• April 20, 2021
C-Suite Spotlight: Tonkean’s Sagi Eliyahu

Generally, automation means taking people out of the equation. But for San Francisco-based process orchestration technology provider Tonkean, automating business processes means considering people first.

Founder and CEO Sagi Eliyahu’s background in military intelligence with the Israeli Army and leading the engineering department at a publicly traded software provider convinced him that, while software is about data, business processes are about people. That perspective has informed Tonkean’s strategy since it launched five years ago: focus on attended automation with humans in the loop.

Eliyahu recently sat down with RPA Today to talk about low-code vs. no-code, how good software can positively affect the work/life balance, and people-first process design.

RPA Today: No-code and low-code software have gained prominence in the past several years. What do they mean to you and whats your approach in this area?

Sagi Eliyahu: First of all, I don’t know why no-code and low-code have come to be used almost interchangeably. When I started Tonkean, I came from a traditional software engineering background. But I was also part of the business and it became clear to me that the processes we use every day are never in a silo. There is always a cross-departmental requirement. All the hand off and back and forth is done via email and meetings between people. Enterprise software is almost entirely built for data. But business processes are not about data, they’re about people. There is a gap in how we leverage software.

I know what software can do (everything). But you need a very specific skill set to leverage it. Everything we have today, even the so-called low-code ends up being another application, another user interface, another way to manage handle and transform data. And none of it actually helps the human-in-the-loop processes that require a different type of automation.

No-code is a way to empower businesses. It lets them leverage software in a way they were never able to do before.

No-code is the real enabler, for if you can take some of that logic out of your business core product and allow business units to handle their own processes with no-code, they not only make their own lives better, but it makes the delivery of your product better. As an engineer it’s a perfect bridge between those two worlds.

RPA Today: You had a vision even before Covid that people could manage family and career better if they had the right software tools. Since Covid, this issue has taken center stage. How do you see that vision playing out now and into next year?

Sagi Eliyahu: For many years I’ve been saying it’s about focus. If you think about technology at its core, it has always been about that. Stone tools, horse power, machines. They were all tools enabling humans to use our energy more efficiently—letting us focus on things we want to do instead of things we don’t want to do. The very purpose of it is to allow us to focus and to use our time on things we can do better than anyone else.

If you look at the world today, though, research shows that knowledge workers only spend about 2.8 hours a day on high-value work. Everything else is jumping between different tools, coordination between different people, filing information, looking for information. All those things we all have to do.

If we unlock more of that capability for more people, the impact on our day-to-day work lives will spill over to our personal lives.

With Covid, this process has become more immediately noticeable and it has accelerated. I have an 11-month old baby. I can go say hi because I’m home, and that’s amazing. But if I can spend an hour with him because I have a better idea of how to spend my work time, that’s a direct impact on my life.

RPA Today: What steps do you think of when designing a process?

Sagi Eliyahu: Everyone knows it’s the most adaptive, not the strongest, who survives. To get to a point as a business where you truly feel you can adapt quickly requires an investment that’s not always trivial. It takes a strategic investment in empowerment.

There is a people-first process design, which we subscribe to. But there is also a concept of adaptive business operations. They go side-by-side. The pandemic has forced people to adapt. In order to get efficiency and progress, you have to make changes. Understanding where to make change and invest in who can make change is very important.

When I think of people-first process design, I mostly talk about the concept of the personalities, the personas, the responsibilities and the skillsets of the people involved. What do they care about? What is their personal ROI? We talk about ROI of a company all the time. Especially when it comes to technology. We then go into designing a solution that is focused on those ROI goals. But I think we need to stop for a second and include the people involved in the process.

For example, everyone has contracts they need to handle. Common sense says if your contract process is not good enough, you need a contract management system that organizes and manages the data better. But I want to know who are the people impacted and how? Not only the legal department, but salespeople, managers and others might be involved in the process. They all have different perspectives and needs. If you find a solution that gives the legal team what they need but also connects with how the sales people write orders and how managers hire, you are now designing a process not only through the lens of company ROI, but also from the perspectives of different people involved.

I’m a big believer in operational teams. There is a critical bridge we need to build between a Center of Excellence (CoE) concept and the teams. There are things a CoE is not equipped to understand and things operations teams can’t understand as well as the CoE. If adaptiveness is a core concept, both things can exist.

RPA Today: How does Tonkean fit into the automation space?

Sagi Eliyahu: There are different types of problems that can be automated. Some of them are highly repeatable with low variability and low complexity. Those are areas where RPA is perfect. The value is massive.

The next type of problem is somewhat repeatable, highly variable. The human-in-the-loop problems. Flows that are either changing a lot or need human intervention: triaging incoming requests, legal intake, customer intake. You have some repeatability but a customer can ask anything. Solutions to these problems are more complex. Where you lose efficiency is not only in the execution of the task but coordinating complex processes it’s not just one task. It’s like an assembly line.

RPA would be the heavy machine you buy to do one task extremely efficiently. Tonkean would be the assembly line that orchestrated all the different machines completing tasks. Some stations might be a human, some might be RPA, some might be another type of software or tool. Tonkean gives you control and visibility of the whole assembly line and what’s being built.

RPA Today: You mentioned CoEs. Is it better to start an automation program by jumping in with a Center of Excellence or is it better to build a bot, get some small wins and iterate?

Sagi Eliyahu: Where and when to use what is a vital part of the education required to get the most out of process automation. It’s very easy to overinvest in a very expensive Center of Excellence that you don’t quite understand how to use. You bought into the concept of automation, but you don’t understand important things like what certain vendors do, or what the technology even allows you to do.

There is a place for the CoE to guide the discussion about what is available and when should we use what.

Even if you start small, however, it should never be just putting a band aid on something. When you do that you’re not being adaptive or flexible. That’s true for all software. If you have a leak and you’re buying something to plug the leak, you’re going to be overpaying.

The better approach is always to understand why the pipe is leaking and what we need in our entire infrastructure to avoid leaks in the future. The assumption should be that the pipes aren’t only going to leak once. It will happen in other areas. How do you equip the organization with the methodologies, tool kits, the right philosophies that will enable you to handle the problems as they come up.

RPA Today: What does the typical Tonkean customer look like?

Sagi Eliyahu: We work with everything from Fortune 100 enterprises to companies with less than 500 employees. The biggest reason to bring on Tonkean is if you have a lot of business logic that sits within IT or engineering in code. When a company is trying to create efficiencies and increase velocity and make changes but the business can’t do that because they’re dependent on IT and engineering, it’s because their processes are more complex than a simple task.

Before Tonkean and other no-code solutions, the only solution for a complex problem was writing code in software. That is the bridge we’re trying to build. Our customers always start with one or two use cases. But they never buy for that specific process. They always buy because they have a backlog of 10 different things with an eye toward solving many problems. That is why the person who signs a contract with Tonkean sometimes will be in a line of business but other times will be in IT.

RPA Today: With a people-first philosophy, how do you avoid employees downloading and using solutions that dont allow for corporate governance, visibility and control?

Sagi Eliyahu: One of our purposes is to eliminate “shadow IT.” That situation comes from giving people tools they are not equipped to use. People go outside of the company’s approved software because what is provided is not satisfying what they need and they can’t wait anymore. Forcing people to go through a rigid process but then not having enough IT resources to support it ends up hurting the company.

SaaS has blown up exactly because of that. If I can’t have what I need and IT doesn’t have the capacity to help me, of course I’m going to click two buttons and download an app that can help me. IT has a lot of good reasons to worry about this.

That tension comes from not creating a standard. I believe Tonkean can provide a standard into the adaptiveness, into the flexibility a line of business needs, but guarded by rails from IT. In our product there is a section managed by IT and one managed by the operation teams.


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