Automate or You Will Be Obliterated

Ted Shelton

Ted Shelton

· 3 min read

strategy digital-transformation business-process-reengineering future-of-work

In 1990 MIT computer science professor Michael Hammer started a revolution in management thinking with his HBR article “Reengineering Work: Don’t Automate, Obliterate.” The basic premise of his article, which put the business process re-engineering movement into high speed, was that organizations were wasting time and money putting technology into organizations to automate existing processes that created little or no value and that instead companies should first try to fix, improve, or even eliminate these processes.

Almost thirty years later most large enterprises continue to have some flavor of business process re-engineering (or Operations Excellence) as a part of their ongoing efforts to reduce costs, improve efficiency, increase customer satisfaction, and a myriad of related objectives. In particular the role of business process analysis and improvement has become a cornerstone of the outsourcing industry where it is critical to accurately map and often substantially improve processes before they can be relocated to remote teams.

In 2003 Dr. Hammer published “The Agenda: What Every Business Must Do To Dominate The Decade” and posthumously with co-author Lisa Hershman “Faster, Cheaper, Better.” Both books continued to focus on the challenge that organizations face as a result of having inefficient processes that are mis-aligned to a company’s objectives. Tragically Dr. Hammer passed away in 2008 at the age of 60 and thus did not live to see the advances in artificial intelligence and robotic process automation that have begun to sweep through the business landscape ten years later.

If Hammer were alive today, I wonder whether he would issue a new challenge in the spirit of his Agenda call — “What Every Business Must Do To Dominate The Decade.” If I can be so presumptuous to channel what he might have said, I would suggest that he would urgently tell companies: Artificial Intelligence and Automation have the potential to radically and quickly transform the way businesses are managed – specifically by re-engineering all existing business processes and reducing costs, increasing speed, improving quality, and even changing the way companies deliver their products and services. Most companies are woefully behind in improving business productivity against the speedy transformation of technology (a good analysis can be found in this report from Deloitte University Press) and an urgent focus must be put on learning to manage a workforce and processes that combine people, bots, and AI The worst mistake businesses are making today on this journey is to adopt technology solutions that are so dependent upon technical experts (data scientists, artificial intelligence experts, IT professionals) that they become disconnected from the company’s business objectives and the business leaders who can truly understand the connection of processes to those business objectives.

So the imperative statement, the answer to “what every business must do to dominate THIS decade,” is clear to me: Automate or you will be obliterated – but be sure to go on this journey to use AI and automation in your business with technology solutions that empower the business to transform itself.

Maintain maximum agility – put the power of AI and automation into the hands of the people who understand your business objectives and beware solutions that lock your business processes into inflexible technologies that require a host of experts to develop, deploy manage and improve.

The next decade will be one of immense and rapid change and transformation. To succeed in this time of change requires that you deploy simultaneously capabilities to exponentially reduce costs while maintaining maximum adaptability. Don’t get caught in the trap of cost reduction that locks you into only one way of doing business in a world where your markets, customer expectations, product or service capabilities, and business models may turn upside down overnight.