What are your superpowers? It’s become a trendy question. Maybe you’ve been prompted at some point to describe the special abilities you already have or think you could develop as a business leader. What about the ability to rewind the clock? That’s a power that everyone in the CXO suite—and beyond—would find useful on occasion.
What would you have done in 2019 or before, for instance, knowing that a global pandemic was around the corner? How would you have prepared? What steps would you have taken, or avoided? Of course, time travel (and knowledge of the future) remains outside our reach, but the ability to look back and reflect on the past is alive and well. And one thing we see clearly today is that organizations have weathered the pandemic with differing degrees of success. Those that were already leaning into digital technologies—the superpowers of digital communications, IoT, artificial intelligence (AI), robotic process automation (RPA) etc.—were better prepared. They were on the right path at the right time.
One case that’s interesting to consider is Philips.
Several years before COVID-19 first emerged, the Dutch multinational was looking for a way to transform its finance functionality without compromising speed and quality. “Back in 2017, when we were deliberating on refreshing our tech strategy, RPA was one element we were evaluating,” said Philips Chief Accounting Officer Arvind Subramanian.
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They took up the challenging task of automating their financial operations as a part of their Hoshin Kanri strategic planning program from 2018 to 2020. “At that point in time, we had no clue what it would yield, but we said let’s try to automate one million hours, because we didn’t want to put a dollar value to it,” Arvind said. “Our idea here was to really drive quality sustainability but also to improve the speed, especially in the closing and planning process.”
By leveraging the power of RPA, Phillips experienced massive benefits that increased productivity and the bottom line. Touchless automation enabled the elimination of 15,000 person-hours per annum globally; automated dunning led to 21 percent better collection within three months of implementation; and a team of RPA bots created to continuously check all data postings in SAP led to an annual saving of 78,000 hours. And this path of digital transformation set Phillips up for additional wins.
“What we didn’t realize were the softer benefits which we, later on, encountered like knowledge management becoming much easier than before,” Subramanian said. “Also, when the pandemic hit us in 2020, the importance of resilience came into the limelight.”
Intelligence and Data
Post-pandemic organizations have had to focus on recovery, resilience, and competitiveness. But organizations that had already invested in technologies that helped to absorb disruption were at an advantage. The pressing need for most companies during the pandemic was to look for faster utilization of digital technologies. Those that had kick-started their journey earlier to become more intelligent enterprises benefitted far more significantly than those who only just started.
But how does this work? Do digital technologies give leaders a magical ability to solve whatever problems they face, from labor force constraints to supply-chain disruptions? At a high level, digitization aims to leverage digital technologies to enhance customer experience and business processes, thus meeting customers’ changing needs and the market. Moreover, it helps an organization become more agile in improving speed of response, standardizing processes, eliminating manual processes, and using data much more intelligently.
Let’s focus on that last point. In the past, the misuse of data, whether through wrong calculations or inaccurate understandings, has impacted organizational revenue negatively, resulting at times in significant losses. As an antidote, during the so-called third industrial revolution businesses turned to a new class of tools—e.g., enterprise resource planning (ERP), customer relationship management (CRM), and supplier relationship management (SRM)—to provide a strong foundation for the critical information needed for running successful businesses.
These pillars are still applicable and essential, but because most data in the enterprise is complex and unstructured, these tools are insufficient for the task ahead. It is rather a “fusion of technologies” in the ongoing fourth industrial revolution that is enabling enterprises to move more effectively towards digitization. Developments in areas ranging from AI to robotics to 3D printing to machine learning and beyond are expanding our ability to use unstructured content for enterprise knowledge, discovery, search, business insights, and actions.
Racing Toward Resilience
Most business leaders realize that resilience in today’s competitive and rapidly changing environment means becoming a truly intelligent enterprise. Yet at the same time, they would hesitate to describe their own organizations in those terms. What that means is that the race is on, and there’s still an opportunity to enter and emerge as a winner.
Front runners will want to ensure that their performance, rightly monitored and analyzed, becomes flawless. At the other end of the spectrum, enterprises shifting their infrastructure to this new environment must still invest the time, effort, and funds it takes to transition. It helps to focus. Those who succeed tend to target discrete functions, as Philips did with finance and RPA. But along the way they discover that these technologies can be amazingly powerful: generating a widening circle of benefits in the near term and providing protection against shocks that lie ahead in the future.