A Shared Services Veteran Sticks a Pin in the “Artificial” Balloon

At this week’s Shared Services Outsourcing World Conference in Orlando, Lee Coulter cut through the hype, over-use and misapplication of artificial intelligence and automation. He called for the industry to move towards more consistency in measuring the productivity gains of RPA.

AI

When Lee Coulter talks, people listen.

And when Coulter starts talking about the fanatical buzz surrounding automation and artificial intelligence, they lean in just a little bit more. In fact, that’s what we were doing this morning at the SSOW conference in Orlando where Lee was characteristically blunt about the over-use and misapplication of descriptions of automation tools that “have been with us for years” and are far from revolutionary.

Walking the exhibition hall of the Shared Services conferences gives you a clear sense of what Lee is talking about – the desire to dip one’s company brand deep into the well of intelligent automation is so profound, widespread and duplicative that it becomes challenging to truly tease out differences among solutions and the companies that deliver them.

To be clear, Coulter, who is CEO at Ascension Shared Services and Chair, IEEE Working Group on Standards in Intelligent Process Automation, is pointing to a familiar scenario in the ‘hype cycle’ of many disruptive technologies. That’s something most everyone can agree on. But what is more concerning is how “senseless and inane” the practice is this go-around, preventing a more reasoned understanding of what really changes when a company deploys, for example, robotics process automation and, more fundamentally, how to measure the change, Coulter says.

“When it comes to operations on a day to day basis, these tools have been around,” said Coulter, is a fireside chat with AntWorks CEO and Co-Founder, Asheesh Mehra, during a Wednesday AM session at the conference, organized by IQPC. He noted that many of the unicorns in the intelligent automation space grew over the last twenty years.

“ai (purposely lower-case) is pretty stupid when it comes to business, but machine learning and prescriptive analytics, that is what makes the conversation more interesting.”

Coulter called on the industry to move toward better consistency in measuring the productivity gains of RPA, instead of being fixated on the cost comparisons of a human vs. a bot. He points to the lack of commonality among leading RPA vendors in their licensing packages. “They are all over the map, which means they all have a different view on productivity,” he said.

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Part of the way forward, according to Coulter, is to introduce workforce management into the bot-equation, enabling companies to have better insight into ‘maximizing’ the bot’s usefulness, and again comparing that back to what existed under human-driven conditions. He explained that bots are not designed to say, as a human would, “hey I’m available, or hey I’m backlogged and I need help. Where is the workforce management when you’re really looking at digital FTEs?”

Naturally, shared services practitioners listening to Coulter are left wondering where to go next, what actions to take here and now that will better prepare them for the ‘intelligent’ journey forward. For the plain speaking Coulter that’s pretty simple: “Get a grip now on your total process, get out your clipboard and stop watch and know the starting point and the duration to complete a process.”

 Working from a common-ground starting point makes it far more possible to know what outcomes you’re looking for – and how to get there, says Coulter.

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