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Will automation ‘make or break’ your IoT plans?

Will automation ‘make or break’ your IoT plans?

IT execs discuss their existing IoT projects and role that robotic process automation is playing in helping them achieve their goals.

“We are awash with data but the real science is in collecting and interpreting the data to deliver actionable outcomes,” according to former Telstra chief scientist, Dr Hugh Bradlow. 

Speaking at a recent forum, Dr Bradlow was referring to data captured by hundreds, sometimes thousands, of sensors and devices on the edge of corporate networks in the Internet of Things (IoT).

Organisations in sectors such as government, healthcare, utilities, education and agriculture are using this data to improve the efficiency of their systems and procedures while reducing costs.

However, a key factor in the success or failure of any IoT project is the ability to automate manual tasks and provide straight through processing from backend systems.

IT leaders recently gathered at roundtables – sponsored by Software AG – in Sydney and Melbourne, to discuss the role automation plays in their IoT rollouts.

Software AG regional business director, Anthony Read, said there was some misunderstanding about robotic process automation (RPA) in the market with people believing it meant robots would replace humans in certain jobs.

“This is not true; there are no robots involved,” he said. “With RPA, the next generation of process automation is achieved where advanced decision logic can be applied to automatically advance steps in a process humans previously did.

“Will RPA grow in importance due to IoT? I think so. Why? Because IoT-enabled devices will eventually kick-start many processes. For instance, the detection of abnormal behaviour of a machine might require the attendance of an engineer.

“For this, a planning process might be started that may involve several steps and decisions such as, ‘Are the spare parts readily available or do they still need to be purchased?’ Due to the high number of devices in the future, the number of process initiations will grow dramatically as well. Having the right tools to automate those processes as far as possible will be one way for companies to cope with that growth.”

Software AG account director, Michael Huw Moorcraft, said the sheer volume of data and its time-critical nature precluded human interaction for much of it.

“This means that automation is the only way to leverage IoT. The business manager correlates patterns detected with new business models so the effect on these models can be seen,” he said.

“A secondary benefit of both IoT and automation is to open up data silos. A great deal of the data streaming from operational technology has been the domain of one or two specialists within a business. For this reason the data has had very little impact or benefit outside of that particular domain. Through acknowledging IoT and taking an automation route, the data has to be put to use.”

Software AG advocates an IoT maturity model where companies go through three stages: getting data-driven, process-driven and analytics-driven.

“In the first stage, when you try to cope with connecting devices and are solving data storage and visualisation challenges, automating core businesses processes won’t make or break your projects,” Read said.

“But as soon as a company has jumped that hurdle and is starting to push the data being gathered, the ability to augment and automate core processes on the basis of IoT data is critical.”

City of Port Philip manager, business technology, customer and corporate services, Rod Apostol, said the council had several IoT projects either completed or in progress.

For Port Phillip, the challenge in rolling out IoT projects lay not in the devices but the amount of data generated.   

“The bigger challenge now that we have so much data is ‘how this can be meaningfully consolidated and visualised to help us make informed decisions?’” Apostol said.

Apostol acknowledges the council is yet to explore the role of robotic process automation, where a computer or virtual worker mimics the execution of a human’s repetitive actions, in its IoT rollouts.

“We have identified a number of processes that will lend themselves to this as they are logical, repetitive and transactional in nature but we are yet to start down this path,” he said.

Service Stream head of enterprise architecture and cyber security, Adam Buczko, said the network service provider’s IoT projects are at a very early stage. Key challenges to date included creating rich metadata for its IoT assets and managing data retention and archiving requirements.

Automation played a critical role and is a necessary prerequisite for entering the IoT space, he said. “If automation can’t be relatively easily achieved, we would be unlikely to make a business case for any IoT project in our organisation,” he said.

ANZ head of business systems and data quality, wholesale operations, Glenn Goodman, said the bank is always looking at branch tools and moving towards more digital-based solutions for customers. However, he couldn’t think of an area where an IoT project could be justified as part of mainstream banking services.

“We are definitely looking at biometric authentication options which would require additional thinking on how this data is captured and used, and possibly some innovations that are required to assist with capturing data,” he said.

Who’s responsible for making IoT work?

Business process owners, together with the IT group (led by the CIO) and enterprise architects, are collectively responsible for making sure that IoT projects deliver what is promised, according to Software AG’s Read.

“The business will need to understand the impact of having IoT devices starting all kinds of processes automatically – the impact on customer experience and/or the workforce. For instance, will IoT improve customer experience? Will the automation result in some staff losing their jobs?”

As IoT projects could have far ranging consequences, staff departments such as HR and compliance, may want to be involved in the process, as well, he said.

At the City of Port Phillip, business technology and customer experience teams will drive IoT initiatives in conjunction with the heads of each department when and where opportunities are identified, according to Apostol.

“Our C-level execs as a whole are providing oversight of these sorts of initiatives around outcomes and governance while ensuring we align to the strategic direction of the council. All projects need to deliver a benefit to our community.  Informed decision making will be a major part of that.”

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