Building the automated enterprise
Automation is a key driver of digital transformation efforts across the ASEAN region. With costs rising, competition becoming intense and new nimbler startups promising better value propositions, established firms need to compete better.
To achieve this, many are looking to streamlining their laborious processes into streamlined, automated ones. The idea is that these efforts will improve decision making, allow their firms to become more response to a dynamic market place, and enable them to explore new revenue opportunities faster.
To find out the state of automation and digital transformation in the region, Enterprise Innovation, together with ServiceNow, held three roundtables in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. All participants noted the immense challenges that they face while driving automation within their firms.
When asked, almost all respondents in all three countries noted that digital transformation has become a chief goal. They also see automation as the first step in achieving this goal.
One reason is that automation helps to fill in the gaps within a firm’s workflow processes. “When the processes and ways we are working are not optimized from a system point of view, it takes a lot of time. So, there are gaps in the organizations because the processes are not optimized. With automation, we can go back to being more efficient and focused on the customer journey,” Sita Doornbos (photo right), Head of Asia Customer IT Projects and General Manager of Supply Chains, Damco said.
For Panalpina, it is about standardization. “If there is a way to standardize [our processes], then it will bring a lot of value to our customers,” said Jonathan Lim (photo left), the firm’s Regional Head of IT, APAC.
Automation is also vital in addressing the data risk that many firms face. “Let’s face it, data has become a liability for most of banks. If you get the data algorithms right, you can turn it into your asset. Then you can up sell [your services and products] to the customers” noted the Vice President, Information Technology for a Global Bank attending the Singapore roundtable.
“At the same time, we need to find a competitive edge. Through automation we hope to find this,” Gary Chin (photo right), Executive Vice President, Bank Muamalat Malaysia Berhad added.
Joe Ching, Head of IT, British American Tobacco agreed. He noted that in a highly-regulated industry like Tobacco, the industry needs to become to turn to IT to streamline their workflow and address the various regulations.
“As more regulations come in play and there are more things [tobacco companies] cannot do. So, they then to turn to technology,” he added.
Ching also added that automation is crucial for good decision making in a fast-moving industry. “From a data analytics perspective, automation is very important. After all, the senior managers need to monitor their performance to streamline their workflow.”
One executive from a global banking company noted that automation can help the board members steer the firm in the right direction. In fact, he noted that without automation, the amount of data that you can use to make decisions will diminish overtime because the management system is unable to use it effectively.
“There is a lot of data that can overwhelm you. Purely for better decision making, if you do not automate, the amount of information that you can use to make decision will keep reducing. You need to bring in automation to gain new insights from your processes for better informed decisions,” he further added.
Lastly, automation is important for improving the firms’ views of their customers.
For example, Ng Kim Hoe (photo right), Head, IT Strategy & Architecture Malaysia Airlines noted that as his firm focuses on revenue generation and reducing operational costs, they are moving a lot of their infrastructure needs to the cloud.
“Overall, automation can save us time, improve efficiency, increase learning and give more convenience to customers,” said Stephen Chan, Vice President, IT, DBS.
Understanding the roadblocks
While automation’s advantages are clear, implementing it is not. In fact, firms from all three countries noted significant challenges in driving automation projects.
The biggest roadblock is service uniqueness. Each country and industry has its own set of regulations and workflow. Adapting a proof-of-concept from one country to the next is not as simple.
Amit Dhupkar (photo left), Head of Group Technology, Singpost sized up the problem succinctly: “If your organization’s processes and services are unique each time, you cannot realize the benefits of automation. Automation can only happen when physical and system processes are consistent, repeatable and predictable.”
“There is always this constant pressure to comply with customer requests, but each request is unique. And each country has a different governance process and different local [regulatory] authority, making the whole landscape complex,” Panalpina’s Lim added.
Another huge roadblock is internal staff resistance. “There are pockets of resistance [among staff]. Maybe they are not aware what automation can bring,” Thomas Wee (photo right), Group Chief Executive Officer, DataPost said.
It gets even more complex when working in a unionized industry like Shipping. “In the Shipping environment, we have a lot of unions to work with. So sometimes we cannot change the process because of them. And this is something we have to be mindful about it,” Colin Leong, Director, IT Security with a global logistics company said.
One way to overcome these challenges is to increase awareness [of the end users] and focus on their buy-in first. “For example, self-service is not welcome if we do not articulate the values to it to the end customers,” Henry Ho (photo right), Asia Area IT Director, Astra Zeneca Sdn Bhd said.
However, the acceptance of automation depends on the firm’s culture. “It all depends the culture of the organization. In the end, change management is important,” cautioned Peter Leong (photo left), Head, Regional IT - Asia Pacific & China Petronas Lubricants International Sdn Bhd.
Regulations are partly to blame for this culture resistance in highly-regulated industries. “Sometimes the regulations influence company culture. There are times where there are no regulations but [the staff] believe that what they were doing for a long time was part of regulations. So, IT needs to work with legal closely to overcome these regulations hurdles for digital transformation,” Wanawit Ahkuputra, Deputy Executive Director, Electronic Transactions Development Agency said.
Tan Chee Kheong, Group ICT Manager, Chemical Company of Malaysia Berhad agreed that this can be difficult for many firms. “Even if you say that you have simplified [the process], some staff still find it is easier to call the IT department. The roadmap is there and the vision is there, but how to get to that vision is where the challenge lies. Sometimes user change management can become a roadblock, if we don’t plan it well.”
The clash between different generations of users makes the situation dire. “Previous generations of workers were employed to keep the business running according to laid down procedures. But now we are employing a new generation to transform the business and challenge the status quo. So while the two complement each other there can be a clash between the two that needs to be managed,” Chris Jenkins (photo right), Chief Information Officer, Standard Chartered Thailand said.
Tapakorn Siritanawutichai (photo left), Executive Vice President Information Technology, CIMB Thai Bank PCL urged firms to ensure that business also takes ownership of automation initiatives. “Automation is not just part of the IT agenda; it is also part of business, especially in the banking industry. It improves business operational efficiency providing banking capability through banks' channels.”
Paul Stephen Howe (phoro right), CIO, SIAM Makro Public Company Ltd echoed the same sentiment. “The actual issue is business, as we are moving from being internally focused to customer focused. So they have to change their minds to make the customers’ lives as convenient as possible.”
“In the end, it is not about the new product but better experience,” Phoranee Rhuwadhana (photo left), First Vice President - Head of Information Systems Audit, Kasikorn Bank added.
Peter Doherty (photo right), Principal Solution Consultant, ServiceNow APJ saw the problem differently. It is not culture that is the roadblock but work attitudes. “Culture sometimes is not the issue. It is the people in the room. People can go back to their homes and have a seamless digital experience but when they come into the work they start using legacy systems. Sometimes I think we use culture as an excuse for not doing anything.”
Prasert Kanthamanon (photo left), Senior Vice President for Administrative Affairs and Chief Information Officer, King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi advised firms looking to automate should not leave it to the staff to dictate the design. “We always have the problem that the staff will guide the developer in the design. But while the system is supposed to be customer focused, we end up with one that is operator-focused. We need to be careful about this, and need to learn and study the end customers’ [needs] first.”
Such challenges are forcing firms to innovate. For example, DBS launched a fully mobile bank in India without a physical presence because it was easier. “DBS came up with the fully digital bank in India with no branches, and we use bots to service requests. It came out of a necessity because we were unable to setup at the cost we wanted in India,” George Papp, Executive Director, Core Systems Technology and Operations, DBS said.
Key insights for automation success
The first step to ensuring that automation initiatives become successful starts with messaging. Astra Zeneca’s Ho said, “We need to communicate with the right message.”
Top management buy-in is equally important and ensuring that they understand the benefits in their own terms. “We spend one day with the top management team on what is automation and why do we do that. So, we simplify by saying that we do automation for bringing best in class consumer experience for increasing revenues, operational excellence and reducing costs,” Vihang Shah (photo left), Regional Vice President, IT, Electrolux said.
Shah added that his firm has formed a digital transformation board for this purpose, and to manage the various initiatives. “So, every project gets reviewed and the business takes lead in justifying the projects. The implementation is then centrally driven.”
This has made most firms at the roundtables to re-examine the benefits of cloud and digital transformation in enabling automation to solve real-world business problems.
For example, Raihan Mohd Ghazi (photo right), IT Project Manager, Malaysia Airlines Berhad noted that her firm is now using cloud to automate and streamline processes for operational efficiency. “We are moving to the public and private cloud, and have moved the tools to the cloud. Our support is also moving to the cloud.”
Tony Lee (photo left), Vice President, Business Systems, CapitaLand Ltd is looking to use AI to empower his most productive employees, who generally experience increased workloads because of their past performance. “A possible automation outcome that I am looking for in CapitalLand is to ease the workload of our most productive personnel in the areas of general work engagements. These mid-level managers work extra hours in a day just to stay on top of things."
Lee noted that many of the tasks, including replying to emails, managing follow-ups, organizing meetings and carrying out laborious pre-meeting tasks that sometimes involve last-minute preparations, can be automated. "If we can use an AI to function as a full-scale personal assistant to these individuals, we can help them with all these tasks," he said, adding that it will improve productivity and allow these employees to add more value to the organization.
Sometimes, firms need to make a drastic change to overcome legacy-related challenges. ServiceNow’s Doherty offered Qantas.com as an example. “Qantas.com website is a legacy system in their data center. They needed to do a few months of regression testing [for every new release]. So, they made the business decision to take business sustaining service, break it up into micro services and the move them to AWS. Today they are very quick to adapt [to market needs].”
Automation can also improve decision makers’ access to vital information. “It can bring us the information to the management level. To be successful [nowadays], we need the speed to get information,” Kanthamanon of King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi said.
DBS’ Papp noted that automation can sometimes unearth positive surprises in terms of revenue opportunities and savings. “When you are squeezed by something that pushes you to innovate, in those moments, automation is always place where the millions [of dollars] are hiding.”
More importantly, automation should occur today. For one of the delegates to the roundtable, automation is no longer an option.