Modern Chief Executives: overstretched, overworked, everyone wants a piece of them. Their work/life balance tilts dramatically towards work. They operate in a world of increasing uncertainty, often overseeing a business model of staggering complexity. Fortunately, they have a vast deck of indicators at their disposal, key performance indicators describing every aspect of their business. Don’t they?
Over Half Of CEOs Don’t Know Where Company Money Comes From
Now imagine a survey of 1000 business leaders suggesting that 63% of CEOs don’t know which parts of their business make the most money. Absurd! But that’s exactly what Alchemmy’s research for its recent report on intelligent automation revealed. What’s going on?
Of course, there’s the pandemic. 90% of businesses made significant changes during COVID. A third overhauled their operations completely. This was necessary, but it seems to have come at a price. Vital data sets haven’t caught up with the changes, meaning the new business models – and how they make money – are imperfectly understood by those who manage them.
With only 5% of businesses intending to revert to their pre-pandemic state, CEOs will need to drive an improved understanding of the new operations and how they impact the bottom line. Simultaneously, they must ensure their enterprise remains alert and agile. We live in an age of permanent disruption. COVID is not yet a thing of the past. Inflation soars. Supply chains are sclerotic. Brexit, war, the energy crisis, the climate emergency: these are more than just entries in the risk register. CEOs need performance information that evolves as their business evolves.
Intelligent Automation: Helping CEOs Take Control
Intelligent automation can help CEOs take control of their numbers and understand their bottom line. Intelligently automated systems provide real-time data on operations, from whatever angle CEOs choose – function, location, product, service line, cash flow, margin. Properly designed, this real-time awareness should withstand wide-ranging organisational changes.
Alchemmy’s research shows that a quarter of business leaders do indeed see intelligent automation as the route to that improved operational grip. This is promising. But far larger majorities of survey respondents recognise the business benefits of individual automated technologies and expect to exploit them. 71% anticipate roles for robotic processes in their operations, 74% for neuro-linguistic programming or optical character recognition, while 81% consider artificial intelligence and machine learning crucial to their commercial future. Perhaps more business leaders will embrace intelligent automation as they become familiar with the term, which essentially means nothing more than integrating the various automated technologies into a coherent, business-led design.
Bread And Butter Worries
However, the survey’s limited affirmation of this sensible concept may suggest unease. There are ‘bread and butter’ worries. 42% of CTOs see ‘shortage of talent’ as the main obstacle to implementing intelligent automation in their business. 36% of CEOs consider ‘upskilling and professional development of existing workforce’ as the most significant adoption barrier. But automation is also, for some people, conceptually disturbing. Indeed a CEO may reasonably wonder how a better grip can be gained on a business by relinquishing more control to machines.
Yet automation is only truly ‘intelligent’ when deployed to serve human goals. As such, the term intelligent automation encapsulates not just the integration of automated technologies to secure important business outcomes. It also suggests machines and human beings working together, not in opposition. CEOs can sell intelligent automation to staff as an opportunity to do more interesting – and productive – work. And they should also use it as a positive signal in recruitment, attracting people skilled in the relevant technologies.
Of course, there are other ticklish matters affecting attitudes to automation, not least the sensitive spot where commercial imperatives, reputation and ethics meet. There is understandable concern about the implications of automated decision-making. Businesses feel they are one misdirected automation away from an unethical sourcing decision, a reputational crisis and a share-price collapse. This would explain why so many respondents to our survey emphasised ethical considerations. 84% of CEOs consider digital ethics critical to their business future. This enlightened self-interest is multi-dimensional. Wider society is now concerned about digital ethics, so businesses need to advertise their own ethical standpoints to recruit the best people and secure investment.
As co-founder of Corporate Digital Responsibility, a global network of advocates for principled digital deployment, I wouldn’t be preaching the virtues of intelligent automation if I didn’t think it could be used ethically. Indeed, truly intelligent automation is ethical automation. Placing human considerations at the heart of an automation programme is leading-edge practice. Deploying technologies to secure a better understanding of profitability, to enhance working lives, recruit the best people and secure beneficial outcomes for customers and wider society is what makes an automation programme genuinely intelligent.
Intelligent automation can realise competitive advantages without undermining commercial reputation. But this still requires leadership and drive from the top.
CEOs should ensure intelligent automation programmes are aligned with a fundamental examination of their business model and processes. They should communicate clearly that human beings (existing workers, potential recruits, customers, and wider society) are at the heart of what they are trying to achieve with technology. They then need to build some solution agnosticism into what the business is doing. Intelligent automation is about the integration of a variety of solutions, not just the ones for which the pushiest vendors are hawking licences. With that in mind, CEOs should mandate their businesses to put in place agile and adaptable arrangements, so obsolete technologies can be discarded rapidly. And even the wisest CEOs need their own counsellors. They should consider setting up an in-house panel of advisors on digital ethics or source advice externally.
Those CEOs who are among the 25% of business leaders who see intelligent automation’s transformational potential are well placed to steal a march on their competitors in reputation, recruitment – and profitability.
About the author: Rob Price is a Director at Alchemmy and Co-founder of Corporate Digital Responsibility.