It's an automation slaughter with Lee Coulter

February 27, 2018 | Phil Fersht

Lee Coulter: One big automation fish...

One character who will light up our New York HfS FORA Summit next week (and not just with a cigar) is the irrepressible Lee Coulter.  While Lee could have hung his hat on leadership roles at GE, Kraft and Ascension Health (where he still oversees their shared services as his day job), he has taken it upon himself to become one of the leading voices behind the Intelligent Process Automation (IPA) movement, as Chair of the IEEE's working standards group on IPA and Founder of Agilify, a newly launched automation services business, already boasting 32 clients. 

With so much going on in Lee's world, I thought it high time to catch up with him before we hear his dulcet tones next week... 

Phil Fersht, CEO and Chief Analyst, HfS Research: You've been the self-styled Godfather of Intelligent Process Automation, brandishing a cigar, as opposed to a Kalashnikov... why did you take on this mantel, how did this evolve during your recent years with Ascension into this new firm, "Agilify"?

Lee Coulter,  CEO, Ascension: That’s quite an image. I think my role chairing the IEEE Working Group on Standards in Intelligent Process Automation was probably what did it. We started over five years ago on our automation journey. The hype and confusion was literally driving me batty. So instead of getting into a war of words, I decided the best answer was to get the competitors to not want to be left out of a standards effort. It was in everyone’s best interest to work together. That first standard (IEEE 2755-2017) was really a hallmark and the next one (P2755.1), coming this year, will have a far greater impact. That work has created great relationships across the continuum that have been helpful in bringing automation to Ascension.

The idea for Agilify came about during a conversation with a GBS colleague when he wanted to bring his team on site for a third full day to meet with my team. I told him, “Hey, I think you’ve gotten automation help about as much from us as can be had from long top-to-top meetings and if you really want some help, let me send a couple of my people on site for a few days and really give you some help.” He said that would be awesome.  I said, however, I can’t do that for free and asked if he would be willing to pay for it. Without hesitation, he said yes! At that moment I knew we could help other folks. Word spread and this turned out to be the first in a long line people just asking for help. We had no sales people, no marketing, nothing. As more walk up business arrived, I knew it was time to give it a life of its own.

Phil: Lee what is your role with Agilify and how will this dovetail with your role at Ascension?   And your role with IEEE?  Are you going to be working harder than ever, or taking a deserved break from life and confusing the hell out of people what you actually do?

Lee: I guess the best answer would be board chair and strategic advisor for Agilify. My role at Ascension continues being a digital disrupter As the largest customer of Agilify’s, we have a significant interest in their future. The demand pipeline Ascension has assembled for Agilify really helps drive their capability development and delivery. We are now doing some really clever stuff mixing different Intelligent Process Automation stuff with ML.

My work with IEEE is going forward uninterrupted. Actually very excited about progress there. The current standard under development P2755.1 is the Taxonomy for Intelligent Process Automation Products and it is coming along very well. It will be a game changer and I am excited to still have the support of the working group to continue as Chair.

As to taking a break, heck no! There are a ton of exciting things going on.

Phil: So why launch a firm, and what's its purpose in life?  And why is it called "Agilify"?

Lee: Agilify has a lot to offer. They have some of the deepest capabilities technically across multiple technologies and what most others are not really offering, which is how to embrace enterprise adoption. The training and consulting spans far more than just building bots, but addresses strategy, risk and control, business analysis, change management, and operations resilience. The experience Agilify has gained comes from building an Automation Practice from the ground up and having to live with the outcomes.  It really is a journey, and it turns out that Agilify is very good at meeting people where they are and helping them along their journey. All of the engagements are tuned to deliver what’s needed rather than a canned set of fixed-price consulting packages.

So Agilify’s purpose is helping others. Some customers are just starting out, and some are three years down the road. Our slogan is unleashing human potential through automation ( and it is not just for marketing. We work with others to hit what I call the four “Es” of automation. We provide technology agnostic automation platforms and services driving the “4 Es” of automation:  Efficiency (cost), Effectiveness (business result), Experience (customer) and Engagement (associate). What’s more is this journey extends far beyond RPA into RDA, and ML and advanced analytics.

Agilify is a great name that brings to mind agility, life, and technology and this is at the heart of it.

Phil: Which type of firms do you see Agilify partnering and competing with as you build up your business focus?

Lee: I see Agilify working across the spectrum. They are one of just a handful of pure-plays out there and it is a remarkably respectful community. It is quite conceivable, that we might see some cooperation within the competition. The Agilify differentiator is truly being a full spectrum provider focusing on successful enterprise adoption of automation. So in addition to the panel of technology partners, there are a number of other partnerships in place and more under development that will expand their reach and capability. Due to the strength of the Agilify Automation Academy, there are some surprising customers in the pipeline. More to come on that as these deals conclude and can be shared.

Phil: So what's the direction of travel for the Intelligent Process Automation industry?  Is this truly sustainable?

Lee: First of all, it makes me really happy to hear Intelligent Process Automation as the term. We worked really hard to get folks to understand that there is more in the automation field than RPA and we are seeing that play out. I think it’s conceivable in the future that the separation between RPA and RDA and ML will disappear and Intelligent Process Automation will be used. I say that because as we are seeing, the products are rapidly evolving to embrace features and functions that cover the spectrum. Whether it’s ML embedded in a server-based runtime environment or desktop automation now including ML and server-based features, the trend is all heading toward the Intelligent Process Automation moniker.

I think it is sustainable for the foreseeable future. It is unrealistic to think that large companies are going to abandon their very expensive systems-of-record. So how can we treat multi-system processes and present them as if they were a single system with a single interface? That is where Intelligent Process Automation comes in. I do think we will see a broadening of native automation capabilities like this coming from the new breed of heavy IT systems. However Chrome still doesn’t play well with java and that isn’t likely to change any time soon and crossing 10 or 15 apps with low-code-no-code automation is going to be around for as far out as my crystal ball can see.

Phil: And what's the winning strategy for the tools providers - is it direct selling to the clients, or through smart partnerships?  We keep hearing that having a strong consulting partner is the way to go versus trying to establish your own CoE - what's your take on that?

Lee: For the makers, it’s all about the partners. Likewise, finding a consulting partner that can take you from where you are to three years from now is critical. In a recent paper (, I talk a lot about COE structure and governance. I think the future will see COEs pretty much everywhere, particularly as folks move from RPA to IPA.

Phil: And what's the future of BPO and shared services in this automation age?  Is this a gradual evolution towards more touchless environments, or are we truly in for some "shock and awe".  What's your advice to process and operations leaders scratching their heads trying to figure out where their careers are heading?

Lee: Shared services will continue to be a place that businesses send any operation that exists at scale with reasonably standard processes. The tools, the mix of digital and human labor, the complexity of the work and the performance expectations are changing and in large part increasing. GBS and hence BPO are still going to be looked to drive improvements year over year. Like we are seeing elsewhere, the pace of change and the pace of disruption are likewise increasing. I can conceive of a day in the future where by and large, ML enabled Intelligent Process Automation manages multi-system processing. I think GBS will need to get comfortable with a bigger “more for less” expectation. My advice to service operators is lead these transformations, don’t wait to be told or it might already be too late. Your company and your career may depend on it.

Phil: And finally, what are your realistic expectations for Agilify over the next two years?  What does success look like?

Lee: Agilify is now one of a small handful of Intelligent Process Automation pure-plays out there. I think the best work is coming from the pure plays so I expect Agilify to grow quickly. There is a lot to do with RPA still, but the larger opportunity is with Intelligent Process Automation and that is where Agilify has some distinct advantages. There are also some offerings that are a bit under the tent still that will be a game changer. More on that next time. 

Lee will be taking part in the The Great Intelligent Automation Debate and the Family Feud Face-Off next week at HfS' flagship FORA Summit, Times Square Manhattan.

Posted in: Robotic Process Automation

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