Get All Access for $5/mo

3 Capabilities You Need To Know About Intelligent Automation If you're looking to learn more about intelligent automation or wondering how it could help your business, here are three essential capabilities you need to understand.

By David Zhao Edited by Kara McIntyre

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Intelligent automation has recently received a lot of buzz. A lot of people want to know what the future holds, and many don't want to feel left out.

However, intelligent automation (also known as "hyperautomation") is an ever-changing collection of technologies. New tools come out every year. It is difficult to keep up.

In addition, others are concerned whether the hype will match reality. For example, in July 2021, leaders at IBM scaled back expectations for Watson. IBM first pitched Watson as revolutionary, promising advanced AI capabilities like automating cancer detection and treatment recommendations. Now, IBM has positioned Watson as a tactical natural language processing tool. Even the best can get caught in the hype.

Instead, it pays to be smart about intelligent automation. But how can digital leaders think about intelligent automation in order to make smart investment decisions?

Related: Why Intelligent Automation Is the Only Answer to Wage Inflation

We can divide intelligent automation into three categories. Here, we aim to cover 80% of the capabilities. The remaining 20% involve niche capabilities that are covered in a more detailed study.

The three capabilities are:

  1. Automating tasks
  2. Orchestrating workflows
  3. Automating decisions

Automating tasks

The first capability is automating tasks. This is often called robotic process automation (RPA), where a bot repeats a set of tasks in the same way that a human would. This frees the human to focus on more valuable work.

Now, automating tasks is not new. Excel macros have existed since the '90s. However, modern RPA has an interesting history.

Daniel Dines founded UiPath, a leader among RPA companies, as DeskOver in 2005. They initially built tools to help developers build software. Dines tried to sell them to companies like Amazon, Google and Microsoft, but did not receive much interest.

Dines struggled. He thought about closing the company. However, in a moment of serendipity, a business process outsourcing firm in India was searching for an automation tool. Now, outsourcing firms perform repetitive tasks with thousands of employees from low-cost countries. Price pressure is intense.

At the time, UiPath knew nothing about outsourcing. However, they were able to pivot away and impress the outsourcing firm. The rest is history.

Thus, the modern era of intelligent automation began when a company that produces productivity tools met an outsourcing firm looking for help to increase productivity. Now, thousands of companies run millions of bots, all executing the same tasks repeatedly. They free up millions of hours, allowing everyone to focus on more important work.

Related: Automation Is Becoming a Business Imperative: Don't Wait Until It's Too Late

Orchestrating workflows

Sometimes automating individual tasks is not enough. Instead, we need to redesign the business process. That brings us to our second capability: orchestrating workflows.

Michael Hammer and James Champy's seminal book, Reengineering the Corporation, contains a classic story. There was a division at IBM that was very profitable. However, they had one major challenge: On average, producing a contract for a client took six days. For salespeople, this was unacceptable. In that time, a client could select another vendor. Therefore, they wanted to improve operations by automating tasks.

However, this wasn't the right approach. Two senior executives had a brilliant idea. They walked one application through the business process, asking each person to focus only on this one task. They discovered that the department could complete an application in 90 minutes.

Now, suppose the executives had a magic wand that could make everyone work twice as fast. They would only save 45 minutes. Most of the time was spent waiting in queue. The solution was not to complete tasks faster.

Therefore, they redesigned the business process, so that most of the time, one person could complete an application in one step. They reduced average waiting time from siz days to four hours, for a 100-fold gain in productivity.

Thus, the second group of tools is about orchestrating workflows. Low-code workflow engines allows business users to orchestrate company-wide business processes. They can increase productivity beyond just automating a single task. Furthermore, automating tasks and orchestrating workflows go hand in hand. We can orchestrate the workflow first, and then automate individual tasks for even more efficiency.

Related: 4 Reasons Why Workers Should Welcome Artificial Intelligence In the Workplace

Automating decisions

The third group of technologies focuses on automating decisions. There are easy problems and hard problems. This leads to Moravec's paradox.

In 1988, Hans Moravec wrote, "It is comparatively easy to make computers exhibit adult level performance on intelligence tests or playing checkers, and difficult or impossible to give them the skills of a one-year-old when it comes to perception and mobility." For example, we've taught computers to play checkers, but we struggle to teach computers the perception and mobility skills of a toddler.

In 1966, the famous computer scientist Marvin Minsky wanted to teach a computer to recognize common household objects. Thinking that it would take one summer, he assigned the project to a student. It turned out to be extremely difficult. Fifty years later, computer vision systems are just now emerging.

Now, if computer vision is a hard task to automate, then what would be easier? Researchers have made progress on specialized problems. For example, IBM Watson's computer vision capabilities for specific types of cancer can match the performance of a radiologist. As another example, credit reporting companies deploy decisioning engines to predict risk for credit fraud or loan default, using massive data sets.

Related: Robots Are Stealing Our Jobs

Unlocking the power of intelligent automation

The true power of intelligent automation lies in combining the three capabilities — automating tasks, orchestrating workflows and automating decisions. For example, first, we can orchestrate the workflow by redesigning the business process. Second, we can automate individual tasks to free people from mundane tasks. Third, we can automate decisions for which machines have an advantage.

Now, achieving the promise of intelligent automation can be challenging. Some struggle to separate hype from reality. Others become enamored with the tools and lose sight of solving business problems. Thus, a company needs to begin with a strategic view of business challenges to unlock the power of intelligent automation. Those business problems make the field of intelligent automation exciting today.

David Zhao

Managing Director of Coda Strategy

David Zhao is managing director of Coda Strategy, a management consulting firm that works with digital leaders to execute business strategy through analytics and automation. He has guided numerous organizations through the design and implementation of complex digital transformation programs.

Want to be an Entrepreneur Leadership Network contributor? Apply now to join.

Editor's Pick


ChatGPT is Becoming More Human-Like. Here's How The Tool is Getting Smarter at Replicating Your Voice, Brand and Personality.

AI can be instrumental in building your brand and boosting awareness, but the right approach is critical. A custom GPT delivers tailored collateral based on your ethos, personality and unique positioning factors.

Business News

You Can Now Apply to Renew Your U.S. Passport Online — But There's a Catch

The U.S. State Department officially launched the beta program this week.

Business News

Is the AI Industry Consolidating? Hugging Face CEO Says More AI Entrepreneurs Are Looking to Be Acquired

Clément Delangue, the CEO of Hugging Face, a $4.5 billion startup, says he gets at least 10 acquisition requests a week and it's "increased quite a lot."

Growing a Business

He Immigrated to the U.S. and Got a Job at McDonald's — Then His Aversion to Being 'Too Comfortable' Led to a Fast-Growing Company That's Hard to Miss

Voyo Popovic launched his moving and storage company in 2018 — and he's been innovating in the industry ever since.

Business Ideas

63 Small Business Ideas to Start in 2024

We put together a list of the best, most profitable small business ideas for entrepreneurs to pursue in 2024.

Business News

Apple Reportedly Isn't Paying OpenAI to Use ChatGPT in iPhones

The next big iPhone update brings ChatGPT directly to Apple devices.