool to rule them all, one tool to find them, one tool to bring
them all, and in a well -planned system architecture bind them

So to speak. And you don’t have to wager your eternal soul to reap the benefits, in this case.

The bonus element of this technology and tooling, is that you don’t have to go all-in, aim for a monolithic big bang investment. It can be implemented on an activity by activity process by process basis.  And with the time and resourcing gained with each step, the available resources to improve further through intelligent information grows.

This is the last of a four-part blog post series about intelligent automation, using technology in a smart way to get the most out of the time, energy and overall investment each organization is faced with to improve Customer offering, quality and overall market competitiveness.

Are you looking for ways to leverage technology to benefit your business and outsmart the competition?  Get in touch - every step forward starts with a constructive and thorough discussion!