open plan office with multiple people working in front of computer monitors
PHOTO: Shridhar Gupta

As the number of organizations embracing digital transformation grows, many are automating office processes in order to speed time to market, boost revenue, and improve the overall customer experience.

The most common investments are in robotic process automation (RPA), in which a software program undertakes repetitive tasks previously done by humans, at a fraction of the cost, without error, and without complaint.

These investments in automation are also fueling greater demand for such disruptive technologies as artificial intelligence and machine learning. Indeed, research firm Gartner estimates that by 2021, an estimated 70% of organizations will use artificial intelligence (AI) to boost employee productivity.

Improving the Mastercard Experience With Automation

A leader in the growing reliance on automation is Harrison, New York-based Mastercard, which has invested heavily in office automation since 2014.

“We’re optimizing our systems to continually improve the Mastercard experience for consumers, customers, employees and partners,” explained Lance Gruner, executive vice president of global customer care at Mastercard, who is based in the firm’s St. Louis office. “Since 2014, we have increasingly used automation and robotics to reduce manual, back-office processes. This helps us simplify and speed up our time to market — improving the experience for customers and accelerating revenue for Mastercard.”

As an example, Gruner explained that Mastercard noticed it took a long time for certain customers to begin using one of its new card products because of the manual work, such as data entry, that needed to happen on the back end.

“We replaced these manual efforts with software robotic technology, which enabled us to improve time to market while significantly reducing customer risks,” Gruner said. “We are also using AI to help us get a better understanding of our customers and what they want — so we can anticipate their needs in our servicing.”

New technologies require new skillsets, and these tools required specialized training in AI and software robotics for Mastercard’s development teams. They are required significant cultural change.

“To successfully implement these new types of technologies, a cultural mindset shift must happen,” Gruner said. “It requires development teams to learn and understand not only how AI and software robotics simplify the employee experience, but how they delivers a positive experience in the marketplace: faster onboarding, swift customer service, robust knowledge management and simplified billing.”

Once an organization has successfully trained staff on how to use new automation tools and has put those tools into practice, the benefits can be substantial.

In the case of Mastercard, “by implementing automated technologies we’ve been able to improve the time, effort and accuracy for a financial institution to get started with Mastercard,” Gruner said. “Through back-office automation and robotics, they’re now up and running 80% faster, with less overhead and completely error free. We’ve also been able to use AI to better anticipate the needs of our customers, which significantly enhances the overall experience.”

Related Article: Busting 8 Robotic Process Automation Myths

Kuehne + Nagel: Automation Benefits and Challenges

It’s a similar story at Kuehne + Nagel International AG, a global transport and logistics company based in Schindellegi, Switzerland, which has invested in office automation tools for two years now.

“We are identifying automation potential along all our business units, so basically across the whole company,” explained Thorsten Kniewel, vice president and global head of HR-IT solutions and processes at Kuehne + Nagel. “We strongly believe that, if you do a good analysis, you can find automation potential in all units and several processes.”

As at MasterCard, IT leaders at Kuehne + Nagel were faced with the challenge of training key tech professionals in new automation products.

“There are several specialist automation tools available on the market, but you also need specialists that are experts in using these tools,” Kniewel said.

But with successful training of key staff, and with clear communication with all employees about why an organization is investing in automation products, the benefits are quick and easy to measure, Kniewel said.

“It’s hard to say in a brief overview, but in general, automation will help us to speed up our processes and data flows and to reduce manual repetitive workload,” Kniewel stressed.

Related Article: Is it Unethical to Secretly Automate Your Job? That's the Wrong Question

What Happens When Employees Automate Their Work?

In addition to growing interest in automation by organizations, there is also growing interest in the technology by some individual workers. So much so, that some organizations may find that tech workers have installed their own automation software to automate parts of their job role.

Should organizations be concerned about the ethics of this scenario? Perhaps … not.

That, at least, is the view of Julia Kanouse, SVP Membership at ISACA. Kanouse offered her thoughts on any potential ethical questions involved with an employee automating part of their job without being asked to by the employer, and how a worker might make such an arrangement work best for all concerned.

“While I wouldn’t consider this a question of ethics, I would raise the issue of transparency and teamwork,” Kanouse said. “If an employee automated his or her job and found a more efficient, better method for a task, why wouldn’t they want to share that with the company or other employees, so they too can be equally as effective?”

“The right protocol for whether to ‘Automate and Tell’ or not depends on the company culture,” Kanouse continued. “If it’s a teamwork-focused, collaborative company, automating a task and keeping it under wraps is different than a cubicle environment where people work in silos. You have to understand your company’s culture and manager’s style to know what the right thing to do is.”

Regardless of who initiates the effort, Kanouse agreed there are obvious benefits from automation.

“That said, automation is simply not applicable to every role. While many jobs have some tasks that are objective, there are lots of roles that aren’t — work that is strategy driven and differs case-by-case,” Kanouse concluded.