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Akhilesh Tiwari
Vice President & Global Head, Enterprise Application Services Tata Consultancy Services (TCS)
2 September 2019

Your business partners, customers, suppliers, and employees are all part of today’s digital economy. Linked by technology, employing smart devices and intelligent software to conduct business and live their lives, they form a digital ecosystem of people and organizations conducting trade dynamically, continually sharing data in real time.

A business that doesn’t have the right digital capabilities will not be able to participate in this ecosystem. If it cannot profit from technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), and advanced analytics, that company will soon find itself on an analog island. Its financial horizons will be limited, its markets will be vulnerable to disruption, its customers will fall away, and its employees will look for more technologically sophisticated businesses in which to work.

Automation is the key to joining the burgeoning digital ecosystem. Businesses understand this. According to a 2018 survey, almost half of all companies are adopting at least one of these intelligent systems, up from 20% in 2017. However, the majority of those companies also said their investment in AI-enabled technologies accounted for less than 10% of their IT budgets.

The conclusion is inevitable: These businesses are not automating all the work they could and should. 

They can and must remedy this. The way to do that is through what we call a machine-first approach to digital transformation.

The Two-Stages of Machine-First Automation

The machine-first approach simply means that business leaders should ask, “Can a machine do this job better – faster, more accurately, and cost-effectively – than humans?” If the answer is yes, that job should be automated, and the people performing it should be trained and focused on the work machines can’t do.

That’s the first stage of the machine-first automation approach: examining all the tasks a business performs in its daily operations and asking if automating them will benefit the organization. For example, closing the end-of-quarter books is a repetitive task that consumes the energies of managers and employees for days and weeks. Automating that process allows those people to perform true value-added work, such as forward-looking financial planning, or, adjusting capital flows according to changing business conditions. 

The second stage of a machine-first approach is more complex. It requires redesigning formerly manual processes with advanced technologies, including hardware, software, and networks. This begins by breaking down business processes into component activities, and then determining how AI, ML, and advanced analytics can improve each one. When those automatable activities are defined, a business can look to see what new work the company can now perform.

What new services can it offer, and what new products can it create? For example, once a help desk has been automated, and intelligent agents deployed to answer common customer questions, what services can newly liberated help desk employees now provide? And what new skills and training will they need to provide those services?

It’s critical for companies to remember that machine-first automation – or, as we say, giving machines the right of first refusal – is not merely a strategy for reducing costs or headcount; it is, rather, a way to reimagine the business, and the jobs of the people who work for it.

Finally, machine-first automation provides an on-ramp to the digital ecosystem so crucial to the future of every business. 

Akhilesh Tiwari, vice president, global head of enterprise application services at TCS, is co-author of  "Giving Power to the Machine: Offering Technology the First Right of Refusal," in Vol. 12 of TCS Perspectives management journal.

About the author(s)
Akhilesh Tiwari
Vice President & Global Head, Enterprise Application Services Tata Consultancy Services (TCS)

With over 25 years of international leadership experience, Akhilesh helps TCS customers unlock value and generate growth from their business applications investments. He oversees the strategy and growth of the organization’s global SaaS application portfolio—ranging from long-standing enterprise application partners, such as SAP, Oracle and Salesforce, to best-of-breed applications focused on specific business needs or industries. Akhilesh and his team of business and technology leaders focus on innovating, designing and delivering Cloud-centric technology solutions that have helped some of the world’s largest and most complex organizations to become agile enterprises, poised for growth and innovation. Under Akhilesh’s leadership, the Enterprise Application Services practice has received numerous partner awards and leadership rankings from leading industry analysts.