One way to trace human history is to follow the evolution of work.
First came the artisan, who labored over one pair of shoes at a time, basically an ad hoc process. Next came the Industrial Revolution, with its standardized parts and repeatable processes, vastly improving productivity but at the expense of variety. More recently, the norm has been adaptable processes, in which the same people and equipment can be adapted to provide more variety. But the adaptations often come slowly and are fraught with both process design and execution risk.
Now there is a new game in town: intelligent processes, which have been made possible by the explosion of digital technologies, and which are set to reinvent much of the way that businesses are run—in as soon as the next five years.
Intelligent processes create a virtuous cycle of constant improvement fed by continuous feedback. An intelligent process is studded with sensors that monitor every move and feed those observations into sophisticated models that allow people and software to make real-time adjustments and decisions. Digital technologies make it possible to identify opportunities for adaptation, analyze the trade-offs and then adapt faster and more efficiently.
By introducing the ability to continuously sense internal operations and external market conditions and to analyze variations quickly, digital capabilities allow intelligent processes to identify opportunities for improvement. And once an opportunity for improvement is found, other digital technologies, such as intelligent tools, advanced collaboration technologies and adaptive robotics, execute changes (even relatively complex ones) quickly.