Digitalization or Automation – Is There a Difference?

What does it really mean to digitalize a business process? It is different from automating or just improving it?

Digital business transformation is about doing things differently – creating new business designs by using digital technologies in combination to blur the boundary between the physical and the virtual worlds.

It’s not just about automating or inserting technology into an existing process. Nor is it about replacing paper or people, Janelle Hill, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner, told delegates at the recent Gartner Business Process Management Summit in Sydney.

Automate or digitalize?

Is it automation or digitalization? Is there really a difference? Or is it just a matter of degree? You could argue that digitalization is just extending automation. But Gartner uses “digitalization” to emphasize that the goal is to create and deliver new value to customers, not just to improve what is already being done or offered.

Take for example a nurse’s clipboard, used for bedside patient monitoring in hospitals. Simply replacing the paper forms with tablet devices is not in itself digitization. Of course there are benefits in doing this, such as faster and more accurate data entry into the electronic health record system than could be achieved with manual transcription.

But what if we redesigned the work using smart machines and the Internet of Things? Machines can do most of the monitoring, data collection and incident reporting, leaving nurses to do things only humans do well, like touch, talk, observe and empathize. The machines can monitor patient vital signs continuously, potentially alerting the nurse to a problem sooner than might otherwise have occurred with only periodic checks. The end result is a better outcome for the patient – and the nurse.

“In many ways with traditional automation we have ‘dumbed down’ the work,” Ms. Hill said. “We need to use the technology to harness people’s unique value.”

Rather than dehumanising work, technology can be used to “go back to our natural state”. Hands-free conversational interfaces are an example of a more natural interface for people to use rather than typing or data entry, which is very unnatural to most people.

Where are the humans?

It’s not about taking people out of the process, but getting them back to doing what they are good at.

“We now have the ability to use machines to support and augment people to help them realise their potential, not have them bogged down in paperwork and systems data entry,” Ms. Hill said.  “We need to think about how to identify the right work for people.”

Digital business presents tremendous opportunities for innovation and competitive advantage. Creating this value requires a complete rethinking about the work itself. Merely inserting digital technologies into the existing process is insufficient to realize the full value of digitalization.

More detailed information is available to Gartner clients in the reports “Rethink ‘Work’ to Unleash the Value of a Digitalized Process” and “What Does It Mean to Digitalize Work?”.

The next Gartner Business Process Management Summit will be held in National Harbor, MD, 9-11 September 2015.