How is Intelligent Process Automation (IPA) changing business – a reflection by Professor Leslie Willcocks

Digitalization, robotization, and artificial intelligence have become business buzzwords that are frequently brought up during conferences and board meetings. How does the reality of a modern enterprise look? Are companies ready to embrace the potential presented by new intelligent technologies?

Two years after our first exclusive interview with Professor Willcocks of London School of Economics and Political Science, one of the most respected experts in the field of knowledge work automation, Digital Workforce had the opportunity to reunite with him, this time in London. The discussion – reflecting on the past two years, and looking ahead at the future of RPA (Robotic Process Automation) and other intelligent technologies – tackled some burning challenges companies face. How far are companies today with knowledge work automation, and how should they measure success?

In what ways has RPA developed, and have managers changed how they view the technology?

RPA has gotten a much higher profile than it had two years ago. The technology has – to some extent – improved, in the sense of being more reliable than before. There are more sophisticated and highly customizable tools available now, and solutions that are more scalable than others, but the underlying technology has not changed that much.

Businesses have looked at RPA and realized they have to invest in it, due to its potential economic value. However, all managers have not come to this realization at once. We have observed three distinctive waves, implementing the technologies that have come about due to different motives: The first wave was a somewhat limited amount of relatively mature businesses that saw the value of RPA right upfront. The second wave came in 2016, when a more significant number of companies started investing heavily in process automation. Finally, the third wave began in early 2017 was induced by heavily intensified marketing activities of RPA solution providers. This enhanced visibility has been since than pushing companies to board the RPA train as well.

“RPA used to be sold as a “quick win”, easily adoptable and relatively cheap tool that would give you cost savings and a quick ROI – but people have now started to realize that it is rather a strategic weapon.” – Professor Leslie Willcocks of the LSE

Moreover, some risks have emerged that were not obvious two years ago. Of the challenges RPA brings to businesses, only some 25% are directly related to technologies. The remaining 75% is about not managing it as a strategic project. Companies tend to neglect aspects such as good governance, quickly available resources, getting the C-suite on board, and treating it as both change management and a technical issue. There is a large number of steps management should take and action principles to follow to reduce these risks.

What do you see as the major challenge that companies face when implementing knowledge work automation?

For sure, the biggest challenge is that companies are still not treating RPA and other cognitive technologies strategically enough. They underestimate what they can achieve with it – something called a triple win, consisting of enhanced shareholder value, customer value, and employee value. Their ambitions frequently do not aim high enough.

In the case of RPA, company management is often partially stuck with looking at it as a tactical tool rather than a strategic weapon. As a discrete tool rather than a potential uniting platform. As a software implementation and not as a change in the work processes. Ultimately, companies often miss the real business value with RPA projects by this mistake. The biggest mistake many modern enterprises make is to look for a quick ROI without factoring in unanticipated benefits, such as improved customer experience and working morale.

On top of that, cognitive automation has not yet taken off and is still at a promising, relatively immature stage. Some firms are implementing discrete uses of cognitive automation, which bring them real business value and progress. It seems so that the real synergies will arise from linking RPA with cognitive automation, eventually creating a platform that integrates seamlessly with other digital technologies in place.

Is developing a strategic approach towards RPA a necessary step on the way towards the implementation of cognitive automation and platform building?

Indeed, where RPA rests within the organization signals whether the company sees it as strategic or not. If you create a centralized center of excellence (CoE) and you have senior executives involved in it, it is clearly of strategic interest. On the other hand, if you treat it as a lower-level tool that you apply increasingly across the organization, RPA is handled more tactically, without a sense of direction. The potential of RPA in relationship to cognitive automation is immense, and the different automation technologies should be recognized as complementary pieces of a whole.

What is the most exciting development that you have seen in this field?

Lots of cognitive automation technologies are truly exciting, carrying a massive promise. Once companies start combining them, they can get to an impressive level of automation, almost end-to-end in some cases, pushing the potential uses of the increasingly available technologies further.

How far along on the journey are companies today?

Mostly, the maturity of organizations with regards to their ability to absorb this level of change is not high enough yet. Companies are occupied with way too many other IT problems and issues related to managing operations. This leaves them in a place where they are not ready to absorb even more technological change. As a result, learning to integrate the new advanced solutions is being postponed because people are still learning how to fit the previous ones into their businesses and to drive business value out of them.

How do you think companies should measure the success of RPA and their first AI activities?

In some ways, measuring this presents the same problems as evaluating the success of an IT investment. There are some obvious costs and service improvement measures – you can reduce costs while offering a much superior service, the degree to which the automation does that is one of them. There is also a range of softer yet significant benefits – such as customer experience that could be expressed by plenty of measures. Especially in regulated industries, these solutions could help companies quickly and accurately comply with the imposed regulations, providing relatively cheap trial opportunities, compared to how these companies would do it without automation. Another set of metrics could revolve around employees, and what human beings bring to the table, the level of satisfaction, morale, and productivity with automation as opposed to without it. Last but not least, metrics around the level of innovation are also interesting – is the company innovating more in products and services?

What do you expect to happen in the upcoming two years?

I would expect to see a lot more RPA use-cases showing how they fit with cognitive automation, bringing lots of business value. Additionally, cognitive tools would improve on certain fronts – not the machine learning or the algorithms behind them; these are already advanced. Instead, image and data processing, together with natural language processing, is going to improve significantly, integrating the enhanced productivity and performance.


Leslie Willcocks, a professor of the London School of Economics and Political Science, is considered one of the world’s most respected researchers, speakers, and business publications writers in the field of knowledge work automation.

Professor Willcocks held the closing keynote at this year’s Blue Prism World event in London. You can check out the highlights of his speech titled “Robotic process automation 2018: Now, Soon, Later” here.

See also an earlier interview on Intelligent Process Automation Willcocks gave us in 2016.