For decades, experts have been advocating for business functions such as information technology (IT) and operations to work more closely together so that the delivery of customer value will require less human effort, less space and less time. In essence, they have been longing for better collaboration between these two business functions to improve productivity, efficiency, and innovation. When taken to an extreme, this disconnect between IT and Operations can result in low employee morale as they get extremely frustrated with the inefficiencies that exist when interacting with business systems, applications and IT specialists.
Today the power of the internet, cloud computing, and software as a service (SaaS) models means that there's a greater than ever push from operational management to get control of their data, systems, and applications once again and unlock their innovation potential.
The gap that exists between IT and business operations can now be bridged through the deployment of digital technologies that enable operations to collaborate better with IT when implementing initiatives that are focused on streamlining operational processes.
This article provides some context on how Digital Operations can help businesses refocus on collaboration - the key to creating real business value.
The gap between IT and business operations
Historically, all information technology resources, data, and applications would sit firmly in the IT team’s domain, but with the emergence of cloud computing that’s simply not the case anymore and it’s now often far from clear who should have ultimate control of information technology resources. Take the company business process management (BPM) applications as an example. BPM software applications help organisations to manage, automate, and optimizing their recurring business processes. BPM application is an asset that belongs to the operations part of the business, so ownership should lie with the operations team, right? But it’s also a complex technology, so perhaps control should lie with the IT team. Both approaches can be problematic. On the one hand, if the operations team needs to put in a request to the IT department every time they want to gain access to a business application or improve their productivity with business applications then this can seriously impede operational agility. On the other hand, giving operational employees direct access to the back-end systems can also throw up some significant security and governance issues that need to be considered.
The lack of communication between IT and Operations is also exacerbated by the fact that the two groups tend to use separate tools for data management. IT teams tend to invest in tools suited for agile development and management of data and information systems, whereas business teams tend towards more visually appealing applications designed to simplify access to organisational data and systems. Typically, these are developed by separate software vendors and cannot be integrated easily, if at all, making it even more difficult for the groups to collaborate. What’s needed is an environment that ensures that the business users are empowered with digital platforms that allow them to collaborate much easier with IT when accessing data, preparing data or customizing applications.
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A key technology encouraging collaboration between IT and Operations
The most innovative companies today are building a collaborative working environment that encourages IT teams to empower the employees to make good use of data, applications, and systems to streamline their day to day operation whilst ensuring that effective security and governance is maintained. This collaborative working environment relies on people who have clarity of purpose and goals of the organisation, ability to listen and understand the needs of the business and strong leadership capability required to unite a diverse team.
There are now a number of cloud-based technologies that exist today that companies can quickly deploy and start building a digital operation that will encourage collaboration. One key technology is “Robotic Process Automation”.
Robotic process automation (RPA) – an emerging technology in the third wave of BPM applications - is rapidly gaining popularity across many industries. It works effectively with processes that are definable, repeatable and rules-based. For example, in the financial industry, these processes are good candidates for automation of payment processing, excess transaction approvals, and personal loan application opening. Some non-industry specific examples are extracting information from spreadsheets, transferring and processing files, processing incoming email messages, extracting information from a PDF and managing document workflow
A key distinction between RPA and other process automation technologies is RPA’s ability to observe a user performing an action in a graphical user interface (GUI). Using observation, RPA can automatically encode the action in its processing rules, with no programming needed. Business users are well-suited to automate processes with RPA, which typically doesn’t require technical knowledge. RPA empowers users to automate processes that were once manual, without the need for IT or developer assistance. By doing so, these employees can reduce or eliminate mundane aspects of their jobs freeing them to interact with each other collaboratively to create real value for the business.
RPA can be used for simple automation on a single user’s desktop or to build a vast digital workforce that spans an entire business. This digital workforce consisting of software robots that can adapt to new requirements and scale along with the business. Software robots can be viewed as disruptive as they are able to mimic what an employee working on a computer would do. Software robots are great employees. They don’t make mistakes, they don’t need to go home at night and they don’t take vacation days. They live and work uninterrupted in the cloud or on the server. They are trained, not programmed and carry out tasks which are rules-based.
RPA business process can be designed to be performed by robots with assistance from humans. In such a case, the human usually brings decision-making capabilities to the process. However, RPA vendors are increasingly combining RPA, Machine Learning and AI, giving businesses the ability to bring decision making capability to process automation. For example, machine learning can be used to automatically classify scanned or PDF invoices upon arrival in an email inbox, extracting and manipulating data from the invoices, ensuring information accuracy and then triggering an RPA workflow that will enter the extracted information into the organisations accounting platform or ERP system. This combination of RPA, Machine learning, and AI is opening the gate for many intelligent process automation applications that can be used to further optimise business processes.
Imagine a software robot as a team player in a football game, where the coach (i.e. manager responsible for automating business processes) must;
• Plan and supervise training sessions to develop general fitness and specific skills of the software robots, ensuring that they are able to perform their assigned task.
• Decide the formation the team of software robots will adopt and explain the roles each player must take in that formation, in other words designing their workflow and how they should interact.
• Choose the software robots that should play and ensure that there are substitutes, so that when one fails a replacement is immediately available to continue with the task.
• If the game is going badly, the coach must decide whether to change tactics or make substitutions to deal with problems, in other words ensuring that the automated process is adaptable to changes in business requirements.
• Monitor the performance of each software robot during the season and must also take account of any injuries in other words monitoring their overall performance as they complete their assigned tasks.
With this metaphor, you can start to imagine how a virtual team of software robots can be managed.
As a manager responsible for a business process you will be empowered to have your own virtual team to manage a number of repetitive tasks freeing up your employee time to more value-adding activities. This way you will see better collaboration and productivity from your employees, as they are now able to create their own virtual team which you do not have to pay for. This team of humans and software robots interacting together to complete activities that form part of a business process is a paradigm shift in business process management.
Building a technology-driven environment that encourages employees to focus on how they can better collaborate to meet the needs of the business rather working with a silo mentality is required for improved operational agility.
Business process automation technologies such as RPA is currently being embraced by organisation across different industries as a new way to improve collaboration between departments and cross-functional teams so that the focus is on operational agility and business performance.
Advancement in digital technology means that there’s a greater than ever push from operational management to get control of their data and software applications once again and remove the inefficiencies that exist when interacting with business systems, applications and IT specialists. To achieve this, companies need to encourage collaboration between IT and operations by removing communication barriers and introducing new organisational structures, processes, and systems. This collaborative and sharing mindset that avoids unnecessary rework is how businesses can become more agile with business improvement and unlock their innovation potential.
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