COVID-19 accelerates enterprise use of automation in digital transformation

As the pandemic increased digital demands, technology leaders were forced to move up roadmaps for RPA and hyperautomation

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With cost savings and rapid time to value through efficiency and scale, Robotic Process Automation (RPA), and automation as a whole, were on a gradual, but longer-term rise in digital transformation (DX). Then COVID-19 struck and digital transformation itself was disrupted.

Executives weren’t prepared for an overnight shift to 100 percent digital operations for an extended period of time. Remote work, e-commerce, security, supply chain, and business processes and software across the enterprise were each uniquely exposed to crushing demands, bottlenecks and points of failure. Business continuity and stabilization was suddenly everyone’s priority.

What was overwhelmingly and also unexpectedly clear, COVID-19 pushed legacy processes and BPOs well beyond peak capacity. They were also exposed for their inefficiencies and reliance on manual processing. The pandemic made executives rethink DX and the role advanced technologies could play in the future of business. At the top of the list are RPA and hyperautomation. 

What’s the difference between RPA and hyperautomation? 

Automation is primarily based on programming and relies on APIs and other integration solutions to integrate different systems together to perform scripted tasks. Automation with artificial intelligence (AI) makes it possible for machines to mimic human tasks, such as pattern recognition, visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making, and adaptability. RPA focuses on discreet business processes and uses software bots to automate highly repetitive, routine tasks usually performed by knowledge workers. Hyperautomation is where advanced automation tools and AI can unlock new capabilities and insights, and more impactful outcomes.

Gartner defines hyperautomation as “an approach in which organizations rapidly identify and automate as many business processes as possible. It involves the use of a combination of technology tools, including but not limited to machine learning, packaged software and automation tools to deliver work.” Gartner predicts that by 2024, organizations will lower operational costs by 30% by combining hyperautomation technologies with redesigned operational processes. This is likely to accelerate in the wake of COVID-19.

The promise of hyperautomation is not insignificant. Enterprises are reducing repetitive or monotonous tasks or processes, reducing costs, and scaling capabilities in ways that humans couldn’t. Shortly before COVID-19’s impact (BC), Gartner projected a renaissance in RPA as part of the “bigger trend of hyperautomation.” Grand View Research estimated that the RPA market size would be worth $10.7 billion by 2027. After disruption, however (AD), an entirely new set of demands, previously undiscovered, were now critical.

The timetable for RPA and hyperautomation is moving up.

Automation becomes a digital workforce platform for building business resilience

I recently presented in a media and analyst forum hosted by Automation Anywhere. In the hour-long discussion, the panel explored RPA and hyperautomation challenges and opportunities stemming from the global pandemic. To illustrate the extent of the pandemic’s abrupt impact, Mihir Shukla, Automation Anywhere CEO and Co-founder, shared two brief but compelling examples where bots were the only option to respond.

In one instance, an unnamed airline experienced a surge in cancellations due to pandemic shutdowns. Pre-pandemic, the airline might process, on average, 500 requests per day. In the early throes of COVID-19 disruption, that number soared to 4,000 refund requests every day. Needless to say, it was impossible for staff to manage a volume of that magnitude. It was a choice to either hire more employees to process refunds or explore RPA solutions.

The same was true for a large bank. In this particular case, the bank was faced with the need to update 6 million loan records immediately. Without RPA, this particular project was estimated to take two years and 100 people to complete.

One of the major challenges facing the automation industry early on was the lack of understanding of the exact role it played in digital transformation and ultimately how to measure its ROI compared to other competing initiatives. But, COVID-19 changed everything. It thrust into the spotlight processes in need of exponential scale.

“Once you use bots to scale, even if the volumes go down, you're not going to go back to doing it manually. This will change how all of us think," declared Shukla.

The opportunities for automation, specifically RPA, are practically infinite. Before COVID, it’s estimated that as much as 80% of manual front-and-back office business processes that could benefit from automation were still undiscovered.

In these times of, to be honest, still ongoing disruption, companies need to understand where in their portfolio hyperautomation can benefit while also exploring opportunities for innovation. This takes a dedicated team, as the results will not only improve and scale efficiency and performance, but also create an operational competitive advantage.

But how does an organization identify areas of opportunity beyond critical areas that surface because of problems?

During our panel, Automation Anywhere shared that it had partnered with Nike to deploy a “Discovery Bot” to capture and document business processes. Essentially, this clever initiative is automating automation, creating bots that can create jobs for other bots. This reveals and can accelerate opportunities for automation while freeing up creative resources to take action on insights gathered from automated processes.

With so many processes to discover, connecting the dots between disparate systems across the enterprise is a massive undertaking that will take years. Doing so however, strengthens the foundation for business agility. At the same time, organizations can’t overlook areas for innovation and value creation. Doing so complements business agility with resiliency.

Customer experience becomes the next frontier for hyperautomation

Beyond automating back-office processes, RPA and hyperautomation are also ready for prime time in the front office. From marketing to customer support, enterprises must now bridge end-to-end business processes and end-to-end customer experiences between back and front offices.

The time is now to do so.

In May 2020, Salesforce published the sixth edition of its “State of Marketing” research. In it, a whopping 84% of customers said that the experience companies provide is as important as its products and services. COVID-19, combined with shelter-in-place protocols and a general fear of unnecessarily venturing out in public, is certainly influencing new shopping behaviors and amplifying volumes for digital customer support. Keep in mind that we don’t live in a post-COVID world yet. We live with COVID. Many of these new behaviors aren’t going away, they’re likely to stick even after the public starts to open up en masse. This means that customer expectations for new and improved digital experiences are only going to become more prominent.

Customer-facing automation now becomes an immediate opportunity for value-added service and competitive differentiation. In addition to improving and scaling processes, automation introduces opportunities for experience innovation.

From process automation to bots that connect customers to answers and resolution to bots that guide service agents in real-time, the customer’s experience is ripe for enhancement. The opportunities are practically limitless and the ROI is exponential.

While digital transformation is straining IT resources, that doesn’t mean that automation can’t advance. As I learned in the panel, caring, empowered employees want to do the right thing too! If repetitive tasks can be automated, employee time can be freed up to perform more value-added jobs. When it comes to customer experience, more time spent on delivering a more personal touch means that everyone wins. Enter the role of the citizen developer. With today’s automation technology, anyone can create and manage bots.

During the panel discussion, we explored the rising importance of citizen developers in driving automation in the front office. Emerging low-code and no-code interfaces are opening the door to new possibilities while lowering the bar for programming. This accelerates the development and integration of automated processes in the customer journey to more positively shape customer experiences.

Joe Bechtel, Automation Strategy Lead at Humana, shared how citizen developers were driving CX automation into new areas of the organization when IT resources were too taxed on other DX fronts. MDs, nurses, pharmacists, and clinicians at Humana stepped up to serve as lead RPA developers in addition to their day-to-day work.

According to Bechtel, they were happy to do it because it freed them of everyday frustrations associated with complex, manual, time-intensive processes. Added up, the current ways of working were preventing them from delivering the experiences they wanted patients to have.

Bechtel also called attention to the significance of creating a pipeline for discovery and incentivizing employees to contribute ideas on top of their work. For example, at Humana, call center reps now also serve as discovery agents to feed the pipeline with new ideas for process improvement that other practitioners might build. IT, in these cases, serves as support or as Bechtel referred to them, as “the Apple Genius Bar,” to guide citizen developers forward.

Investing in back-office RPA and hyperautomation while unlocking new opportunities for front-office innovation led Bechtel to reimagine automation as an enabler for customer experience innovation. For Humana, he said, RPA changed the equation in how the company evaluates ROI, “by allowing an associate or member to be the driver of the experience beyond focusing on cost savings or compliance.”

He continued, “We’ve seen communities of clinicians come together to change, in a positive way, the ways in which we interact with our customers. Automation provides the capacity so they don’t have to do the paperwork anymore, but now they can use their experience and empathy to be the best patient advocate when they’re needed the most.”

This is just the beginning. For those more ambitious organizations, analyzing data and patterns from automated processes, will also lead to new understanding and actionable insights to further personalize and improve the customer’s experience.

In a world of robots and automation, enhancing processes and experiences can future-proof and disruption-proof any business

It’s been asked many times in many different ways. Who’s leading your digital transformation strategy right now? Is it the CEO, CIO, CMO, CDO, or COVID-19? While the majority answer COVID-19, remember that experience, both the customer’s experience as well as the employee’s experience, is the primary driver for business continuity and ultimately growth.

Early on, the RPA industry faced challenges of getting C-suite attention on the promise of automation. The pandemic has changed everything. For the first time, executives, technologists, and board members are aligned around the need to advance automation and hyperautomation.

Whatever your vision and roadmap was for the future, we’re all faced with an alternate reality. It’s how we navigate these times that determine where we end up in the short- and long-term. What’s clear: innovative companies are accelerating integration of automation roadmaps, with many moving up their 2030 plans.

Beyond automation discovery, now’s the time to reimagine the future of work and then take the steps to bring that vision to life. Otherwise, we’re scaling legacy processes in a new world that’s learning to embrace change. Experience automation leads to experience innovation. When innovation succeeds, the customer wins. Everyone wins.

Think of automation and hyperautomation as part of your DX investments this way: what does “transformation” in your organization actually mean?

Does it mean process improvement? Does it mean true business metamorphosis, like that of a caterpillar into a butterfly?

The answer should be both. And, it’s both in the context of the back office plus the front office.

Businesses that prioritize more than business continuity and take this time to invest in business resilience will excel now and stand stronger in the face of future disruptions.

In a time of disruption, humans need an ally. Bots can, ironically, help scale humanity in business, allowing for the delivery of more meaningful customer and employee experiences. It’s taking this disruption and re-imagining work to not only become more resilient, but also better.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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