At a time when global supply chains and trade flows are being disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and demand patterns are changing rapidly, many businesses are looking to inject more agility into their systems and processes.
The World Trade Organization anticipates international merchandise trade will fall by between 13% and 32% during 2020, and almost all regions will experience double-digit declines in trade volumes this year. Those industries with complex supply chains, such as electronics and automotive products, will be impacted the most.
In this unpredictable environment, it’s important to ask whether your organization is able to adapt quickly to new ways of working, in order to meet evolving rules and tackle new obstacles. You need tools to operate as efficiently as possible, work virtually and drive agile supply chain management, as well as keep up with competitors when markets eventually begin to pull out of the pandemic.
New technologies, such as digital process automation, robotic management software, process mining and artificial intelligence, all have a valuable role to play in the current business environment. When applied strategically, these tools can help companies to rapidly adjust processes, collaborate more efficiently with supply-chain stakeholders, and ensure that all resources are being used as optimally as possible.
With so many enterprise software solutions available today, it can be daunting to choose the most appropriate approach and technology. The challenge is compounded by the fact that many organizations have inflexible enterprise resource planning systems that don’t meet all their operational needs. In this context, many teams have developed their own manual processes and spreadsheets to plug system gaps and get critical work done. Yet this way of working can be inconsistent, disconnected and inefficient.
If your company is in this situation, you don’t need to rip out and replace your legacy systems. Rather, you could integrate a combination of modern, readily-available technologies into existing systems, so that you have the tools to transform processes without losing mission-critical content and functionality. Here are some pointers on where to begin.
There’s no need to choose just one technology. Supply-chain managers are faced with a complex range of business challenges, which no single solution can intelligently and flexibly solve. Rather than pinning your process optimization strategy on just one tool, you can easily combine several complementary technologies into a powerful toolkit for digital transformation across your enterprise.
Today, recent innovations have made a range of technologies more accessible – including robotic process automation (RPA), digital process automation (DPA), AI and machine learning, and process mining. These capabilities can work together to create a robust framework for intelligent automation.
Take a process-first approach. To gain maximum value from new technologies, you need to begin with a clear understanding of your processes. Many organizations struggle to pinpoint and define how their processes run and where they could be improved.
Fortunately, this doesn’t need to be a time-consuming exercise. Previously, companies relied on consulting and documentation to produce an understanding of current processes. Now, there are intelligent process-mining tools that can analyze your event logs (i.e., the digital trail left by employees and applications when work is carried out), automatically map out your processes, and analyze how these could be optimized using digital approaches.
You need a flexible plan. The next step is to set out a clear, step-by-step roadmap for your digital transformation initiative. This must be based on the business goals you are looking to achieve, working back from these objectives in phases. With this approach, you can proceed incrementally and flexibly towards your vision.
Included in this roadmap should be a plan for adding certain technologies at specific phases. You may, for example, wish to begin with process mining and digital process automation, then augment this with AI at a later stage. Using this roadmap as a guide, you’ll be able to seamlessly align people and processes with a holistic technology framework.
It’s digital, but is it seamless? Many companies believe they’re digitally transforming processes through user experiences such as mobile applications, websites and voice assistants at the front end. However, if these then rely on manual processes in the back office, such as re-keying data into spreadsheets or sharing content over e-mail, these processes aren’t as seamless and agile as they could be for our rapidly changing environment.
Using multiple digital tools together, it’s possible to automate and digitize more process components, so that operations run seamlessly and consistently from beginning to end.
Balance AI and human skills. AI mimics human cognitive capabilities, such as learning and understanding natural language. By incorporating AI into your process automation environment, it’s possible to digitize a much wider range of tasks. This means you can free skilled professionals from the repetitive, time-intensive tasks that prevent them from focusing on more strategic work.
A range of AI capabilities are now more accessible, including:
Machine learning. A subset of AI that enables systems to “learn” from experience, identify patterns, and make predictions without being explicitly programmed to do so.
Optical character recognition. An AI category that enables RPA software robots to extract meaning from unstructured content, such as scanned documents and photos.
Natural language processing. The ability to understand and synthesize natural language communications, both text- and voice-based.
While AI can deliver a wide range of business benefits, it can never fully replace humans across your operations. Human skills, such as empathy, strategic thinking, creativity and subject-matter expertise still have a critical role to play along your supply chain. The ideal scenario is one where AI and human intelligence support and augment each other.
With a sound intelligent process automation strategy in place, you can utilize AI-driven process models to orchestrate the flow of work between line-of-business systems, human workers, RPA bots and other tools to achieve the following benefits:
Improve visibility across your supply chain. When your processes run digitally from end to end, you have clear visibility into operational performance and progress at every stage of your supply chain. You can also identify potential bottlenecks and clear these in good time, or areas where processes can be refined or updated to ramp up productivity. End-to-end process visibility allows you to adapt your approach to manage new policies, rules and regulations in a constantly changing global trade environment.
Reduce risk and enhance compliance. When every process step is recorded in your technology framework, you have a clear and credible audit trail. This helps to ease the load already placed on your compliance and risk-management teams amid constant regulatory change.
Enable remote collaboration. The social distancing, quarantine and lockdown regimes that have been introduced during this pandemic have accelerated the need for many businesses to have virtual working and collaboration tools in place. Modern technologies make it possible for colleagues, suppliers and customers to communicate and manage processes virtually, to ensure continuity during this challenging time.
Investing in technology to increase agility, collaboration and resource optimization can take time and money. However, with a strategic approach that uses complementary technologies to augment each other and systems already in place, you can gain a clear return on your investment. A sound framework for intelligent automation can put your organization in a position to operate efficiently in a fast-changing environment.
Burley Kawasaki is chief product officer at K2, a provider of intelligent process automation.