"Without technologies like Robotic Process Automation, too many smart people are going to devote precious time and resources to solving mundane problems at the expense of making more consequential decisions."
Krista Sande-Kerback is the Senior Product Marketing Manager at IBM Automation. She is a Fullbright scholar who has been at IBM for over 8 years and is currently responsible for Robotic Process Automation (RPA).
Krista joins this episode of ClientSide to discuss the uses of RPA, the advantages of automation and the future of robotics.
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Nathan Anibaba: Krista Sande-Kerback is the Senior Product Marketing Manager for IBM’s Automation portfolio, focused on Robotic Process Automation, or RPA. She leads IBM’s marketing efforts in support of IBM’s 2020 acquisition of Brazilian RPA provider, WDG Automation and owns IBM’s RPA message globally. Krista Sande-Kerback, welcome to ClientSide.
Krista Sande-Kerback: Thank you, Nathan. I’m happy to be here.
Nathan Anibaba: Super excited to have you on the show. Thank you very much for doing this. You’ve had just such an incredible career. We don’t get many full right scholars on the podcast. Tell us about your unusual route into marketing because it’s not a typical one.
Krista Sande-Kerback: Happy to. So, first of all, as an undergraduate student at Dartmouth College, I majored in geography with a double minor in public policy in German. So while marketing was not top of mind for me as a career path, I received a strong foundational liberal arts education regarding the Fulbright grant. So for some quick context, it’s a competitive scholarship program run by the US government with the goal to improve intercultural relations. I was really fortunate to have this opportunity to move overseas at 22 and immerse myself in other cultures. I taught English at a comprehensive school and I pursued studies in immigration policy in multicultural education at the University of Hamburg in Germany. I’m still actively involved as a board member for the Fulbright Alumni Association in New York City. And I love to invite small groups of Fulbrighters into my home for dinner.
So I came back from the Fulbright, returned to New York City and worked in management consulting for a couple of years. This was a great place to learn about different industries and business problems and helped stamp my passport for future career opportunities. From there, I went to work for a professional women’s network called 85 Broads. I was Head of Strategy, but I was very much a marketer without the title. This was early 2009. So while the organization had previously been well funded, this corporate funding had dried up during the recession. I actually helped the founder with a pivot from a free membership site, which it had been for many years to a subscription service so we could keep the lights on. Needless to say this was not an easy announcement to make. So we had to clearly articulate why we were suddenly charging as well as the new services that we now offered with this membership.
I oversaw the modernization of an outdated website with an overseas tech team, ran live and virtual events back before those were mainstream and traveled around the world to grow the brand to a 30,000 member organization. It was very exciting. After years of experimentation, failing fast, some successes, 85 Broads was sold and is thriving today as Ellevate Network. I went to Columbia Business School to take stock. I had worked with a lot of women entrepreneurs and was very interested in furthering my career in technology and marketing and having done a startup, I wanted to work on the other end of the spectrum for a blue chip global tech company. So IBM was a great fit.
Nathan Anibaba: And obviously you’ve held several roles in IBM over your eight-year career there. What first attracted you to the company and tell us, what are you responsible for?
Krista Sande-Kerback: I was, and I continue to be really excited by the cutting-edge research that we’re doing at IBM. We lead the industry in patents and I’ve gotten to work in some pretty hot areas. Another benefit I found from working for a huge corporation is just all the learning opportunities. I have access to a lot of education, best-in-class platforms and methodologies, and I can benefit from a strong network of industry and marketing peers. Lastly, I really like the culture and I felt that I can be an entrepreneur here and design and scale large programs.
So after leading some large internal transformation initiatives and marketing operations, I really wanted to get back out into the market and closer to our customers. I pivoted into product marketing from there. So IBM’s product marketing discipline owns the market perspective that clarifies growth opportunities for internal audiences. And then we persuade external audiences why IBM should be their trusted advisor to address enterprise business problems. So, as you said, in my current role, I oversee IBM’s RPA message globally and that involves anything from leading external positioning of our product offerings, point of view and messaging, inbound and outbound marketing activities, engaging with clients, and then working closely with product management and sales in order to design strategic plans and programs.
Nathan Anibaba: So RPA, or robotic process automation sounds very techy futuristic. Tell us a little bit about what it is, what some of the use cases are, and maybe some of the applications that you are most excited about.
Krista Sande-Kerback: Here’s the challenges we see. Companies are struggling to allocate operational resources due to dynamic customer demand and disruption within the markets and workforce. According to research from McKenzie & Company, 10 years of digitization is occurring in under a year, given the global macroeconomic environment
Nathan Anibaba: And the pandemic.
Krista Sande-Kerback: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. So best-in-class organizations are leveraging low-code solutions and integrated automation capabilities in order to keep pace with the rate of change and to try to gain a competitive advantage in this environment. It’s really, it’s innovator die in this kind of a world that we’re living in.
So RPA technology, it’s a complete set of task automation software that enables users to automate more of their time-consuming, mundane and repetitive work. Specifically, RPA automates tasks by mimicking the steps a person takes when performing activities on their computer. So, for example, a software bot can gather data from multiple systems, collate the data in a spreadsheet, perform calculations, and enter the data into another system using application user interfaces. Bots can also use techniques to integrate with systems like SQL to query a database. There are lots and lots of use cases across every industry.
An obvious one is chatbots. For instance, think about a situation in which you have to grab data from numerous sources, slice and dice it, and come up with insights to prepare for the next meeting with your VP. 24-year-old me would definitely have lost sleep over, did I find all the relevant data? Did I set up a formula correctly in Excel? What if you had RPA to pull that custom report and then you could spend your time analyzing it, developing a point of view, instead of burning the midnight oil in order to help make really important decisions through your company?
Nathan Anibaba: So huge efficiency gains there, huge productivity gains there as well. And I’m sure it’s especially important now because of all the supply chain disruption that we’re seeing globally.
Krista Sande-Kerback: Oh, absolutely. You’d be surprised how many companies manage their supply chains via spreadsheet. In this environment, that’s very, very risky. So automated supply chain management is a really great use case for RPA. The procure-to-pay cycle specifically depends heavily on accurate data and also the preparation and exchange of numerous documents. To streamline the process, retailers can offer bots capable of copying data into supply chain management systems like Oracle and SAP Ariba into standardized order forms. RPA bots could even submit orders through online portals. Bots can help with a variety of other tasks, like processing invoices, by entering that invoice data into accounting systems. They can help prepare the reports necessary for these broader strategic levels of supply and demand planning, facilitate predictive maintenance and work with after-sale services. For instance, if a customer needs to make a return.
One of our customers, Inter Aduaneira, which is a Brazilian international trade consultancy, they had used analog methods to help customers track worldwide shipments of goods. This tracking of shipments was often difficult due to all the manual processes and documentation required and it could be prone to error. So in their world, pre RPA, they were dealing with several organizations involved in every import or export transaction, each adding data to documents. This required manual consolidation and the fines could be huge if there were data entry mistakes. And, of course, that meant undelivered goods. So today, they’re RPA solution is at work 24 hours a day, gathering information from these multiple documents, then logs itself into government systems and inputs the information it collected. This company has now automated tens of thousands of invoices, payment forms, and much more, and they’re response time improved by 80%. So their analysts now can focus on improving customer relationships.
Nathan Anibaba: It’s crazy to me that in today’s day and age, there are still organizations that are running their organizations within spreadsheets, multimillion or billion-pound organizations that are still operating in this very traditional way. It still boggles the mind, but there are lots of companies out there.
Krista Sande-Kerback: That’s right.
Nathan Anibaba: So obviously we know the positive sides of RPA productivity, efficiency, cost reduction. However, there is a perception out there, whether it’s right or wrong, that actually RPA is contributing to unemployment, specifically of blue collar jobs. How do you address that criticism?
Krista Sande-Kerback: Yeah, absolutely. These are really not tasks that you want to do by hand. There are processes that would put human lives in jeopardy that can actually be great candidates for automation. And in fact, I think in these cases, automation is really the more humane thing to do. Without technologies like RPA to make our lives easier, I think too many smart people are going to devote precious time and resources to solving mundane problems at the expense of making more consequential decisions. And over time, this makes organizations exhausted and change adverse. And the risk of costly mistakes from data entry is high. Conversely, I see companies that are doing automation while unlocking cultures of creativity. We can return time to employees. So they in turn can challenge assumptions, deepen their expertise in their chosen field, keep the business safer for themselves and delight their customers.
So another customer that we work with, Primanti Brothers is a restaurant chain and they used RPH to automate the preparation of 40 reports a day every morning. And that saved the managers 45 minutes at the beginning of the day. That is time that they can instead spend with their customers, or they can spend preparing their staff and getting ready for a really successful day at the business. As marketers, we have a responsibility to help educate the market, and I recognize it’s fraught. As an ethical company, IBM invests heavily in external skill building programs. And in fact, last year we announced that we’re committed to upscale 30 million people by 2030.
Nathan Anibaba: So talk to me then about what the go-to-market plan is. How do you approach the challenge of growing the awareness of the product and the category itself?
Krista Sande-Kerback: So part and parcel of bringing in an acquisition like this is that I get to announce to the world that IBM has RPA. There are something around 200 vendors in the space. We acquired a regional player with cutting-edge capabilities. And then my job is to help introduce it to a global audience and get as much share of voice as possible. So this means building the right relationships with the analyst community, Gartner, Forester, and others. It means collaborating with strategic partners. One of our great partners is the Institute for Robotic Process Automation and AI, with IBM Business Partners, Developer Communities, and a lot more. It means having a best-in-class free trial experience and other mechanisms that allow users to really get hands on with the technology. And lastly, it means getting our customers, like the ones I’ve referenced to share their stories with the world.
Finally, my marketing efforts have to drive results for the business. So beyond awareness, it starts with knowing our audiences and developing clear messaging for them. At IBM, we offer RPA as a standalone technology, but we also offer it as part of an intelligent automation platform. My team creates the right industry and technical content, plus these client stories to bring this technology to life. And I have to be in lockstep with sales and product management to bring in insight from the market and then enable the team to effectively follow up on leads.
Nathan Anibaba: Let’s switch gears now and talk a little bit about women in technology, because I know that you mentor a lot of women within the organization. You’ve been mentored yourself extensively throughout your career. What words of advice and wisdom do you have for young women struggling to build a career in tech very similar to yourself?
Krista Sande-Kerback: I have a lot of thoughts on this. So number one, you don’t have to have a particular degree and it’s not too late to get into a tech career. I am a geography major after all. Second, I’m a big fan of the idea of don’t suffer in silence. If you need clarification or think there’s been a miscommunication, pick up the phone. I think we’re too worried about showing up perfect, but we have Teams for a reason. There are a lot of resources to help. I’d say, also, don’t overuse the phrase, I’m sorry. Sorry, sorry, sorry, things like that can diminish your impact if you’re saying it to challenge an idea or out of fear of inconveniencing somebody with a request.
I’d say, as I’ve progressed in my marketing career, I’ve also recently been reflecting on the importance of being able to say no, even to excellent ideas. Some of these ideas may have worked in the past, but they don’t align with our current strategy, resources or our target market or our audience. For instance, I ran a Build-A-Bot contest earlier this year. It was a large global contest with over 2000 participants. It was RPA for Social Good. It was this wonderful awareness initiative that generated all these great use cases for RPA. And it was great. And I’d love to leverage my hard-won experience from running that contest to run the next bigger and better contest, but right now I have a different mandate. So I have a lot of freedom, but I also ultimately have to drive business outcomes. And so part of displaying horizontal leadership is influencing my go-to-market team to accept these kind of decisions when we’re not going to pursue somebody’s great idea, even if it means resolving disagreements. We just can’t implement every idea all the time.
And part of delivering business outcomes for the organization, especially for marketers, is to really understand the oncoming wave of technologies that are in no doubt going to change all of our lives, right? AI, machine learning, blockchain technology, the metaverse, all of these technologies are gaining in relative importance to all industries. How important do you think it is or will be as a marketer to have a really good understanding of all of these technologies and the impact that it’ll have on a company’s go to market?
Yeah, I think it’s going to be vitally important. So in my world, RPA technology itself is a commodity, but RPA powered by artificial intelligence, I think is what’s really exciting. And why our AI-powered automation is important is because it actually allows for a continuous closed loop process where data patterns are discovered and analyzed, and then decisions can be made on insights from the data. And then this can be translated into automated actions. So with AI, you can employ RPA bots that can then act on insights, complete tasks quickly, and continue to learn and make a better and better system.
I know I’m personally interested to start diving more into the metaverse and how RPA can play a role. I think it’s potentially going to become one of the drivers of the future digital economy and RPA, AI and machine learning are foundational capabilities. I think they’re going to help the metaverse run more effectively. Digital workers are also a big part of this. To give a quick plug, we’re reimagining work with IBM Watson Orchestrate, which is your own personal digital employee. Our point of view on digital labor is that this is an extension of you that’ll help you catch up on your workload so you can really focus on what matters. I really think that technologies like this are going to build the workforce for tomorrow.
Nathan Anibaba: Really, really fascinating. So you’re glad that you made this switch from geography, then?
Krista Sande-Kerback: I love it. And I get to work with this global team. I mean, it’s the best of both worlds and careers keep evolving.
Nathan Anibaba: Final question, what advice do you have for senior leaders, senior execs, who are struggling to increase the rate of digital adoption and transformation within their organizations?
So I’ll use a quote from Forrester Analyst, Craig Le Clair. “Companies that get automation right will outperform those who don’t.” Our research shows that companies that effectively apply intelligent automation across the enterprise are expected to outshine their peers in profitability, revenue growth, and their efficiency in the next few years. So here’s just a couple of ways that businesses can think ahead when it comes to automation. One, you need a plan to introduce digital customer onboarding. Developing a digital identity framework with an identity accreditation process built around this digital customer onboarding planning, it’s going to make you more competitive.
Two, any of your paper-based processes must be digitized and automated. This requires automating and streamlining your processes. Implementing accelerators, such as RPA, digital signatures and analytics are going to help. Third, embrace AI in your decision making. This will result in significant time savings as decisions are made in real time, especially where the volume of transactions is high. Intelligent automation is the way that organizations are delivering better experiences for customers, for partners and employees. And to be competitive, you simply need to employ these types of technologies.
This is a whole other topic and a whole other set of podcasts, but there’s a set of adjacent technologies like process mining that could work really nicely alongside RPA to, for instance, locate hidden bottlenecks and pinpoint where automation will lead to the best process improvement. So together, these technologies are really powerful. And I think, finally, the convergence of these capabilities means that you can combine the best of human talent with automation to both enhance productivity and improve decision making. And in the world that we live in today, you still have opportunities to drive growth in your business and improve agility, even with this crazy macroeconomic environment that we’re in.
Nathan Anibaba: Krista, thank you so much for being on the show.
Krista Sande-Kerback: Thank you, Nathan. It’s been a pleasure.
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