The urgency of workflow automation in pandemic times


Two of the big enterprise questions on diginomica boil down to the same theme: can business users do their jobs either with less dependence on the IT department, or with a different type of IT relationship?

Take workflow automation – one area that got exposed by the pandemic. Every weak link in a process that required us to be in the office was now a potentially debilitating delay. Yes, so-called “low code” approaches can allow business users to build some of their own workflows – but how many enterprises had these tools in place when the pandemic began?

On a recent video call, I asked Cherwell CEO Sam Gilliland a similar question: what happens when you realize a process isn’t as automated as you thought it was? Gilliland is in a good position to answer that. Cherwell‘s roots are in IT service management, and their focus is automating workflows across business units. As Gilliland said to me:

Right after the pandemic began, we conducted a study through Lawless Research. This study isn’t just across our customers; it’s across industries and sectors. As you point out, [the pandemic] has been a forcing function to get those workflows automated, where there may have been some kind of disconnect.

Companies are seizing the chance now:

More than half of those folks that we surveyed already implemented self-service. Another quarter said they were going to do it within the next year.

Low-code in the pressure cooker – workflow automation in pandemic times

To be honest, I’m not sure the classic IT service management (ITSM) approaches of five to ten years ago would have been much use in our current predicament. They certainly wouldn’t have helped workers spin up processes remotely. Fortunately, ITSM vendors like Cherwell have been pursuing the no-code/low-code approach for a while, before the pandemic hit.

The Lawless Research study found that giving ITSM platforms low code capabilities was central to their effectiveness. The survey compared companies that allowed “citizen” and professional developers to use low-code and no-code to those that did not. Those companies using both citizen and professional developers reported better results with developer productivity, reduction in shadow IT, and the development and delivery of apps.

A narrow focus on ITSM is limiting also. Gilliland mentioned a customer that moved from ITSM into HR self-service apps, then into facilities management. They don’t need much help from Cherwell’s professional services to do that. With 200+ apps built on the Cherwell platform, including contract management, the example illustrates how companies want to take self-service into their own hands.

Shall we put these concepts in a pressure cooker? An election scenario is a good one – a topic which we are all intimately familiar. Gilliland shared the story of LA County:

The largest voting jurisdiction in the U.S. is LA County. They came to us before Super Tuesday and said, “Hey, we really need to have a digital chain of custody solution.” They had tried a number of different ways to accomplish that. In about a month’s time, we built that alongside LA County – and they implemented it for Super Tuesday. They used it again with the recent presidential elections.

How about another pressure cooker example? At Cherwell’s recent Clear virtual event (now viewable on demand), Gilliland shared a public sector story:

The other example I gave during my keynote address was the University of Missouri. They have a little over 30,000 student population; they have 35,000 employees. They were faced with furloughs and layoffs, and moving people into new job functions as a part of this.

Within a matter of two weeks, they used our platform to develop workflows that connected their HR systems, to their accounting systems, across their enterprise to accommodate all this. They were already a very adept customer of ours; it wasn’t something they had to learn from scratch. When COVID came around, they could very quickly adapt.

No surprise – adapting on-the-fly for pandemic times ended up as a recurring theme of the Clear 2020 show:

I think that’s what a lot of our customers were talking about is: how do they adapt in this new world? How can they apply our solutions to the new use cases they have?

Another bulky/in-person process getting exposed during the pandemic is onboarding. That’s a great candidate for some form of workflow automation, so companies can focus on making new employees welcome, not stressing out about the status of their paperwork. Gilliland has seen this in action:

Home Advisor uses our technology, and they onboard and off-board a lot of people on a regular basis. Their challenge was: it was taking them somewhere around 120 hours to onboard an employee… They built workflows using Cherwell, and took that down to four hours. They spanned lots of different verticals within the organization to get that accomplished.

As for what’s next in automation, Gilliland sees interest in virtual assistants rising. The goal? Virtual assistants deal with lower-level support issues (e.g. bill payment, password resets, returns, delivery tracking), freeing up customer service reps for more impactful – or complex – resolutions. With service reps strained to capacity, new approaches are needed. Gilliland:

A lot of [customers] are expressing a growing interest in virtual assistants and machine learning. The use case that the pandemic will drive for our customers across industries [is returns]. You’ve probably experienced this – you buy something online, you decide you don’t like it, or don’t need it as much as you thought, and you want to return it. In some cases, that’s quite straightforward to do.

Many companies are underwater in terms of phone support for those types of things. What we’ll find over time is that a lot of the simple processes will get automated with virtual assistants and AI. That allows the customer service folks to really work on the harder problems.

My take – a low-code skeptic’s view

I’ve expressed massive strong skepticism over no-code/low-code “solutions” in the past. But that’s because low-code evangelists, and their PR reps, have turned low-code into a cure-all religion for all that ails IT leaders, where “citizen developers” create some kind of workforce revolution. That’s bunk.

Central to those low-code infatuations is the idea that business users can build the same kind of sticky/intuitive apps that the best mobile developers can create for iOS and Android. I believe this last assertion has been pretty well debunked by now. Most sensible folks acknowledge that device-specific development is a necessity if you are building a next-gen mobile app, or, for example, an iOS version of Netflix or Spotify, where device-specific UX standards are sky high.

That’s different than what we’re talking about here. Helping business users build their own workflows, with minimal help from IT, is absolutely a worthy/realistic no-code/low-code pursuit. Just like virtual assistants, can, in theory, free up customer service reps from low-level tickets, IT can be freed up by workflow automation to solve thornier problems.

Let the IT team build a spiffy mobile app for end customers; let business users build their own workflow apps. Will those workflow apps be as sexy in their look and feel? Maybe not, but for those purposes, it doesn’t matter. Often these low-code tools can pull from the existing UI anyhow, with minor, allowable modifications.

As for “virtual assistants,” I haven’t been a fan of those either, but that’s mostly because they over-reach, attempting to resolve problems beyond their scope. These assistants also do a typically poor job of easy human escalation for priority issues.

Much of this comes down to your business goals. If it’s just automation and head count reduction, I don’t like your chances, even if you can report a short-term, bottom line benefit. But if cost control is combined with giving employees more face time with customers, or less time on repetitive tasks and more time on so-called “value creation,” now you’re talking. And if it makes it possible for you to upgrade your service delivery in these market conditions – let’s hear about it.

The pandemic has been a brutal and unfair messenger of business lessons. But: if we can learn how to automate in the forward-thinking way described here, that’s one thing we can take forward. Looking ahead, I hope to dig into a couple of these “pressure cooker” use cases, where time to change processes was bearing down. Cherwell’s LA County example is one I’d like to dig into. Let’s see where this leads.



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