Banner - 2020 Impact on Intelligent Automation

Published: February 03, 2021 – Author: Doug Thompson

No generation living today has seen this level of political and social strife alongside a global pandemic converging simultaneously. It isn’t to say none of those things have occurred over the last 100 years, but it is a unique experience for all three to rear their heads at the same time. They don’t operate only in the silos of our personal lives; they also significantly impact our professional lives and livelihoods. Just as no two individuals have handled these pressures in precisely the same way, neither have businesses. However, the one thing businesses have in common is they are all reacting—and in most cases, drastically and dramatically.

In some instances, the pressures have forced businesses to narrow their focus area—we mostly see this in healthcare organizations with a near-exclusive focus on care for COVID-19 patients and now the COVID-19 vaccine distribution. Other enterprises have been shaken to their core. They are stepping back to look at their foundation, questioning how they have run their business and if they should continue running it that way. Many were unprepared for the dramatic shift of their workforce going 100% remote, and in 2021 they are still uncertain whether or not people will return to the office or factory and when. In fact, the full impact on many industries of this shift is still not fully known. They are anxiously contemplating if layoffs (or more layoffs) will be necessary to survive. They also want to know if we will ever get back to “normal” and what “normal” will look like once we get there.

The uncertainty is consistent within the intelligent automation (IA) and robotic process automation (RPA) space. When you apply IA to fairly predictable processes in a static world, you can straightforwardly measure the ROI. When you consider IA in the current chaotic world, it is less about optimizing existing processes and more about recasting, combining, or eliminating existing processes within the context of a whole host of factors, including the digital workforce. This reexamination of the processes themselves is the core goal. Intelligent automation is one of the considerations/solutions rather than intelligent automation and digital workforce conversion being the goal itself. Only once we perform the process reexamination to meet the business objectives will we find ROI during this chaos.

Yes, there are still customers who are relentlessly driving automation because they need to scale immediately (days or months) and are drowning without them (think healthcare and state and local government).  However, many companies are first reexamining their foundational processes to identify where intelligent automation can best play in their strategies moving forward.

Regardless of the starting point or what is driving the program, here is what I think is coming….and may be already here:

Automations will continue to move from simple task-based to more complicated process and role-based

Currently, about 80% of our clients’ automations are task-based, and we use one or two pieces of automation software to solve the problem. Their problems are typically easier to define, and we can deliver solutions on a pretty tight timeline of about one to three months.  In 2021, enterprises will start expanding across multiple dimensions. Instead of just looking at one task to automate, they will look at the more significant, complex processes associated with numerous tasks. In doing so, they will find ways to automate more or all of a given function to make the complete process less manual and more streamlined. Automations will become more complex. They will use multiple technologies such as cognitive services, orchestration, smart computer vision, NLP, big data, low-code application development. And they will require more organizational change, all of which will drive longer timeframes and higher costs (but higher returns too).  We won’t go from task automation to these more complex automations overnight, but the shift will continue to accelerate in 2021.

Intelligent Automation will be vital in moving digital transformation initiatives forward

Some enterprises have been going through digital transformations for several years now; others are in the infancy stages of that process. But what will change is the role that automation plays in digital transformation initiatives. As companies re-evaluate their internal processes, business leaders will need to look more holistically at what automations can do for their businesses.  Automation is likely to be a big part of the solution, but admittedly, it might not always be the only solution or the first solution. If you automate a lousy or unnecessary process, you still have a lousy or unnecessary process—it is just a quicker, bad process. As alluded to above, organizations need to understand the core process issues at hand BEFORE a solution. Most enterprises do not have the expertise or bandwidth to try to figure this out independently. They will need to rely on technology and advisors with a proven track record to help uncover where automation will help or whether the issue is further backstream with the process itself.

2021 is already shaping up to be an interesting year—and it is only February.

There are many exciting opportunities for enterprises to simply look beyond automated tasks to discover which processes to keep, which ones should be recast or eliminated, and how much of each should be automated. When done right, task automation eliminates mind-numbing work and frees employees to do their best value-added and strategic work. However, process automation, using intelligent automation tools and techniques, can change the business’s cost foundation and enable organizations to scale quickly and effectively—even with their heterogeneous, inflexible enterprise systems in place. The benefits of digital transformation will take a big step forward in 2021.

For successful automation and digital transformation initiatives to move forward, internal teams (IT, P&L owners, strategists, organizational change management experts, process analysis experts, etc.) need to strategize with the right external business advisors, technologies, and service providers. Of course, these efforts’ success or failure will come down to the people. As it always does.