Survival of the Quickest: How to Hack a Pandemic with Intelligent Automation (Part 2/2)

Muthulakshmi (Lakshmi) N, Global Head, Intelligent Process Automation and AI, TCS

In wrapping up the final episode of this two-part conversation with Muthulakshmi (Lakshmi) N, global lead for intelligent automation and artificial intelligence at Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), it’s worth putting her success as a senior shot-caller at India’s biggest information services company into perspective.

Female senior execs at Fortune 500 companies are “hidden figures.” Women make up about 25% of the tech workforce but hold only 5% of leadership positions. Overall, just one in five C-suite execs are women. And only one in twenty-five is a woman of color. Studies show that gender and racial exclusion is toxic to companies in the innovation economy. Which is another way of saying we need more women in power positions to keep things moving forward.

Perhaps India’s Debjani Ghosh, President, of the National Association of Software & Services Companies said it best:

“We are having real conversations now about getting more women into every level of our organizations and onto boards, and that’s a good thing. But we need to get beyond conversations. We need to get to the point where every CEO believes that if we don’t do this, we will lose relevance and customers, and realize that competitors who are embracing diversity will win.”

All of which brings us back to Lakshmi. In her leadership role at TCS, Lakshmi oversees strategy, growth, profits and customer success in intelligent automation and AI for one of the largest employers in the private sector. As a strategist, she says that automation is not about replacing human workers, but about using cloud computing, artificial intelligence and analytics in every aspect of the enterprise. She also says a human worker should be empowered to give the first right of refusal to any technology that augments his or her capabilities.

When companies exclude women and people of color from the talent pool, they miss out on the magic of connecting with new ideas and new ways of looking at things. The same is true of designing enterprise systems, says Lakshmi, especially in customer-facing applications. Our chat ended on a high note with Lakshmi looking over the horizon at the future of automation, autonomous interfaces and magical customer experiences.

Hope you enjoy the conversation.

Evangelizing Enterprise-Wide Automation

Appian: You’ve said that low-code is the future of intelligent automation. We (Appian) recently commissioned a survey where 82% of respondents said they needed automation to serve customers better. But two thirds also said their companies could be doing a better job of serving customers via automation. What do you make of that criticism?

Lakshmi: Well, one of the problems we’re seeing is the difficulty of a federated organization to scale automation through a centralized group. Individual units within the organization tend to be driven by different priorities. Which makes it that much harder to evangelize enterprise-wide automation, right?

As a result, automation initiatives happen in pockets and they are mostly driven by efficiency. But we also see situations where you have too many people in a large enterprise who don’t understand the technology and the value it delivers. In other cases, there may be too many disconnected technologies across an organization that fail to deliver better efficiency, better quality, and better customer experience.

Appian: So, how do you fix the disconnect in a large organization?

Lakshmi: Start with a platform of growth.

For example, build your foundation on a low-code platform that allows you to quickly combine and orchestrate different technologies. From a governance standpoint, put policies in place to protect data, access and security. Educate internal teams so that they understand the benefits of intelligent automation for customers and end-users.

Establishing governance and standards is an essential part of the formula for scaling automation.

Giving First Right of Refusal to Technology

Appian: So, scaling automation is an organizational mindset as much as a technology challenge.

Lakshmi: Exactly. At TCS we have an organizational philosophy called Machine First, which is not a headcount reducer. Rather, it is a way to free people from routine and repetitive work. It’s a strategy designed to give the first right of refusal to technology.

Appian: First right of refusal? That’s an interesting concept for technology. Can you break it down? What does it mean to give technology the first right of refusal?

Lakshmi: It means looking at every business activity performed manually in your organization and asking: “Can a machine do it better?”  This is what we mean by giving technology systems the ‘first right of refusal. When machines are given the right of first refusal, it liberates companies to begin thinking about what their customers and businesses really want and need. It may not involve automation. It may not be AI or analytics all the time. But having a Machine First mindset changes everything I do.

Reimagining Jobs Created by Automation

Appian: In what way?

Lakshmi: Because I understand that intelligent automation is not about replacing human workers with digital labor. It’s about using cloud computing, artificial intelligence, and analytics in every aspect of the enterprise. So, even if we’re talking about an application that will transform an HR or Marketing organization for a client, I know that every human worker is empowered to give the first right of refusal to any technology that augments his or her own capability.

For many executives, a major roadblock to scaling automation is the misconception that aggressive, holistic automation will produce widespread job loss. But this view fails to imagine the new types of jobs that will be created after automation frees employees from work that can be done faster, better, and less expensively by AI.

I think it’s important to recognize how automation creates value and to also be able to identify the new jobs that will be needed in the future.  But it all comes back to removing the unnecessary steps, costs, time, and errors that manual activities introduce in your business processes.  From there, you can scope out new, higher-level work your company will need to operate in the age of accelerating digital change.

Appian: You’ve touched on something that’s really relevant right now, what critics call the conflict between digital and human labor. Talk a little bit about the alternative view, how automation and technology augments human capabilities, as opposed to killing jobs.

Lakshmi: Yes. So, automation is no longer an interloper. It is part of our lives. When you put on Netflix if you don’t like it. If it doesn’t give you the right recommendations, if it doesn’t meet your expectations, you’ll just switch to another service. And the expectations of the next generation will be even more demanding. Technology is everywhere. It’s with us at work and at home. We’ve got Alexa to help us keep house, right?

The expectations and the demands are moving in the direction of having technology work with us in everything that we do.

So, it’s not looked at as an interloper anymore. Especially after COVID-19, companies that were hesitant to embrace intelligent automation because of labor laws and fear of creating friction with employees. But all of those concerns are now shifting. In some cases, employees themselves are embracing technology that supports the work they do.

Digital Inclusivity, A Critical Success Factor

Appian: I want to switch gears for a second and talk about the concept of digital inclusivity.  I was talking to another thought leader recently who was very passionate about the need for digital inclusion, about making sure that all people and businesses have an opportunity to benefit from digital transformation. Talk about this concept of digital inclusivity, what it is and why it matters?

Lakshmi: For the next decade, you are going to have the baby boomers and the millennials and the gen Xers together. So, we have to make sure that we factor generational differences into digital accessibility. This includes the elderly and the underprivileged, people who may not be comfortable with using technology.

There needs to be more awareness and focus on inclusivity in how enterprise systems are designed, especially in customer-facing applications. Companies have to do a better job of focusing on the needs and diversity of the target audience they’re designing systems for.

Appian:  As you look to the future of automation, to the next decade and beyond, are you optimistic or pessimistic and why?

Lakshmi: I am definitely optimistic having been in the field of automation for more than 15 years, I’m definitely very optimistic because of the way intelligent automation and AI are going mainstream and how the interfaces are becoming more autonomous. And I think it’s going to create entirely new industries.

Appian: As you look out over the horizon, what trends are on your radar for the next decade and beyond?

Lakshmi: I’m looking at trends like contactless customer experiences, created by a combination of the internet of things, AI, and intelligent automation. This trend is going to create a much more magical customer experience.

(Missed the first installment of our two-part interview with Muthulakshmi [Lakshmi]? Read part one here.)

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