Augmentation or automation: How can the defense industry prepare?

We have been on a journey of IT-enabled automation since the middle of the 20th century, when data processing first started to take some of the workload off the human workforce.

Later, we realised we could link business applications directly to each other and help pass information more seamlessly from one business unit to the next in a pre-defined manner (i.e. workflow). With this approach, human employees gained a more consistent and better-managed way of handling information across the organisation.

Then it became apparent that the very handling of information between business units – and, in particular, the decisions or triggers needed to initiate and route work packages around the enterprise – could itself be automated (e.g. Business Process Automation and Rules Engines).

Underpinning all of this are supporting technologies that enable varying levels of success:

  • The complete analysis and modelling of business processes (e.g. Business Process Engineering and Business Process Modelling Notation)
  • The monitoring and management of business processes (e.g. Business Process Management)
  • A whole range of still evolving options for defining, connecting and sharing applications and information services in increasingly agile ways

Most recently, this is handled with published APIs, Web- or cloud-based services, readily available open-source mash-up tools and now software robots. The emphasis now is on supporting non-technical business users to exploit these technologies and address their business problems directly.

The goal in most of these scenarios is to significantly remove the human element to reduce cost and/or the chance of human error. And yet in domains such as Defence, we need to carefully consider whether automation or augmentation is really the right approach.

We must ask, does IT-enabling processes make sense, from a business or operational need, in the context of how much human involvement and control is really required?

For instance, we need to understand where to most appropriately place the task on a continuum from:

  1. the codifying of straight-forward repeatable tasks that need no/minimal manual checks, such as back-office, administration-type data processing, right up to
  2. providing very sophisticated, maybe robotic process automation (RPA) or artificial intelligence-based capabilities that augment human experience and “gut feelings.”

In Defence, a high level of capability could support decision making or scenario- modelling tools or, eventually, fully automate defensive or offensive weapon systems.

But just how far can or should we go with these increasingly “intelligent” automation/augmentation capabilities? That’s up for debate. We need to carefully consider the fundamental “man in the loop,” plus a whole range of legal and ethical questions.

One way an enterprise can approach this is by defining classes of process automation based on the level of human involvement, as well as the associated response, cost and risk factors. Stakeholders should have conversations ahead of deployment, so all users understand and agree on the approach and the “checks and balances” needed in the delivered capabilities.

In a military organisation, the use and impact of these tools can vary immensely – for example, from reducing staffing levels required for the repetitive tasks of back-end data processing to the removal of personnel from dangerous environments by deploying pilotless autonomous vehicles.

Thus, a comprehensive process automation/augmentation architecture is needed to bring together a set of interoperable technologies that meet a number of core requirements.

Key considerations that come to mind include:

  1. Does it cater for the different types and levels of human involvement needed?
  2. Does it enable rapid but controlled changes to the business/operational processes themselves?
  3. Does it ensure there are sufficient monitoring checkpoints in development and operation?
  4. Does it need “safety switch” functionality throughout the solution which guarantees the ability to take human control whenever and wherever required?

The possibilities for exploiting augmentation and automation in the Defence industry are vast and continue to expand. It’s likely these tools will start showing up in your organisation sooner rather than later. Best to start preparing for that day now.

Mark Perry is DXC’s Industry Chief Architect for Public Sector in the UKI&NL.



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