Automation without strategy or skills stifles innovation

Christopher Tredger
By Christopher Tredger, Portals editor
Johannesburg, 05 Dec 2023
Professor Johan Steyn, human-centred AI advocate and thought leader.
Professor Johan Steyn, human-centred AI advocate and thought leader.

Companies undergoing digital transformation can leverage intelligent process automation (IPA) and artificial intelligence (AI) to drive efficiency across their businesses. AI offers learning, adaptability, and intelligent decision-making that enhance IPA capabilities, including customer communication management, workflow management, and assistance to gain and retain agility.

At the ITWeb Intelligent Process Executive Forum, hosted in partnership with iOCO and KOFAX in Sandton last week, participants explored this synergy and its potential to lead to more efficient, context-aware automation solutions that can handle a broader range of tasks.

Combined with robotic process automation (RPA), AI is serving as neural dust that’s well on its way to behaving similarly to human brain cells, the forum heard. As such, AI-powered RPA, or intelligent automation, is now a path to solving business problems and helping C-level leaders mature a business faster.

Derek Waterston, country manager of Kofax, participated in a panel discussion on the topic ‘The Intersection of AI, automation and business’, and agreed with the point that AI is only going to grow and will be relevant to almost every touch-point in the business operation.

Business leaders have to bear this in mind when developing and enforcing their AI-centric strategies. 

The automation, AI adoption paradox

Professor Johan Steyn, thought leader and advocate for human-centred AI, spoke about a paradox that exists in business when it comes to automation and AI adoption. While technology has advanced to the point that the software, large language models and algorithms play a direct role in decision-making, people are not trained and are unsure of what to do with the technology they have, he said.

“They know they want to automate, but they are not sure about how to proceed, and so, we have a situation in which the wrong things are being automated at the wrong times for the wrong reasons,” said Steyn.

He added that business leaders have a mandate to ‘AI everything’ and often rush into adoption without a strategy that covers the role of people, the level of skills on board and exactly what it is that needs to be automated. This stifles the intended business process innovation.

Decision-makers often have little to no idea what is happening ‘in the trenches’, Steyn continued. He warned that when it comes to the adoption of technology to automate business processes and functions, people will react negatively if there is even the slightest hint of their jobs being impacted.

Furthermore, if a business does not engage with its staff regarding an AI strategy, decision-makers could be oblivious to the skills and knowledge that employees possess. The opportunity to tap into these resources is lost.

“One of the reasons why a lot of our technological projects fail is because we are not consumers of our own products,” said Steyn. “Get to know the people who are doing the job…. Then find the right things to automate.”

His advice is for business leaders to empower themselves and staff with the fundamentals of their operation, how AI and IPA can make a difference.

We have a situation in which the wrong things are being automated at the wrong times for the wrong reasons.

Johan Steyn

He stressed the need for business leaders to understand exactly what will help to do jobs faster and better. “That may or may not be technology related. Because we can bring a lot of efficiencies by working smarter.”

This means being willing to listen to people on the ground, being present to witness operations and understand which areas of the business will be impacted, how and why.

Steyn advocates de-automation or preventing the wrong automation in the wrong hands at the wrong time. “Not everything can or should be automated. It is important for decision makers to understand what requires automation and why and identify their end-goal with AI adoption."