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Episode #61: How One Industry Leader Is Making Hyper Automation A Reality For Her Customers Today

In today’s podcast, we interview Mariesa Coughanour, Head of Automation Advisory at Cognizant

As women bridge the diversity gap in the technology industry, female executives like Cognizant’s Mariesa Coughanour, have advanced their careers to prominent positions in our profession, and it’s worth taking note.

As head of Cognizant’s Automation Advisory, Mariesa runs a practice for one of the world’s leading professional services companies that transforms hyper automation from a buzzword into a reality.

By tying together analytics, AI, and automation, Mariesa’s team has generated tens of millions of dollars in savings for Cognizant clients. She joins us on the podcast to share her insights about the key issues surrounding hyper automation and discuss implementations she’s overseen in the pharmaceutical, insurance, and airline industries.

Read Full Transcript

Guy Nadivi: Welcome, everyone. My name is Guy Nadivi and I’m the host of Intelligent Automation Radio. Our guest on today’s episode is Mariesa Coughanour, Head of Automation Advisory at Cognizant, one of the world’s largest MSPs. Mariesa is an expert on accelerating and scaling enterprise automation programs, which has taken on greater importance over the last year as the pandemic itself accelerated corporate digital transformations. She was also recently named Innovator of the Year at the Women in IT Awards for 2020, and we’re very excited to have her on the podcast. Mariesa, welcome to Intelligent Automation Radio.

Mariesa Coughanour: Thank you. I’m excited to be here.

Guy Nadivi: Mariesa, can you please share with us a bit about what path you took that led you to be the Head of Automation Advisory at Cognizant?

Mariesa Coughanour: Yeah, absolutely. It’s interesting because I feel like my path might’ve been a bit less conventional to get here. I did get into the technology and engineering early on, that’s what my degree was in, but as I got into my working world and my future work, I guess you could say, I got more into the operations side. I spent a lot of time working the supply chain, learning about Lean Six Sigma and process improvement and what really started to catch my attention was just the impact you could have on how people’s work was being done, that you can actually help them make their work easier for them. And as I went through my career, I started to get into more of the data space, understanding metrics, analytics, and then ended up standing up an automation program in my career and I found that it was this really nice segue between business and IT and technology. And if I think back to my earlier days in the Lean Six Sigma world, we always had opportunities that we felt required some technology intervention, and for me, this automation space was exactly that. After getting my program to work and seeing the benefits that you could drive in a company, I came over to Cognizant where I was excited to get the opportunity to really put in a program that complimented the already very deep domain expertise we had on delivery and how we integrated technologies to add this advisory component so that we could help clients along this journey get bigger outcomes, drive more results, really embed this technology into how companies were working and help accelerate their digital journey.

Guy Nadivi: You’re a graduate of GE’s Operations Management Leadership Program, and I heard you speaking on another podcast about how one of your biggest takeaways from that experience was empowering people and teams by teaching them how to fish, metaphorically of course. With that in mind, what do you think are the prospects for a future of work filled with citizen developers, thanks to the democratization of automation?

Mariesa Coughanour: Yeah. It’s interesting. This has really come to the forefront, especially over the last year, this concept of citizen development, how do you empower people? If I take a step back, I think this even goes a little bit into some of the Lean Six Sigma piece that I was talking about, where we embedded that mindset into an organization. We taught people about Kaizen and even created career pathing for them so they could either be a part of it in their roles, could even as they move through their career, become black belts, master black belts. When I think about the citizen development space, that’s what we’re doing. We’re actually empowering the people and putting the technology into their hands so that they can look at what are you doing today that you would like to have automated? What would you like to just click a button and get the results for, versus spending hours to let a report download and then having to manipulate some files and maybe consolidate 20 plus tables in Excel and then only to find out one of the reports maybe didn’t run completely, so you have to go back and start that journey. The idea here is we want to be able to empower these people in the business to be able to have this automation at their fingertips so that they can actually go and automate that work so they could go and focus on higher valued work, whether it’s maybe thinking of new products, new ways to engage with customers, other ways to analyze business processes to maybe impact the bottom line or grow the top line. I think the other thing here is the citizen development concept sounds really exciting. I’ve also seen a lot of organizations be a little bit hesitant to go down the path to give everyone the power at their fingertips. But I think part of it’s also, how do you move them along the journey? How do you help them understand the technology is really important? That’s actually how you can raise that digital IQ across the organization. Just to give an example of how powerful this can be, we were actually working in a pharma company, where they are putting automation into some of the processes that’s around clinical trials. So you actually have scientists, who have to run reports. They have to be able to manipulate lots of data. They have to be able to go look at where in the supply chain are all the drugs at in any given time and make sure that they’re aligning all of that to where their patients are at. We were actually able to go and, with their knowledge, help them get all of that work automated. So what you actually did is you just took months of analysis and reduced it down for them. The great thing about that is you just allowed those scientists to be scientists. You might actually be able to help get a drug to market faster. That may help get treatments for, whether it’s COVID right now, quicker. Or you may have an impact even how quickly we can help advance cancer research. So when I think about this space of democratizing automation, it’s really about empowering people and adding that value back into organizations.

Guy Nadivi: Mariesa, as you know, sometimes introducing automation into an organization can trigger resistance from some employees due to fear of job loss or radical job change. We refer to that resistance here on the podcast as robophobia, and it can, in fact, pose a serious cultural obstacle for enterprises deploying automation on their digital transformation journey. What tactics have you seen proved most effective in overcoming robophobia?

Mariesa Coughanour: It’s funny, Guy. I don’t think the movies really help with this robophobia very much. So when we think about this, I think one is understanding that some of the fear of robots that’s out there is some of it’s driven because of misunderstanding. Some of it is that fear of impact to job. I think there’s a couple of things we have to think about. One is recognize how we work today is probably not going to be how we work tomorrow. We are going to continue to automate a lot of this work and a lot of it’s because we need to be able to think about how do you actually integrate these technologies? We’re moving to cloud. We continue to bring in new technologies to help throughout a process. Maybe it’s also how we interact with our customers as well. And so as you think about that, I think one is if we’re going to help people kind of face this fear and concern, one, we need to be upfront and honest with them that yes, this is going to change how we work. But what’s really exciting about this is that there’s so much evolution in this space and there’s so much opportunity to actually be a part of the solution. You’ll find to be a part of this automation and digital journey, you don’t have to necessarily have a technical degree. There’s a lot of roles which you can play where you’re a part of finding opportunities. You’re working alongside the development team to make sure that we get all those business exceptions in, thinking about, as we put these digital workers into place, what will that look like for managers who maybe will have these as part of their team? Employees are going to work alongside those digital workers and I think it’s really important that we think about how the impact of change management will be within the organization, taking the time to explain the technology, let people see it. I have actually seen when you go into these organizations and you do workshops with them and you show them how it’s going to work, you see this massive shift from maybe some hesitation. You actually see excitement, because a lot of what we’re automating also is work that people don’t really enjoy doing today anyway in their jobs. It’s most of the stuff that we put off, we don’t want to do, we complain about if we have a cup of coffee or chat with a friend that we wish we didn’t have to do that type of work. Automation, actually, is going to free up people’s time so they can actually go and think about innovation. You could have people in finance think about business impact and strategy, or give time back to a service agent to actually work with the customer versus just go download and find reports and key in information. So I think the big fact here, or the big item to really look at to overcome this phobia, is one, be honest and upfront about it, explain it. Second, demystify it by showing people. And third, really bring people on the journey, let them be a part of the solution.

Guy Nadivi: We’re hearing more and more about process mining and other AI-based discovery platforms being deployed as part of digital transformations. How do you think these tools are impacting adoption rates for automation?

Mariesa Coughanour: Yeah. These ones have really been up and coming, especially over the course of the last year. We’ve actually spent quite a bit of time investing and making sure we’re trained. We have a lot of folks on these technologies because what you’ll find is that a lot of organizations have struggled to get outcomes and ensure they’re getting results. A lot of that’s because a lot of companies they go through acquisition, they have a lot of systems, there’s a lot of processes. And one of the really helpful things about process mining and AI-based discovery tools or task mining, is that it actually gives you objective data insight into your process. What is the critical path? What are those exceptions? Where are there opportunities at the top level of your organization for automation, as well as the task mining getting into those individual level of information? So I think this area is actually going to really help accelerate automation because it’s helping you pinpoint those opportunities. And the other thing that’s important is it’s actually giving you that end-to-end view. A lot of times when you’re getting into automation, you get into a lot of the task piece of it. But I’ll call that more of the belly button view. What that means is automation that will help just me as an individual. These tools actually help you look across the organization and find those areas that are maybe similar across the team. Maybe it’s 20, 30% of the process actually has some similarity to it. So you can build a code once and then deploy it at scale. Then it helps you find what are those next areas to go target, to get you the bigger results, and make those connections for you. So I think these are really going to be tools that help us accelerate the automation journey, and increase those adoption rates for organizations.

Guy Nadivi: Mariesa, you’ve talked elsewhere about the “Triple A Trifecta” of automation, analytics, and AI, also referred to by some as hyper automation. Now to one extent or another, all these disciplines rely on data scientists. I saw a recent infographic from QuantHub stating that in 2020, there was a deficit of 250,000 data scientists relative to jobs available. How will companies like Cognizant and its customers overcome this staggering talent shortage?

Mariesa Coughanour: Yes. I think one thing I would say about this industry is it is definitely a hot topic. There’s so much need and there’s so much ….the quest for talent. And the nice thing about is it’s not really the knowledge gaps that we’re facing, it’s to your exact point, is there’s just high demand. So there’s a couple of things that we’re doing to overcome it. One is we’re focused a little bit more on cross training than we’ve seen in the past. A lot of times, folks would come in and say they’re an expert on one technology. The idea here is actually we want to be able to up-skill and multi-skill our teams to be able to work on multiple technologies. So it enables this triple A trifecta or the hyper automation. It actually helps too when it comes to the way you integrate across processes as well. A lot of times, you’ll need more than one technology to really get the maximum benefits out of it. I think the other thing that we’ve seen is a little bit of shift in mindset. So a lot of times, you’ll find that to do the really more complex advanced integrations, you are going to need someone who has that deep expertise, but you’re also going to find this space has some up and coming technology. Some of it’s even new to the industry. There’s some startups that are coming in. So one thing we’ve seen is actually, how do you bring in maybe recent college grads for pipeline talent into the organization so that you can actually pair them up with those folks who have those years of experience and teach them and bring them along. I actually even see a lot of our clients doing the same, because what it’s doing is it’s actually doing two things. One, it’s helping fill this pipeline of this talent gap that we’re having. The second thing is it’s also helping to bring that diversity of thought into the ecosystem early on, because you’ll find that as folks new coming in, who maybe haven’t worked on these technologies as long, they’re picking up things like Agile, even faster, because they like to ask why. They want to work faster. They want to see those results come quicker. So I think that’s another piece that’s really critical to be able to address this gap. And then I think the last piece is that, Guy, like what you mentioned a moment ago, this citizen development concept. I think that’s also why people are so excited about it, because you will find in this space integrating technology is going to be very challenging. It takes a lot of work, but the part that’s really hard about this is actually bringing together the people so they understand the technology, find the opportunities. The next piece of that is you’re re-engineering the processes as you’re laying in these automation, analytics, and AI technologies too. So if you’re able to actually uplift and find those people that can help with that mindset of, “How do I lay out a process that’s optimal to be able to apply automation and AI to it?” It also helps some of the gap you have on the backside with the development piece of finding these folks who can actually integrate and apply the technologies because you’re making it easier for them to move faster.

Guy Nadivi: What do you think are the keys to integrating automation, analytics, and AI to bridge silos within an enterprise so hyper automation delivers on its promise?

Mariesa Coughanour: Yeah. This one is one that I’ve seen a lot of folks have some challenges with because we’re naturally siloed in our organization. If you think about it, we have finance functions, HR functions, you have business units, these teams, and we’re not always aligned perfectly on all of our metrics and KPIs and how we work. We don’t even know sometimes who we’re handing off to down or upstream in a process. Or if we do, maybe we don’t know the person five down from us. And it’s just because it’s hard. Organizations are big. Processes are very complex. You have a lot of things to consider when you get into regions and globes and country, all those different factors that come into play. When you move into the automation, analytics, and AI, you still have a lot of silos in just how we implement the technology, how we work with our business partners. And one of the things here is you bring together a couple of things. One, it’s very important to bring a business and IT sponsors to the table. You want to give that joint mindset on vision, on how we’re going to work together. You’re going to want to think about end-to-end in a process, actually looking at it that way and being able to have that connection top down on where are my opportunities, where are those handoffs? And that’s actually getting combined then with that grassroots opportunity. So when you marry those up, that’s where you get the really big benefits. Let me just give you an example of where you see more come out of this when you think this way. So one example I would give is around claims processing. When we first started working with an insurance provider, we saw that ideas came in to help with the data entry. You had multiple systems you had to enter information into, a lot of different rules that you would apply depending on what state you were in, but what we did with them is we sat down and we said, “Look, let’s think a little bit broader on your whole process end-to-end, the whole way from when someone is actually entering a claim as your customer, to all the way on the backend where you’re getting that final payout to them, or you get the information or the update on the status of that claim.” When we laid it out that way, instead of just automating pieces of the process, what we actually are able to do is we realized the whole way from when someone said, “Maybe I slipped and I hurt my arm,” they entered that claim into the system. We were able to look at it and say, “We could take natural language, analytics, pull that information out, using automation and RPA, enter all that information into the systems. We then even apply the rules to all the states and countries and counties and everything into it. So they applied all of that. The whole way through giving actually a viewpoint to those agents, so they could see the status of everyone’s claims coming in, teaching the model how do you think it’s smarter to make sure we are being very accurate? We had to have perfect accuracy on this process. As it went through, what we were able to do is we are able to first automate a very high percentage of straight through processing, 60, 70%. They add in that machine learning AI in the backend, we got up to the 95 plus percent, and now that’s an automated process for that organization, but it took us stepping back and helping bridge some of those silos and those different teams to be able to find that bigger opportunity for the organization.

Guy Nadivi: Mariesa, speaking of specific projects, you’ve been involved with quite a few automation use cases at Cognizant. So I’m curious if there’s any particular one that stands out for its deliverables or its scale as the most successful business process you’ve seen automated?

Mariesa Coughanour: Sure. There’s quite a few that come to mind are ones that were really excited to see the outcomes, but there’s probably one that stands out to me. I think it’s because if they went through their journey, they had started and stopped a few times. They started back really when RPA and everything had actually started on the 2016, 2015 mark. And they hadn’t seen the outcomes they had wanted. So when we got to talk with them, they said, “Look, we really want to make this work. We want to scale this across the enterprise and we want to see results.” So we helped them put in their COE. Basically we put in a central model for them first and we brought their CIO to the table. They had sponsorship on their business side and we started working with them to scale across their organization. And what was really exciting about that one and why it stands out so much was not only did they get a multi-fold return, they’re actually seeing an ROI of millions of dollars every year on their investment. They are driving opportunities with all their business stakeholders. They have folks from every business at the table. They’ve created champions in the organization. But I think the part that stands out to me is I’ve sat in one of their reviews before, and I listened to business and IT come to a table with very senior leaders talking about how they can cross-share across their different business units, where they thought there was opportunities in other teams. To me, that shows that we got it embedded. It’s just how they work today. And you continue to see this ongoing scale for them and its implementation of true hyper automation. They’re connecting chat with RPA to analytics to AI and ML models, and they’re getting the results. And to me, that’s what really kind of stands out is that they really got into just how they work as an organization.

Guy Nadivi: COVID-19 made 2020 a challenging year for a lot of organizations. What do you think are the biggest lessons that enterprises learned from the pandemic with regards to automation?

Mariesa Coughanour: Sure. I think one thing was… One thing we all realized is working remote was actually maybe not as bad as we all thought it was going to be at first. It actually helped us to be able to move faster, be more nimble with our team. But I think a few other things that we really realized when we saw clients starting to notice is one, automation is a lever for much more than just efficiencies and cost plays. Business resiliency could be impacted. It allows organizations to put in an ability to adapt more quickly to disruption, find those bigger outcomes and address challenges in the organization. So it really became more of an enabler. I think the other thing that we saw was just the way people worked was different. We’ve talked a lot about Agile in the past and applying it. But one thing that we really thought if people really took it to heart, they said, “How do you help me get benefits today? It’s okay if we get only partially way there. Let’s go work and iterate to be able to continue to add value and further that needle, but I really need that help in benefits today.” If I think about one of the examples there, we were working with an airline where at the start of COVID, they had such an increase in the number of cancellations that what they saw in just the day was more than they would have seen in a month typically, but they just weren’t able to handle that type of volume overnight. So we were able to put in automation in just about six days for them. And now it’s clearing in a day what used to take a month. So it alleviated the stress that came on to that team. And that team is actually now working in other areas to help drive value back for their customers through other different methods, whether it’s responses to updates and their status, whether it is around a request that came in for them. But the impact was just so different for them. And for them, they actually said, “Look, I want to work this way moving forward.” That’s one example of a customer, but we’ve seen that just across industries and across client examples where they said, “We really do want to work in this more agile, nimble way.”

Guy Nadivi: Mariesa, I’m sure many of our female listeners would love to hear from you about what your experience has been like as a woman and an executive in the technology field.

Mariesa Coughanour: It’s interesting. I started in engineering, and then I moved through multiple roles and I actually found my way back into technology, and I went to Ops for a while. And I would say a couple things really stood out to me was how important, first off, it was to find a really strong network as I moved through my career, someone I can lean on, I could reach out to, I can get that coaching, mentoring advice. It was actually a woman I worked for back in my GE days that encouraged me to come back over to data and technology and she’s retired now, but I thank her for it every day because it’s just been so exciting and I love the space. And I think the other thing is that it’s really encouraging to see how far we’ve come. I know we still have a ways to go, but seeing someone who was one of very few in the room as an engineer, I see more women coming to the table now, which is exciting. Even talking to my grandma who’s in her late nineties now, she’s always amazed to hear about what I do and what others are doing because these weren’t roles that were options for her growing up. I think if I would have stepped back and think about the female listeners that are out there thinking about, “Do I want to get into technology or how do I keep advancing my career?” I think one, very importantly, find those coaches and mentors, and also be someone who is also uplifting your fellow woman, encourage folks to get into this field, help them answer questions, help them, help folks look for diverse talent. It’s actually beyond women too. I think it’s important also to look for those new individuals coming to the space, help them grow and then find others also with diverse backgrounds, which really makes an impact to the teams that you’re on. I think the other thing I would say is I’ve always tried to do this by encouraging folks to be those change agents. We all have unconscious bias. Sometimes you see things that happen and people don’t realize maybe the impact of something that was said or words and take the time to continue to explain and help people understand ways to help bring up other women, help them encourage, help them learn. I think that’s actually how we continue to all move forward together better.

Guy Nadivi: Are there any advantages to being a woman in the technology field?

Mariesa Coughanour: When I think about this, I just, I always kind of step back. I think, in general, I think is just really important to diversity and inclusion in the workplace. I think beyond kind of just being a woman as an individual, but the whole. So when I think about that, just having diverse backgrounds in teams, I think having women, having folks with different – across age groups, across backgrounds, ethnicities, et cetera, I think that’s actually really what’s more important because when I think about it, I’m not sure if I really say that it’s just an advantage. I think more of the whole, we can have an advantage when we have that diverse thinking at the table for us. And I think it’s important we just have to keep encouraging women to come into the space. We have to think about the younger generation and how to maybe bring people into this technology space full of science and math that I think sometimes folks can be a little bit intimidated by, but there’s really a lot of opportunity here. And I think you’re looking for folks to come in, who are just looking for that, how do I make an impact quickly? It’s a very fast paced world. To me, I think it’s really just about how do we bring that diversity to the table, because that’s really going to be where the advantage comes from.

Guy Nadivi: To follow up on that, what can be done to get more women and more diversity in general into technology and succeeding in the field?

Mariesa Coughanour: Yeah, I think there’s so many good things going on in organizations today with the focus and movement around diversity and inclusion. I see leadership programs like we have in Cognizant that help actually take our talent of diverse folks, women, folks coming up in the pipeline, actually giving the mentorship, helping them advance their careers. I benefited from that early on in my career at GE, being a part of leadership programs. I think the other thing is one, if you see someone in the organization, take the time to reach out to them. Be that mentor, be that coach. A lot of individuals, background are actually very nervous to reach out to someone proactively. So being someone who’s going to reach out, it actually sets the tone. I think leading by example is also very important. Focus on building those diverse teams. Work on how do we recruit diverse candidates, talking to your HR teams of why that’s important, working with your recruiting teams, being that champion for others is important and also being an ally as well. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to have that exact background to appreciate someone else’s journey. But I think taking the time to understand and help them and listen, I think, is really important. And it goes really a long way. I actually think back to when I was in different affinity groups throughout my career, I was always in… First, I was a little surprised because then I was so impressed to see in a women’s group, we had men that were joining, typically they were allies for us. And I think it’s important because they even said, “I got to actually hear different perspectives,” and that helped raise their awareness. And that actually encouraged myself to actually join other groups too, because I think that’s actually how we remove some of those unconscious biases that we have, and also encourage women and folks from different backgrounds to have a voice and be vocal and bring more of them to the table and from my viewpoint, let’s encourage them to get into the technology field. A lot of opportunities here.

Guy Nadivi: Mariesa, for the CIOs, CTOs, and other IT executives listening in, what is the one big must have piece of advice you’d like them to take away from our discussion with regards to implementing automation at their organization?

Mariesa Coughanour: Sure. I would say first off, when you think about a digital strategy, automated intelligence, it’s not the only lever for that intelligent digital strategy they’re implementing, but it’s a really vital piece. And if they’re thinking about it, one, there’s definitely the component of how do you integrate the technology. I think that’s going to be core to a lot of those today in your IT, technology, digital organizations. One piece I would say if I were to really give them a piece of advice just to consider is how do you bridge that gap between the business and IT teams? As you think about automation, you’re going to need to have that business expertise also at the table, bringing them along the journey because those folks are going to have the depth to those really deep levels on why are we doing the business process the way it is? What are those rules regulations? And when you bring that knowledge with that technical depth, that’s where you’re able to get those synergies across teams. And you’re going to go from having benefits and outcomes to really exponential outcomes. So I would say think about when implementing, what is that business process owner that you could find as champion within your organization and then how do you empower your people to be those change agents? Helping them find those solutions, being a part of building them out and then ultimately, really making sure that they integrate and sustain and embed into just how people work to make it successful.

Guy Nadivi: All right. Well, it looks like that’s all the time we have for on this episode of Intelligent Automation Radio. Mariesa, it’s been a real treat tapping into your insights on automation and many other topics, and I’m sure you gave our audience a lot to ponder today. Thank you so much for coming on to the show.

Mariesa Coughanour: Thank you so much, Guy, for having me. I really enjoyed the time today.

Guy Nadivi: Mariesa Coughanour, Head of Automation Advisory at Cognizant. Thank you for listening, everyone. And remember, don’t hesitate, automate.

Mariesa Coughanour

Mariesa Coughanour

Head of Automation Advisory at Cognizant

Mariesa Coughanour is Head of Cognizant’s Automation Advisory Services practice responsible for accelerating business growth, scaling programs, and cultivating mindshare of industry influencers. Mariesa has over a decade of experience in the Automation, Transformation, and Operations spaces working across industries with global clients in North America and EMEA.

Prior to Cognizant, Mariesa was the Operations and IT Leader for a NYC startup. Before that she spent several years in GE working across multiple businesses and domains, including establishing the Global Operations Analytics and Automation Program. She additionally is a graduate from two career accelerator programs in GE: Operations Management Leadership Program (OMLP) and Corporate Audit Staff (CAS). Mariesa holds a Bachelor and Master’s of Science in Industrial Engineering with management and communication minors from the University of Miami. She was also named Innovator of the Year 2020, at Women in IT Awards, New York.

Mariesa can be reached at:




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