The quiet revolution of visual automation

This article was originally published on the Tech Financials website in May 2017. The original post can be found here.

Visual automation tools are not the future – they are already being used to create the future. It’s a quiet revolution that every company should know about.

When Chris Mulder, head of collections at The Unlimited, wanted to automate a simple process, he hit a wall. IT’s plate was overflowing and his project ranked too low in priority to get attention any time soon.

Even if there was a spot, he’d have to face the daunting bureaucratic lumbering required:

“If you want a technology change, you have to go through the process of business analysis, compiling business requirement documents, have a technical spec drawn up, all with a lot of back and forth. It’s incredibly tedious and, if you aren’t technical, tough to follow.”

The slow age of fast companies

His experience is not unique.

The high demand for compliance and other paperwork is a key factor slowing down modern organisations. Unless a company is cut from the same cloth as the new breeds, the Googles and Facebooks of the world, making and implementing decisions fast is not happening.

According to a CEB survey released last year, on average corporations are taking longer to do anything, including hiring people (up from 42 days in 2010 to currently 63 days.)

A lot of this can be blamed on slow leadership. A recent MIT Sloan survey found that 63 percent of companies suffer from a “lack of urgency” at the top. But even if leaders are eager to exploit opportunities, they have to take a number and wait as IT catches up.

Yet it can’t all be about big projects.

Nuance is important. Long-lived success is not solely composed out of grandiose elements, but also many small tweaks. Improvement comes when people can adjust elements in the business they understand, whereas too many hurdles tend to lead to the abandonment of those great ideas.

Mulder and his team uncovered such a tweak while scrutinising defaulting payments for The Unlimited’s insurance and lifestyle products:

“Let’s say we collected on the 25th and that’s successful, and the policy that fails is paid on the 20th of each month. What we realised that there is a real opportunity to align the debit IDs of the customers. Take the failed policy and put it on the successful policy date.”

This represented a very manual process, going through the records line by line. This was a task perfectly suited for automation, so Mulder approached the IT department. But it couldn’t help, citing the priorities of other projects in the pipeline.

That could have been the end of the journey. Then Mulder encountered a platform that is helping radically to alter how technology can happen in business.

What you see is what you get

Today it is largely forgotten that many of the Web’s pages are not built exclusively for lines of code.

Though a cottage industry of programmers helps craft early web pages, it was the arrival of WYSIWYG editors which changed the scene. An acronym for ‘What You See Is What You Get,’ this approach allowed users to drag-and-drop visual elements, constructing their page in real time. It quickly enabled a non-technical audience to take ownership of their web presences.

This visual approach wasn’t a new idea but would revolutionise web design. Today the philosophy lives on in sites such as Squarespace and Wix, which enables untrained users to build their own sites. Even Wikipedia has a visual design editor to bypass its somewhat arcane coding norms. The same, as Mulder was to discover, can be applied to process automation.

He met with Dev2, a software company that was working on a different project for The Unlimited. Dev2 is the local exclusive reseller of Warewolf,  integration and orchestration with a special twist: WYSIWYG. As Dev2’s Director, Wallis Buchan, explained, it’s about visual intuition:

“Computers follow rule-based instructions, which are in themselves not complicated. The challenge is building and integrating with the framework in which those rules can operate. Warewolf targets that thinking: it’s a platform that gives the user a visual interface where they can create rule scenarios. These can all be developed very quickly, and orchestrated with the business systems it has been integrated with.”

Mulder laid out the process scheme in a Visio flowchart, then met with Dev2. Though it still required a technical team to interact with Warewolf, the results floored him. Mulder was finally in the development loop, watching his process being built and tested in front of him:

“I was blown away, as a non-technical person, with the simple way of seeing things. The Warewolf studio is similar to Visio, so you can visually see something. In real time they replicated what I created and I could see how this thing was going to work. With a technical spec, I can get the gist of it, but I have no idea if it’s right or wrong. With Warewolf, I was looking at it in real time and I got it. I felt very empowered. For the first time, I felt like I was in control of what was happening.”

A new way to enable process automation

Companies may wish to be faster, but it is often the devil in the detail that slows them down.

Overcoming both communication and capacity issues between business leaders and technologists represent some of the big challenges around modernising companies.

The Unlimited’s experience shows that the two can meet quite elegantly, simply by marrying the familiar practice of process planning with visual aids that represent machine logic. New developments such as micro-services are revolutionising this space, led by the likes of Warewolf.

But it’s the simplicity that is what is empowering business people, and connecting them to the technology services that will improve their worlds directly. The small tweaks that improve an organisation don’t have to stop in the face of IT project overload. Visual automation tools are not the future – they are already being used to create the future.

Visual automation tools are not the future – they are already being used to create the future.

It’s a quiet revolution that every company should know about.

You can read the complete case study here:




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