ISG: expanding the frontiers of enterprise RPA
Founded in 2006, Information Services Group (ISG) has established itself as a global leader in technological research and advice. With a staff of over 1,300 experts working in 20 offices spread around the world, the company distinguishes itself with an innovative approach based on industry insight, cutting-edge analysis and hands-on experience. ISG’s diverse range of 700 customers is a testament to the breadth of its knowledge - from privately-owned corporations to public institutions and tech providers, ISG has been able to foster positive results and take its clients to a new level of operational excellence.
Wayne Butterfield, Global lead for Intelligent Automation Solutions, reflects that the company’s focus made a big impression on him when he started there in 2016: “I joined ISG for the people, the strategic direction that they were interested in moving towards and because the automation space is of real interest to me.” Having previously worked for two of the top tech/telecoms companies in the sector - O2 and BT - Butterfield explains that the fantastic opportunities and experiences that were afforded to him early on have gone on to influence his work with ISG. Learning various aspects of the industry, including online chat/chatbots, customer services, RPA (robotic process automation) and more, crystallised his experience and formed him into the tech advocate he is today. “It opened my eyes up to the role that technology can play in helping businesses achieve their goals, create business value and increase operational efficiencies.”
Although it’s a valuable insight, it’s far from a unique one, which is why, Butterfield continues, ISG Automation strives to differentiate itself from the competition by harkening back to its roots as a sourcing company. “ISG has the leading market share in all advised Sourcing deals globally. As a result, it has collated a significant amount of really useful data; it's a very data driven business now.” The importance of data in an era where information is gold dust cannot be overstated. Moreover, ISG’s recognition of automation’s value and its staff of ex-practitioners and early adopters means that clients can be assured of its credentials as an innovator almost immediately. “ISG is led by people, like myself, who didn't learn about automation from a PowerPoint,” Butterfield states, “as a really early adopter, I wrote the PowerPoint.” When he started working with RPA 10 years ago, Butterfield says that he was amongst the first globally to explore its potential. His work resulted in ISG’s concept of the ‘RPA Centre of Excellence’ based on five key principles: defining team roles, establishing an RPA CoE Council, establishing effective governance, managing organisational change and collaborating with IT. It’s a cogent level of expertise that few other companies can lay claim to. In fact, when asked what he considers the greatest achievement of ISG to date, Butterfield proudly says that the “long-standing repeat business [ISG] gets from multiple clients” is at the top of his list.
“RPA is a cornerstone of most organisations’ automation strategies at the moment,” says Butterfield. “It's generally the technology that most people have started with and I would say that it's probably the most mature at the moment.” Governed by software which emulates how humans manipulate digital systems, RPA can be revolutionary for a company seeking to emancipate its workforce of mundane, repetitive functions so that they can focus on more qualitative tasks. The potential for RPA’s application makes it a diverse subject and one which requires ISG’s level of knowledge to properly leverage. “The way we help our clients is based around discussing our experiences and then using the methodologies that we've developed to help accelerate their journeys,” Butterfield explains. “Having the right conversations, from a change management perspective, are what will make a programme successful, not whether you build a small number of bots; this isn’t really a technology play, but that seems to get lost in most marketing messages I read online.”
ISG’s sophisticated understanding of RPA is impressive. However, given the mercurial nature of the tech industry, the company had to push beyond traditional RPA and also consider other developments in AI (artificial intelligence) based automation. After all, in a sector where innovation is a key component, staying ahead of industry trends is essential. “We're living in a world where what is seen as state-of-the-art today could be disrupted tomorrow,” Butterfield explains. “Being two or three steps in front of your clients is really important. There's definitely been a mindset change throughout the organisation that we’re no longer just an RPA practice; we're an automation practice and we need to make use of different technologies.” Therefore, ISG started engaging in next generation technologies like NLP (natural language processing), OCR (optical character recognition), Virtual Agents and chatbots all the way back in 2017. Whilst RPA enables automation of the ‘hand work’, these other technologies represent a step forwards in achieving the same thing for much more complicated ‘head work’. ISG’s recent ‘Bot 3.0’ study surveyed 321 QTP (qualified to participate) companies found that only 7% of companies with a dedicated automation strategy included complex cognitive tasks, meaning there is still plenty of room for development in this field.
RPA has delivered a large number of benefits to organisations who have implemented it correctly, but it is not a panacea for all areas of business. Butterfield notes the Contact Centre as one further example of an automation area of interest: conversational AI continues to improve, meaning only the longer or more complex conversations will still require agents to handle them. “Unfortunately for agents, they still have the pressure of an average handling time (AHT) target on the residual contacts,” he states. “It will then be Assisted Automation (vs RPA) that will further enable swifter contact resolution: quickly retrieving customer data and presenting it to the advisor within seconds, ensuring compliance scripts are read whilst completing arduous manual tasks in the background and even adding notes for completed actions.” Butterfield posits that this kind of automation for advisors will be imperative for more complex enquiries, effectively utilising the best of both human and machine intelligence in a way which delivers optimal customer outcomes. This use of multiple technologies, rather than a ‘silver bullet’ is where we are seeing increased traction in the market.
It could be argued that the need for ever-increasing levels of automation has never been made clearer than by the socio-economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Whereas previously a company could substitute human workforces with relative ease, the truly global impact of COVID-19 has highlighted for many enterprises the necessity of maintaining a good human-robot mix to ensure business continuity. “I think from an automation perspective, it has really heightened the need for the (nonhuman) digital workforce to be a core part of just about every organisation’s strategy moving forward,” states Butterfield. The other effects of the pandemic on ISG in particular have been maintaining compliance and regulation within a new paradigm of remote working. “It’s extremely difficult to manage when you've got 2,000 agents working from 2,000 separate locations, predominantly from their home, and that's not to even start thinking about the bandwidth challenges and the connectivity issues,” he continues. Therefore, working very closely with partners to find solutions to these problems will remain high priority for ISG in the short-term. Looking for partners that will help it investigate specific issues and highlight the right solutions plays into ISG’s culture as an organisation of problem solvers at heart. Two collaborators who have helped it attain this result are NICE and 7.AI.
Providing customers with the expertise to increase operational efficiency, stay financially protected and ensure their business is fully compliant with security regulations, NICE is comprised of individuals with a sincere dedication to helping others and achieving the best outcomes for clients.
Founded in 1986 in Israel and currently employing over 6,500 people, the company has established a storied legacy in the software industry. Oded Karev joined NICE in 2012 as Director of Strategy before working his way up to General Manager of Advanced Robotics Process Automation (RPA) in 2016. “All of our focus is around digital transformation,” he explains. “That is, everything around managing, optimising and improving the workforce of customer service operations.”
Reflecting on how the industry has changed since the start of his career, Karev says that the meaning of ‘digital transformation’ has undergone something of a change itself in recent years. Whereas once automation was about removing the human element in favour of customers interacting solely with a machine, now it is a far more harmonious synergy between human and artificial intelligence (AI). “The old methodology had a great impact on the bottom line because you saved a lot of service costs, but it had a negative effect on the top line: more attrition, less loyalty, less upselling, etc.” With customer-centrism now permeating business philosophy, NICE is at the forefront of software solutions which enable efficiency without compromising the ‘personal touch’ of human-to-human interaction. Having become accustomed to highly efficient online service models pioneered by companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook, Uber and others, consumers now expect their legacy service providers to give them a comparable digital experience.
After all, automation, particularly after the COVID-19 pandemic, is gaining in popularity as a practical solution to service restrictions. However, far from believing that the virus instigated this change, Karev affirms that “COVID just accelerated everything.” ISG distinguished itself as being one of the first companies to truly understand NICE’s concept of ‘attended automation’ (a term coined by Karev) and how it could accelerate digital transformation. “The RPA market is built on partnerships between vendors and consulting companies and service providers. Sometimes, we’ve found it difficult to educate partners on attended automation’s benefits, but ISG got on the bandwagon immediately.” Furthermore, Karev believes the company’s partnership with ISG will become more strategic and visible as their relationship develops.
Already thoroughly intertwined with each other’s goals, Karev even states that by helping ISG he has come to regard its customers as his own. “ISG is a company that is highly committed to its customers and the success of its projects,” he summarises. “We've been on a journey to embed AI into our robots and bring further product differentiation and more capabilities. The smarter our products are, the more value ISG can bring to its end customers. This is something that NICE intends to continue partnering with ISG on.”
NICE’s NEVA product
Of particular note is NICE’s NEVA product - a virtual assistant designed specifically with customer service staff in mind, able to help them both online and offline functions. The utility of NEVA was underscored and put to the test when ISG observed customer service agents experience increased call volumes as a result of complications caused by COVID-19. The liberty afforded to them by NICE’s software meant that this spike in activity could be more effectively managed. “If you're spending less end-to-end time dealing with a customer, that increases your ability to absorb more contacts,” he continues. “For me, NEVA is a real business value driver and a key enabler. It's always great to see the appreciation NICE’s technology gets from my clients.”
Meanwhile, 7.ai is dedicated to creating a seamless and thoroughly customisable customer service experience. Founded in 2000, the company began gaining traction in India as a business process outsourcer, before expanding into other areas in Asia, South America and the US. Now, serving some of largest enterprise clients currently in the global market, 7.ai combines the best of both human and artificial intelligence (AI) by synthesising workers with automated assistants to handle simple tasks and leaving more complex problems to be dealt with by a person. Moreover, during a more complex call, the AI can also automate certain aspects of the enquiry, thus speeding up the overall solution and enabling high-volumes of calls to be dealt with a quality response.
Tim Johnson, Managing Director of 7.ai EMEA, who has a wealth of experience in sales and marketing operations, states that the company is ushering in a new phase of customer service. “What we're doing at 7.ai is exciting because we're bringing 20 years of experience across the Atlantic to Europe and applying it to this space; it’s an exciting time for a vibrant, new approach,” he says.
This new approach couldn’t have come at a better time: with new technology presenting both advantages and challenges to those exploring how best to utilise it, 7.ai is pioneering the perspective that an intelligent fusion of human and automated capabilities will yield the best results. “Very often, organisations have different divisions looking after various channels. The effect is that customers end up with a very mixed experience. Our company is all about understanding your customer's journey, making sure it’s as smooth as possible and dealt with in the best way possible,” he continues.
Recognising a shared goal in the quest to optimise automation, Johnson comments that 7.ai’s partnership with ISG has been transformative. “ISG is a key partner of ours: we appreciate its understanding of technology and its ability to differentiate between the truly valuable and the mundane.” Citing true partnership as critical, he adds that ISG helps to guide 7.ai through its thought leadership and understanding of vendors, which, in turn, allows the company to create added value for its customers. “ISG has brought us valuable experience with robotic process automation (RPA), which is very important for us in terms of optimising how an organisation operates.”
When considering what key trends or technologies will continue to shape the two companies’ relationship, Johnson refers to the ‘new normal’ or post-COVID-19 working conditions that businesses around the world are adapting to. “Some of what we’ve learned together is now being delivered to our customers around how to make remote working safe and secure for everyone,” he says. “We need to work with partners like ISG because it helps organisations to make the change towards omnichannel customer service and the message we've been discussing: human intelligence and artificial intelligence working together.”
As a team of problem solvers, ISG has achieved commendably. Having said that, since technology never stops changing, problems needing to be solved won't either and so the company’s focus must always be on the future. Despite the increasing sophistication of automation, Butterfield is confident that ISG Automation’s reputation and expertise will guide it successfully. “Understanding the nuances between the various different technologies has always been an area which ISG really excels in,” he states. “We understand the complex and are able to explain it in simple terms. That’s what really resonates with our clients: who wants to be baffled by technology?” For the rest of 2020 and beyond, ISG will be focusing on helping its clients progress to a new generation of automation and promoting the seamless, sustainable benefits it can bestow. “The spectrum of automation technologies available, I think, is very important,” Butterfield concludes. “There is no one solution which is the panacea for automating large chunks of a business. Making sure that you're choosing a trusted advisor will be extremely crucial and ISG is the right partner to guide that journey.”
- Wayne Butterfield