In automation, imagination is now the constraining factor

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Good morning.

One reason I love CEO Daily readers is because of their fervent commitment to keep me educated. My recent posts on Robotic Process Automation (RPA)—which involves computer “robots” that watch what people do on a computer screen and then automates it—have led to a not-entirely-solicited crash course on the topic. I’ve now met the CEOs of the three market leaders—Automation Anywhere, UiPath and Blueprism—and have learned a great deal along the way.

My interest stems from this: Numerous studies show that most Fortune 500 CEOs believe Artificial Intelligence is critical to their company’s future, and say they are investing in it. But if you ask what kind of A.I. they are investing in, most confess it is RPA. I will leave it to technologists to debate whether RPA should be considered A.I. at all. But the use of RPA among big companies is clearly exploding—which is why the aforementioned three CEOs all are riding galloping stallions. It’s “the fastest growing segment of the enterprise software market,” says Gartner. And it’s no surprise Microsoft plans to enter the market next month. Other enterprise software firms inevitably will follow.

Interestingly, the RPA CEOs agree with me that many companies use their tools simply to automate existing (and often bad) processes, rather than to transform their businesses. The result is reduced labor costs, but not necessarily new value for customers. Some “view it as a slightly-more sophisticated version of off-shoring,” acknowledges Jason Kingdon, chairman of Blueprism, who stopped by the Fortune offices yesterday.

But at its best, Kingdon insists, RPA empowers leaders to reinvent. Because the tools are so easy to use, they free executives from the constraints of the IT department, and let them innovate on their own. The best users of the tools “are really reinventing work,” Kingdon says. “Imagination is now the constraining factor.”

That should become a catch phrase for the new era: “Imagination is now the constraining factor.” Technology is making amazing things possible. But what we do with that technology is the domain of humans. The future doesn’t belong solely—or even primarily—to people who write code. It belongs to people who can imagine the future.

More news below. And by the way, another reason I love CEO Daily readers is because they care about the future of Fortune. Many of you subscribed yesterday. Those who didn’t can go here today. It pays to know.

Alan Murray


Coronavirus bankruptcies

The first major corporate casualty of the coronavirus outbreak is Flybe, a British airline that was until today a major player on domestic routes and those to nearby European cities. Flybe was already in very serious financial difficulty, but the virus's impact tipped it over the edge. A Japanese cruise operator also went bankrupt earlier this week due to passenger cancellations—again, it was already a financially troubled business. Fortune

Market volatility

After a decent day for U.S. markets yesterday (thanks to Joe Biden's re-ascending fortunes and the House's passage of a coronavirus-targeting emergency spending package), Asian markets followed suit—the Shanghai Composite even returned to positive territory for the year. Thanks to profit warnings from companies such as Continental, Europe did not follow suit, with the Stoxx Europe 600 down 1.2% at the time of writing. U.S. futures also point to a negative open. Wall Street Journal

German warning

Germany's BDI business association has warned of a prolonged recession this year in the industrial sector, which has already endured six consecutive quarters of contraction. BDI: "With the production slumps in China and the quarantine measures taken by individual countries, it is becoming clear how vulnerable the export-oriented and internationally organized German economy is." Reuters


Michael Bloomberg has quit the Democratic presidential race after a poor Super Tuesday showing (the Financial Times' acidic headline: "Bloomberg, victor in American Samoa, quits race"). Bloomberg is now endorsing Joe Biden. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Warren's team has reportedly been talking to both the Sanders and Biden camps about a potential endorsement once she pulls out, again due to lackluster results. FT


Lego stores

Lego plans to open 150 branded stores around the world this year. The expansion comes in the context of what the Danish company says was a 3% contraction of the global toy market last year. CEO Niels Christiansen: "Some of the changes in the retail landscape have put toy retailers under pressure... But we see the great power of people getting their hands on bricks." BBC

Olympic effort

Japan's government has committed to hosting the Olympic Games from July as planned, despite the coronavirus outbreak reaching new parts of the country. However, a state visit to Japan by Chinese President Xi Jinping has been put on ice. Reuters

Airbnb coronavirus

Airbnb has rolled out a special policy for booking that need to be changed because of the coronavirus's impact. It's an "extenuating circumstances policy" that allows guests or hosts to change or cancel a booking free of charge, if the cause is coronavirus-related travel restrictions or warnings, or containment measures. CNBC

Pot bubble

Fortune's Anne Sraders has a fascinating piece on why investors soured on the cannabis industry. She writes: "Last year, investors clamored to buy into the burgeoning cannabis industry in a moment of market zeitgeist…But within six months those wide-eyed investors were looking at an entirely different picture. Wall Street grew weary as major cannabis companies reported disappointing earnings, laid off employees, and even in some cases, faced compliance scandals." Fortune

This edition of CEO Daily was edited by David Meyer.

This is the web version of CEO Daily, a newsletter of must-read insights from Fortune CEO Alan Murray. Sign up to get it delivered free to your inbox.

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