How CIOs in Asia are achieving enterprise automation

For most organisations today in Asia, digital transformation is the chief goal. And the first step to achieving that goal is automation.

automation
Thinkstock

Automation has different use cases for enterprises, the topmost benefit of which is optimising and standardising process.

“When the processes and ways we are working are not optimised from a system point of view, it takes a lot of time”, commented Sita Doornbos, Head of Asia Customer IT Projects and General Manager of Supply Chains at Damco.

“There are gaps in the organisations because the processes are not optimised. With automation, we can go back to being more efficient and focused on the customer journey”, she added.

A global provider of innovative freight forwarding and supply chain management services, Damco has presence in over 100 countries. Standardising processes through automation is a must.

Jonathan Lim, Regional Head of IT, APAC, at Panalpina, agrees. “If there is a way to standardise [our processes], then it will bring a lot of value to our customers”, he observed.

“There is always this constant pressure to comply with customer requests, but each request is unique. And each country has a different governance process and different local [regulatory] authority, making the whole landscape complex”, he added.

The Swiss forwarding and logistics services provider is involved in intercontinental air and ocean freight as well as supply chain management solutions.

Automation in regulated industries

Automation brings a different set of advantages to highly regulated industries.

Joe Ching, Head of IT at British American Tobacco, noted that the tobacco industry, for example, needs to turn to IT to streamline workflows to comply with various regulations.

“As more regulations come in play and there are more things [tobacco companies] cannot do [...] they turn to technology”, he explained. “From a data analytics perspective, automation is very important. After all, the senior managers need to monitor their performance to streamline their workflow.”

Stephen Chan, Vice President, IT, at DBS, said the same of automation in the banking industry.

“Overall, automation can save us time, improve efficiency, increase learning and give more convenience to customers”, he added. 

Turning data into assets

Data, however, can also become a liability for many organisations.

A vice president of IT at a global bank attending the Singapore roundtable shares that this is true in most banks.

“If you get the data algorithms right, you can turn it into your asset. Then you can upsell [your services and products] to the customers”, the executive shared.

An executive from another global banking company shares this view, saying that without automation, the amount of data that organisation can use to make decisions will diminish over time because the management system is unable to use it effectively.

“There is a lot of data that can overwhelm you. Purely for better decision making, if you do not automate, the amount of information that you can use to make decision will keep reducing", the executive explained. "You need to bring in automation to gain new insights from your processes for better-informed decisions.”

“At the same time, we need to find a competitive edge. Through automation we hope to find this”, added Gary Chin, Executive Vice President at Bank Muamalat in Malaysia.

Tapakorn Siritanawutichai, Executive Vice President Information Technology at CIMB Thai Bank, affirms that automation is not just part of the IT agenda.

“It is also part of business, especially in the banking industry. It improves business operational efficiency providing banking capability through banks' channels”, he explained.

From operations-focused to customer-focused

One of the biggest advantages of automation is the benefit to customers. Paul Stephen Howe, CIO at SIAM Makro, provides an overview.

“The actual issue is business, as we are moving from being internally-focused to customer-focused. So they have to change their minds to make the customers’ lives as convenient as possible”, he said.

“In the end, it is not about the new product but better experience,” affirmed Phoranee Rhuwadhana, First Vice President, Head of Information Systems Audit, at Kasikorn Bank.

Using automation to provide better customer experiences, however, needs another ingredient to make it work: design.

“We always have the problem that the staff will guide the developer in the design. But while the system is supposed to be customer focused, we end up with one that is operator-focused”, said Prasert Kanthamanon, Senior Vice President for Administrative Affairs and CIO at the King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi.

“We need to be careful about this and need to learn and study the end customers’ [needs] first”, he further explained.

Pockets of resistance

As most companies have experienced, automation is a fork in the road. While the benefits are clear, it is also causes disruption; hence, it may cause resistance in some parts of the organisation.

“There are pockets of resistance [among staff]. Maybe they are not aware what automation can bring”, commented Thomas Wee, Group Chief Executive Officer at DataPost. 

According to Henry Ho, Asia Area IT Director at Astra Zeneca, one way to overcome these challenges is to increase awareness of the end users and focus on their buy-in first.

“For example, self-service is not welcome if we do not articulate the values to it to the end customers”, he explained. “We need to communicate with the right message.”

For Peter Leong, Head, Regional IT, Asia Pacific & China, at Petronas Lubricants International, it all depends on the culture of the organisation.

“In the end, change management is important”, he concluded.

Wanawit Ahkuputra, Deputy Executive Director, Electronic Transactions Development Agency, has a different view.

“Sometimes the regulations influence company culture. There are times where there are no regulations but [the staff] believe that what they were doing for a long time was part of regulations. So IT needs to work with legal closely to overcome these regulations hurdles for digital transformation”, he commented.

Pushing the innovation envelope

One delegate to the roundtable observed that people have different expectations about digital experience depending on whether they are at home or at work.

Chris Jenkins, CIO at Standard Chartered Thailand, has a similar comment.

“Previous generations of workers were employed to keep the business running according to laid down procedures. But now we are employing a new generation to transform the business and challenge the status quo. So while the two complement each other, there can be a clash between the two that needs to be managed.”

George Papp, Executive Director, Core Systems Technology and Operations, at DBS, shares that the bank has come up with a fully digital bank in India with no branches, and they use bots to service requests.

“It came out of necessity because we were unable to set up at the cost we wanted in India”, he said. “When you are squeezed by something that pushes you to innovate, in those moments, automation is always a place where the millions [of dollars] are hiding.”

Vihang Shah, Regional Vice President, IT, at Electrolux, shares that his firm formed a formed a digital transformation board for this purpose, and to manage the various initiatives.

“We spend one day with the top management team on what is automation and why do we do that. We simplify by saying that we do automation for bringing best in class consumer experience for increasing revenues, operational excellence and reducing costs”, he added. “Every project gets reviewed, and the business takes the lead in justifying the projects. The implementation is then centrally driven.”

However, even if you’ve simplified the process, some staff still find it easier to call the IT department.

“The roadmap is there, and the vision is there, but how to get to that vision is where the challenge lies. Sometimes user change management can become a roadblock if we don’t plan it well”, says Tan Chee Kheong, Group ICT Manager at Chemical Company of Malaysia.

Looking at the possibilities of cloud and Artificial Intelligence

Another aspect of automation is the move to the cloud.

“We are moving to the public and private cloud and have moved the tools to the cloud. Our support is also moving to the cloud”, noted Raihan Mohd Ghazi, IT Project Manager at Malaysia Airlines.

Tony Lee, Vice President of Business Systems at CapitaLand, mentioned that they are looking to use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to empower his most productive employees, who generally experience increased workloads because of their past performance.

“A possible automation outcome that I am looking for in CapitalLand is to ease the workload of our most productive personnel in the areas of general work engagements. These mid-level managers work extra hours in a day just to stay on top of things", he added.

He adds that many of the tasks, including replying to emails, managing follow-ups, organising meetings and carrying out laborious pre-meeting functions that sometimes involve last-minute preparations, can be automated. 

"If we can use an AI to function as a full-scale personal assistant to these individuals, we can help them with all these tasks", he elaborated further.

He adds that it will improve productivity and allow these employees to add more value to the organisation.

For Kanthamanon of King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi, automation “can bring us the information at the management level.”

“To be successful [nowadays], we need the speed to get information”, he added. 

Overall, Amit Dhupkar, Head of Group Technology (eCommerce Logistics) at SingPost, says that “automation can only happen when physical and system processes are consistent, repeatable and predictable.”