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How Covid-19 has provided the impetus for Intelligent Automation

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Vasin Lee)

One of the undoubted impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the way in which it has expedited digital transformation. As companies have adjusted to the ‘new normal’, they have hurriedly explored ways in which to streamline processes, harness data or shape entirely new ways of doing business.

2020 saw an acceleration in the pace of adoption of digital transformation technologies, particularly in response to the growing consumer use of on-line channels. A survey by McKinsey found that globally, about 55 percent of products and/or services were fully or partially digitized as of July 2020, compared to 35 percent in December 2019 and 28 percent in May 2018.

It’s not just large companies that are realizing the potential of transformation. Smaller firms, which account for three fifths of the employment and around half of turnover in the UK private sector, are also harnessing digital processes and services for their millions of customers and employees. Research by the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants found that 67 percent of UK SMEs have accelerated their organization’s digital transformation as a direct result of Covid-19.

A major asset in the transformation process has been automation. According to a survey by Deloitte, 68 percent of execs have used automation to directly address Covid-19 related problems. The finding is supported by McKinsey, which found that nearly half of 800 executives surveyed have accelerated the adoption of automation “moderately” during the pandemic, and roughly 20 percent reported “significantly increasing” automation.

Robotic-process automation (RPA) has enjoyed glowing headlines in recent years. The software is capable of handling high volume requests and repetitive tasks, enabling organizations to improve processes and reduce costs while freeing up employees for high value tasks. RPA’s ability to enhance the workflow for time-consuming, high-volume & repeatable tasks means it has been of particular benefit to sectors such as financial services and healthcare.

While many companies have explored the potential for traditional RPA, one of the most commonly reported problems is with scaling. There are many reasons for that, one of the biggest of which is that RPA can only handle structured, rule-based digital processes. Most modern businesses are full of unstructured data and judgement-based work. As a result, customers exploring how automation can aid transformation are hitting a wall - RPA is failing to deliver on its promised benefits.

Step forward Intelligent Automation (IA) - a combination of artificial intelligence and automation, which is changing the way organizations function in almost every sector.

What is ‘Intelligent Automation’?

Intelligent Automation is a term used to describe a group of technologies that are leveraged in combination to automate business processes in operations. On their own, these technologies deliver limited value. When combined, they can unlock significant value and transform the way businesses operate.  The main technology components of Intelligent Automation are:

  • Robotic Process Automation (RPA) – Software ‘robots’ that emulate the actions of human users on desktop applications. When programmed, these robots can execute actions on a wide variety of applications by interacting through the UI of the target system, avoiding complex system integration projects and delivering value quickly. RPA bots can run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and deliver significant improvements over human workers where accuracy, speed and audit considerations are critical;
  • Optical Character Recognition (OCR) – The ability to convert an image into text data. This technology has been around for 20+ years but is now delivering renewed value when the data it generates is fed into Automations. OCR is not itself intelligent;
  • Machine Learning (ML) – Intelligence comes from the ability to learn, and ML provides that capability. ML models are used to interpret data and make decisions, like classification or extraction tasks, where unstructured data (from documents or emails for example) needs to be processed;
  • Analytics – Operational analytics are essential to track and manage your automations. Analytics can help you monitor benefits, efficiency savings and utilization of the technologies you have deployed.

Once a process is automated, employees are free to work on more valuable tasks such as revenue generating activities or focusing on work where human judgement is required. Using extra capacity to review a larger sample of cases that have been prepared by the robots can drive increased compliance, reduced risk, reduced error rates, faster resolution times and increased CSAT scores as well as a healthier bottom line.

Intelligent Automation can be used to underpin broader transformation in business by extending the value of legacy IT systems and providing an orchestration layer between human operations and IT centric business processes. Once a business is no longer held hostage by legacy systems, true transformation can take place by focusing on business outcomes rather than operating around the constraints of existing systems.

How SMEs can harness the benefits of Intelligent Automation

Demand for Intelligent Automation has increased significantly, with organizations leveraging digital workforces to automate legacy processes and enable human workers to do more without being in the office. IT departments have been overwhelmed with the urgent need to service a workforce which is entirely decentralized. Business operations have been forced to instantly switch to new ways of working while customer demands have increased.

There is additional burden on resource-stretched SMEs, which may not have the means to build a team of in-house experts to deploy, support and scale Intelligent Automation. This is supported by the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants research - two thirds of (65 percent) of UK SMEs said that the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted skills gaps within their organization. Among this group, nearly 95 percent believe that these skills gaps are significant enough to hamper their organization’s future growth and success.

Understanding which business processes to automate and the type of automation to deploy, or even the extent to which automation can help the organization, can be challenging without the right expertise. SMEs would be wise to consider choosing an external Intelligent Automation specialist which is able to identify the best candidates for automation and offer predefined “plug-and-play” processes that can be live in as little as 12 weeks.

The simplicity of the process is why we have seen a massive increase in interest from SMEs over the past year. The most popular use cases for Intelligent Automation include:

  • HR Processes for remote workers: Automating new HR processes for enrolling distributed workers including onboarding, account set up and granting access to core systems. This can be extended to IT processes such as provisioning and delivery of IT equipment, managing passwords and credentials for VPNs or shipping office supplies to new work locations;
  • Data management and BI: Running data analysis on internal systems that are not accessible remotely, creating reports for management and publishing analytics automatically to help make better data driven decisions throughout the pandemic;
  • Customer Onboarding: Setting up new customer accounts on internal systems. Automations can be triggered remotely by customer facing staff who may be working from home and be used to administer new account set up activities running centrally on legacy IT systems behind a secure firewall.

There is no doubt that organizations which have already begun their Intelligent Automation journeys have a clear competitive advantage over their peers. The ability to pivot faster and allocate resources where they are needed the most has been crucial in the current commercial environment, and will be increasingly important as we move into what we all hope is the post-pandemic world.

Chris Porter, CEO, NexBotix (opens in new tab)

Chris Porter is the Managing Director of Digital Transformation at 6point6 with over 17 years’ experience in both public and private sectors specialising in Enterprise scale integration, DevOps, Cloud, Agile delivery and software development.