Intelligent process automation – A game-changer for the Retail Industry

The retail industry has always been incredibly dynamic. It has been at the forefront of every major technological revolution. Perhaps that is the reason the retail industry has not only survived but come out stronger after every crisis. Right from the time of World War II, through every pandemic and economic downfall, the retail industry has set an example of how to bounce back.  It has provided major support for every economic recovery after every downturn.

Department stores came into existence in the mid-to-late 19th century, the first shopping mall became operational by 1954, and the journey of evolution has never stopped ever since. Currently, the size of the global retail industry is USD 23 trillion and is expected to maintain healthy growth in the future as well. The death knell for physical retail has been sounded for many years now with the emergence of ecommerce. But physical retail has shown resilience with transformation to different formats, with experience centers, distribution centers and dark stores, and new innovative last mile delivery models.

Brick and mortar stores have been severely impacted with the recent pandemic, but even companies whose business models are built around online retail have seen numerous challenges. Customers continue to expect prompt, high-quality service from retail brands both online and offline, while demand has seen huge swings. 

Whether physical or digital commerce, Intelligent process automation (IPA) can be a major growth enabler across business sectors. Intelligent automation in stores, distribution warehouses and back-office operations provides retailers with the flexibility to identify and adjust for changes in customer traffic and buying patterns, both in-store and online. It is starting to play a vital role in the growth and evolution of the retail sector as a whole. Let us see how IPA is contributing to the growth trajectory of the industry.  

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The power of immediate solutions

Albert Einstein famously said “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

Today’s enterprises are not very different. Problems keep festering for ages, workarounds abound and the can keeps getting pushed down the road. Until it is already too late. Business as usual no longer works – and you need an immediate solution!

Enterprise processes are often very complex, making digitization a challenging proposition. Traditional development methodologies take an insane amount of time to document, build, test, deploy and maintain your applications. Your business leaders have the process expertise and know the problem statements quite well. But a lack of budget, time and technical expertise is often the main reason why implementing potential solutions keep getting delayed.

With today’s dynamic business environment, problems are evolving at a rapid pace, and digitization is no longer an option, but an imperative to stay relevant. A fundamental change in mindset is necessary to enable building solutions rapidly.

With the advent of no-code and low-code development platforms, enterprises can now empower a whole new set of business users to build, integrate and scale processes, without depending on back-logged IT teams or dependency on external development partners.

With the rapid pace of development, and the low cost of deploying solutions, processes can be transformed overnight. And with DIY capability, changes can be made in a matter of hours.

At Zvolv, we have seen the transformative power of ‘immediate solutions’ first hand at our customers. Here are some recent examples of value customers have driven in days, which would have otherwise taken them weeks.

  1. A leader in fashion retail had an urgent need recently to collect personalized information from their network of over 8k employees to meet an on-going financial audit mandate. With sensitive financial data needing to be shared, off-shelf SaaS tools were not an option. And with a short two day timeline, custom development would not have worked either. Fortunately they had just on-boarded with Zvolv and were able to quickly build the required web and mobile forms, pre-populated with contextual data, coupled with tasks, notifications and dashboards to visualize the feedback and take corrective actions.
  2. A large public services organization got approved to run its private Covid vaccination drive for its 50k+ employees and family members. With a vastly diverse group of people to cater to with varying degrees of digital enablement, any solution deployed had to be flexible enough to accommodate every user. Having used Zvolv previously for other initiatives, it was the natural preference to build this tracking and payment management solution on. In a matter of 2-3 days, the solution was put together, and iterated on several times to accommodate feedback from many stakeholders. Over 10k vaccinations were conducted within the first week of launch.
  3. A leading grocery retailer was faced with a sudden change in business plans due to the Covid imposed lock-downs recently, where the volume of home-delivery requests grew suddenly from less than 5% of their business to almost half of the business. The store rostering plans had to be rapidly reworked. Zvolv was already in use for other optimizations and they were able to leverage Zvolv’s data and dashboards, and run quick analysis to enable putting hiring plans together for the entire network of over 800 stores.

These are just a few examples of the kind of use cases that organizations would struggle to automate and fall back to depending on excel sheets and emails, if a no-code/low-code platform isn’t already in place.

No-code platforms like Zvolv can drive enterprise grade digital transformations, with solutions that take days to roll out. Zvolv is built for the enterprise – with security, scalability, and reliability you need to deliver end-end solutions for your most critical business processes.

Who is going to create your next enterprise application?

We have all read numerous articles on how software is eating the world, and how there aren’t enough software developers in the world to build all the applications that are needed to be built. Based on leading industry studies, there are over 500 million applications to be developed in the next 5 years, and in the US alone there is a shortfall of over 1 million developers every year. At a 10,000 ft view, this is absolutely the case, we need more applications and we need more people to develop them. But as you delve deeper into the topic, there are several nuances.  Let’s first start with some trends driving this need for enterprise software.

Changing Demographics

A large majority of the current workforce of knowledge workers across the globe comprises of millennials who are so used to living in a digitally-abled environment. Their expectations from and habituation with mobile applications, messaging platforms, and cloud technology is incredibly high. They use applications that are AI-enabled and cloud-connected in their day-to-day life.  There is no doubt, in the face of the changing workplace demographics and the growing demands from a digitally habituated workforce, enterprise application development is experiencing a big disruptive metamorphosis. Applications are expected to be sleek, modern, always fresh and with intelligence to boot. 

A vast majority of new applications to be developed will be replacing out-dated legacy applications to make them relevant and useful in today’s day and age.

The Impact of Covid and Work from Anywhere

Enterprise digital transformation moved into top gear in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. While the industry was warming up with all the digital integrations slowly reshaping the work culture across the world over the last decade, the Covid-19 pandemic has just accelerated the process. Every industry is getting transformed, and for some digital evolution has become a matter of survival. Access to information while working remotely, eliminating bottle-necks and people dependency wherever possible, and letting software do a whole lot of heavy-lifting behind the scenes to make processes faster and more efficient – are all driving the need for new applications to be developed. Today’s digital workers are not tied down to an office, let alone a desktop. Enterprise applications need to be mobile first, accessible from anywhere and evolving over time to keep up with demands. These are all new applications that are streamlining work and improving efficiency.

The Advent of Artificial Intelligence in Everyday Enterprise Applications

Today every popular consumer application has an element of artificial intelligence – whether the recommendations on your social feed, the advertisements you see across the web, or the bots you converse with when reaching out for support. The same level of intelligence, and even more, is now expected of internal enterprise applications. Crunching large volumes of data to derive trends and predictions, machine learning to build and train complex decision making models,  natural language processing to make applications easier to use and much more.

A whole new class of application, and functionality in existing applications needs to be developed to leverage the immense power of AI.

Now let’s look at how these applications will get developed. Across these three classes of applications (and there can be many more categories to add to the list), there ain’t a single development methodology that may apply, and consequently you need a whole range of different skill sets. 

No-code approaches

At the bottom of the pyramid, you have applications that are simple to define and configure and can be built with drag-drop SaaS tools or no-code platforms by citizen developers. With the advent of a new breed of no-code development platforms, you don’t need any IT skills to build a vast majority of applications and that’s why it is called NO-CODE. It is needless to say that now-a-days every business analyst is also an application developer. We estimate over 50% of applications to be developed going forward will be of this kind, ready in days, and built by end users themselves with this no-code methodology.

Low-code approaches

In the middle of the pyramid are applications that need a bit more customization and complex business logic to be incorporated. Domain or vertical specific business tools with a range of configurability options, or new-age low-code development platforms give expert users the ability to build applications in weeks. What would have otherwise taken months of development with an army of skilled resources, now gets done by a tag team of a business user and an IT expert in weeks. We estimate 25% of new applications to be developed with this low-code methodology.

Intelligent automation platforms

And lastly comes the top of the pyramid applications that are extremely complex, with a high dose of AI/ML and other advanced technologies built in and with massive end-end integration across the enterprise. These applications will typically get built on top of intelligent automation platforms, with involvement from data engineering, business analysts and IT security teams. We estimate over 15% of all applications to be developed in the next few years will fall into this category.

Traditional custom development

And then you have the remaining 10% of applications being developed with traditional custom development approaches for several different reasons. And here, the shortfall of developers is really going to hurt.

The rise of citizen developers

Today’s new breed of no-code development platforms makes it easier than ever for Citizen developers – non-IT business users – to define, create and deploy applications with minimal involvement from IT teams. With drag-drop or point-click type of environments to build applications, traditional programming knowledge takes a backseat. Graphical user interfaces to create applications accelerate the speed, democratize the process, and ensure ease of use for non-programmers. IT teams may still be involved to evaluate and approve the development platforms to ensure requisite data security, scalability and enforce back-up and restoration rules as well as contextual access permissions.

Simple business process management applications that typically involve data collection via forms, task tracking or approval workflows are all great candidates for no-code development. Citizen developers can use visual development platforms to create applications in days. Traditional development programs tend to be time-consuming and fail to keep up with the fierce pace at which the digital requirements of workplaces are changing. No-code development provides a more agile approach to building these simple, yet essential business tools.

So, is there really a shortage of developers?

With the advent of today’s sleek, intelligent and intuitive no-code and low-code platforms like Zvolv, building complex enterprise applications is no longer the sole forte of specialized developer resources. A tag team of a business analyst and a citizen developer well trained in configuring applications via visual means, can churn out critical applications in days. IT teams have to focus on selecting the right platforms to use across their organizations, and support citizen developers in the right architectures and access permissions for data. This opens up a large pool of resources to build, upgrade and maintain enterprise applications. Only the very specialized applications that need deep customization may be relegated to the expertise of domain specific technology experts.

Intelligent Bots Taking Care Of Business

This is a story of compounding errors. Errors that we have all inadvertently introduced when filling in or manipulating data in excels files some time or the other. Often times the errors are in-consequential – a minor inconvenience at the most. We all learn from our mistakes and move on, promising to be more careful next time.

But imagine if your daily job revolves around filling in and manipulating excel data all day. No matter how careful you are, the laws of probability will eventually kick in – and you will end up with that one error that has cascading implications. And when there are hundreds of people in the organisation in the same situation, the probability keeps compounding.

A potential of 10000 incorrect decisions a year! One of our customers ran the math on the basis of number of excel files in circulation in his merchandising process, and number of times decisions were made on the basis of these files every year. Some 250 people in the organisation across zones and cities made decisions on merchandising and procurement based on executing some planning models in excel sheets several times a year, for 1000+ stores. Past sales data for similar stores, and demographic data as well as seasonal trend data was collected from various sources and populated in the excel files to run the prediction models. This was a two day exercise for every store that needed to be re-analyzed. Even assuming a less than 1% error rate due to all these manual manipulations, it could still result in 100s of incorrect decisions, causing severe economic impact to the business

This became a prime example of a process that was much better handled by an automation bot. There were 3 key benefits derived:

– The effort of aligning on the requirements for the BOT in itself forced all the disparate decision makers to standardise and agree on the logic, thresholds and algorithms. What was assumed to be a standardised excel sheet infact had many regional variations across the 250 people involved in using these sheets. The BOT requirements capture exercise forced a review and standardisation.

– The BOT executed the models in under 2 mins, while the manual exercise was more than a 2 day turn-around each time.

– The BOT accuracy is 100%, compared to 99% when humans were doing this manually. This small difference of 1% has major impact on the overall success for the business.

This is one of the 250+ bots deployed on the Zvolv platform in the last year. BOTs are replacing human activities wherever possible, with the biggest motivator being elimination of errors due to human negligence. With the reduced execution times, the BOTs also enable running some exercising much more frequently than previously possible. This helps make some of the business decisions more dynamic.

Here are a few examples of high impact BOTs recently deployed as part of Zvolv applications:

– An ML driven resource optimisation BOT that predicts the number of full-time, part-time and spilt-shift employees for every role required to run operations for over 750 supermarket outlets. Over 15% reduction in variable employee costs demonstrated.

– An automated email content extraction and re-formatting to a new payload format for a newly launched communication tool – a currently manual effort that missed its fast turn-around time expectations frequently.

– Consolidation of project spend across the portfolio of 150+ projects into unified dashboards that track planned vs actual week on week metrics. This was a multi-day manual data collection and consolidation effort done by project executives each week.

– Auto-creation of agreement documents basis template chosen and variable mapping. Reduces a 3-4hr effort of manually editing agreements for each of dozens of applicants each data, to under 1min per agreement.

Here are a few areas where intelligent BOTs can help make your business decisions more robust and operations more efficient.

– Replace excel files wherever possible with form based data input and automated BOT based data analysis

– Replace manual report generation with BOT based templatized reports- Assist in decision making by automated and real-time collection and summarisation of data from various sources

– Auto-generate documents based on standardised templates

– Run prediction algorithms based on past data and current trends, more frequently than manually possible

– Automate communications based on triggers and exceptions so no task falls through the cracks due to lack of follow-up

– Trigger reactive workflows based on data-driven triggers

– Orchestrate processes across tools, eliminate manual data transfer and status updates

This is just a sampling of what is possible with today’s intelligent BOTs. Every business needs to look at their operations in depth periodically and highlight the most impactful areas for BOT automation. A simple, nimble and fast to implement BOT framework is extremely important to get rolling fast and keep adapting as your needs change. With platforms like Zvolv, justifying the return on investment (ROI) for every BOT is now possible.

Site Selection: How Much Science Is There In Your Art

Site Selection is an essential component of business expansion and has a big impact on the success or failure of the expansion. Different verticals like Retail, Services, and Manufacturing have different needs from the sites they select. Traditionally, site selection was known as a “best-guess kind of game” but AI and analytics-driven by big data are rapidly turning it into a science. So how can you beat your competition in these exciting and competitive times, when real estate gets lapped up in the wink of an eye?

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Why Projects Fail: The Curious Case of the Missing Legs

The origins of Project Management as a science predates the pyramids. Many of the challenges such as bad communication, unclear goals and unrealistic due dates remain the same. Surprisingly these challenges also plague frequently repeated projects. Here’s how we’ve changed that for our clients.

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Organizational GTD: Declutter Virtual Workspaces Across Your Enterprise

Getting Things Done (GTD) by David Allen is a proven productivity booster. But it is a personal productivity methodology, hard to deploy at an organizational level. Workflow Automation opens up the potential for Organizational GTD.

GTD allows us to manage our focus. The confidence that all of our to-dos with associated information have been captured and stored in an external system we can access whenever we need to allows us to focus on the task at hand. By breaking down our work into actual actionable and organizing them by context and priority we make sure we are maximizing the impact of time spent working. Continue reading “Organizational GTD: Declutter Virtual Workspaces Across Your Enterprise”

Does Your Enterprise Software Promote Common Sense?

Software that fits makes common sense common. Software that doesn’t challenges common sense. Here’s how you can make sure your software fits.
Enterprise software tools have spawned their own caste system. The C-Suite & VPs are at the top of the pyramid and mainly use reporting and analytics capabilities to provide direction. Middle management use reporting to manage their teams but they often also do some of their work in enterprise systems. At the bottom of the pyramid lie the executors who are responsible for most of the data entry that enables the reporting but gets very little out of enterprise software. So how surprising is it then that many implementations fail at the altar of user acceptance? Executors that are gaining little are more than happy to point out flaws.

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