iDatix' CEO on why automation creates more - and better – jobs (Transcript)
Some people think of Business Process Management or process automation as something that takes jobs away. But process automation and business process management is about freeing up capacity so that people can do more "value adding" jobs, argues Steve Allen, CEO and founder of iDatix in this Boardroom Perspectives interview.
In this interview, Allen discusses how he sees the industry evolving, key trends in the years ahead and why it’s time for business software to become much more user friendly.
Editor's note: this is a transcript of a recent podcast interview. It has been edited for readability. To listen to the original podcast, click here.
Process automation offers so much more than this...
PEX Network: You started out your career in robotics and I understand that you’ve worked on other cool innovations such as emergency vessel location and handprint character recognition. How did you end up moving from something like handprint character recognition to BPM?
Steve Allen: I got started in handprint recognition on a fluke after a business failure. It was very interesting to do that kind of research and then apply the technology to something practical. The first place we applied it was to forms processing. We were collecting large amounts of data from hand printed forms and immediately putting the information into a data system.
As soon as the data was in the system, there were some discrepancies. So our client asked to be able to see the original source of that information. Now we needed to put those images into a document management system so that we can retrieve it later on to use it, and then that whether we could control the process. We started controlling the process and then the information had to go to other places, so we had to start integrating all that, and before you knew it, we had character recognition, capture solutions, document management, data exchanges and business process all wrapped up into a single solution.
But nobody was offering that kind of user-centric or user focused process automation solution as a turnkey environment. When I started iDatix there were two things that were coming into an intersection: that was, firstly, growing internet prevalence and everybody wanting to move things over into making things internet accessible, and secondly, this intersection of all of these new technologies to drive process. So we wrapped these technologies up into a single solution with the goal of simplifying the workplace.
PEX Network: Some people think about business process management or process automation as something that reduces jobs, but in one interview you said that, typically, you found that BPM actually creates jobs. Why do you think that something that, on the surface of it at least, would automate jobs, actually create more jobs instead?
Steve Allen: If you look at the value that automation brings to society as a whole and how it elevates our standard of living and our work conditions, it’s been a continual repetitive process, starting with the industrial revolution, going into the automation of the factories and building cars. You might think that if we automated car production we would lose a lot of jobs. But we didn’t. Instead, we created a lot of jobs because now people have to sell the cars, service the cars, and all of the new industries that spring up as a result of having a car.
As we go in and automate people’s business processes, we’re really creating new opportunities for people to focus the more creative and value added processes. A displaced data entry clerk might be better off serving the organisation in a sales capacity or customer support to add much greater value to that organisation.
If that organisation now has greater value to offer, they have the potential and opportunity to grow. I can tell you from first hand experience that the companies that we do business with find themselves growing substantially as a result of being more competitive, being more responsive, and having a better sales environment to work in. So I see process automation as a way to move our society forward and create more opportunities than what we’re eliminating.
PEX Network: Now, I always love talking to entrepreneurs and I’m really curious about the history of iDatix. What’s your founding story?
Steve Allen: As I mentioned to you, we saw all of these technologies needed to be tied together and when we started iDatix we originally thought that selling product is a whole lot easier than creating a product, so why don’t we go ahead and private label some of these disparate components, tie them together in a solution and go to market?
We had contracted with some vendors in the space for capture, for document management, for workflow and such, to tie these systems together. The first companies that we got into business with were very large organisations and my OEM (original equipment manufacturer) vendors saw that and said, "wow, those are awesome opportunities. Why should we let it go to a brand new little start up company when we can have them for ourselves?"
So they took those opportunities away from us and we were left having gone through a sales process and having nothing at the end because our vendors decided that they wanted the business instead.
We quickly identified that there remained a gap in that the current products on the market weren’t optimised for the internet and they didn’t have specific optimisations for a process that a prospective client was trying to optimise. We created a PowerPoint of a product that we envisioned from scratch to lead this industry and we were able to secure this client. They committed to buy the product and wait nine to 12 months for delivery - to give us the opportunity to make it.
On their part it was quite the risk – although they, of course, checked our prior references – and it was the catalyst that got our product started. By having somebody commit early to letting us develop a product for them that we would carry to market, we actually made delivery in that 9 to 12 months timeframe and, interestingly enough, that same person that took that risk came back about ten years later and repurchased the entire solution for a different business that he had moved to. So it was really a great story of somebody taking a cooperative risk for us and helping us fund the start up of our organisation.
PEX Network: Now, the BPM software has moved on quite a bit in the last decade, even in the last couple of years. What would you say is the greatest challenge facing BPM software vendors in the year ahead?
Steve Allen: Well, I think the greatest challenge is just communicating the overall value that BPM products provide out in the business community. When people are looking for solutions they’re not typically thinking, oh, I need a BPM solution; let me go find who the best BPM provider is. They generally have a specific issue such as looking for a better solution for claims processing. As a result of that, a lot of the BPM vendors are now offering verticalized solutions, or mini-applications to address specific issues that people are having because people don’t know that this layer of software exists for the organisation.
The problem with this is that I think we’re actually losing a lot of the value that these solutions can provide to an organisation because BPM products are not just point solutions. They are, of course, very good at dealing with a point issue like claims processing and automating it. But as soon as you’re done in that claims environment it can roll over into accounting and human resources and other areas of the organization.
Instead, I think it’s important to build an environment where people understand that there’s a way to control process but getting that message out there is going to remain our challenge for a little while.
PEX Network: Speaking more broadly, what do you think will be some of the major enterprise trends that drive BPM in the next decade?
Steve Allen: There are a lot of drivers in the marketplace today and it’s amazing how fast the changes are coming. I think that business is really becoming a collaborative hub of complex systems. It’s the business’ mission to make those complex systems easier for people to work with. There’s also changing expectations that are carrying over into our workplace driven by mobile devices and the rich user experience that these devices provide. Our user communities, our employees and our vendor partner relationships now expect that technology should be enabling, helpful and easy and intuitive to use. Traditionally, business systems are not.
The industry as a whole is going to be very driven by our move to the mobile environment – the expectation of a more rich and easy user interface experience. I think gamification and social connectivity is going to play a big role in that. And then finally, providing analytics that roll up and… in that dashboard and snapshot environment, I get to know exactly what’s going on with my business and I have the tools to effectively adjust on real time changing environmental influences.
PEX Network: My final question is what do you think differentiates iDatix from other BPM software vendors out there in the market?
Steve Allen: BPM has traditionally been more the back office environment of an organisation and it’s been very programmatic and development-centric with the tool sets that have been there, and you see this shift of BPM companies now moving to the front side of the user experience.
From day one, iDatix has been focused on the user experience and the people-centric focus of business and how to maximise them as people are typically the most expensive resource to an organisation. We’ve moved from the front end of the process to the back end of data communication, data rule sets and such. So I think our differentiator is our tools’ inherent ability to create a rich user experience that’s optimised for productivity with your people and the interactions that drive your business processes with knowledge workers and partners and vendors.