Automation in C-suite closer than you think

Automation at the senior-level include collating and analysing data from various sources and translating them into meaningful insights


Automation will help CEOs be more data-based and fact-based in their decision-making than just relying on their experience. Photo: iStockphoto
Automation will help CEOs be more data-based and fact-based in their decision-making than just relying on their experience. Photo: iStockphoto

Bengaluru: When International Business Machines Corp.’s (IBM’s) Watson computer beat two leading Jeopardy players in 2011, people around the world paid attention.

After all, it was yet another clear demonstration of how humans were losing their advantage over machines.

Fast forward to 2016, and business consultants are already talking about how the automation of work could redefine jobs, even in the C-suite.

“We have found 25-30% of current activities (at the C-suite level) can be automated using currently developed technologies,” said Michael Chui, a partner at McKinsey Global Institute (MGI), the world’s largest consultancy.

These activities include collating and analysing data from various sources and translating them into meaningful insights for executives and making them aware of anomalies in their businesses.

This is important as automation has been mostly redefining jobs and changing the roles and responsibilities only of lower-rung employees in the past decade.

MGI did a broader study of over 2,000 work-related activities (even beyond the C-suite) and found that 45% of them can be automated with current technology and 60% of occupations have more than 30% of activities that can be automated.

To be sure, the extent of automation is limited to the type of activity.

Nevertheless, companies such as SAP SE, Cisco Systems Inc. and IBM are looking for more opportunities to bring automation to the C-suite.

The reason: automation will help CEOs be more data-based and fact-based in their decision-making than just relying on their experience, said experts.

“As the shelf-life for decision making is getting shorter, automation is going to improve productivity and change focus dramatically from operational issues to focusing on innovation and being more competitive,” said Sandeep Chaudhary, India chief executive officer, Aon Hewitt, an HR consultancy.

In May, SAP started using a product called “SAP Digital Boardroom” that aims to simplify performance reporting across all areas of business through a portal for C-suite.

“Right now, most leaders are challenged by heterogeneous report decisions dominated by static content,” said Sunil Kharbanda, chief customer officer for SAP India. But now, business leaders can get total transparency with a real-time view of a complete company situation and a comprehensive view of key figures across company divisions.

“They are now able to make improved decisions by accessing accurate information, answering impromptu queries and analysing alternatives and implications,” he added.

IBM, too, since early this year, has been tapping into its cognitive computing platform Watson to simplify decision-making in the C-suite.

It has deployed Watson in functions such as procurement, where senior officials are able to access and analyse unstructured and structured data sets on supply and demand, as well as present that with analytics and insights in a single view, explained Kuldeep Thirumalai, CIO leader, India/South Asia at IBM.

“This gives the chief procurement office vital information, and uncovers trends, patterns and relationships,” said Thirumalai, adding that this helps accelerate progress in data, processes and decision making to improve outcomes.

Cisco, too, has been deploying solutions to help leaders get visibility of their order book, which could be a crucial piece of information, especially close to month-end or quarter-end for C-suite leaders.

“For leaders to get visibility on the pipeline, they need information from a variety of sources on orders booked and the state of revenue coming in. And not just that, information had to be cleaned before giving to the leaders. It used to be time-consuming, especially at times like during the quarter-end, when it can get tedious,” said V.C. Gopalratnam, Cisco’s chief information officer (CIO) for Asia Pacific Japan and China.

So to save time and improve accuracy, Cisco created an application in-house that now automatically pulls this data from a variety of sources, using which leaders at the C-suite can have real-time information.

“Producing this and consolidating information like this would take an entire day earlier, but now this is done in a matter of minutes,” said Gopalratnam.

While these companies have already begun on this journey, Chui of McKinsey said the use of automation by C-suite executives is still nascent.

“While we estimate that activities comprising a third of a C-suite executive’s time could potentially be automated by adapting currently demonstrated technologies, in practice, very little of this potential has yet been captured,” he said.

But that will change and adoption will increase with natural pressure on C-suite executives because of the combined factors of scarcity of time and increased awareness and acceptance amongst executives, he added.

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