Neil Ward-Dutton
Neil Ward-Dutton (VP, AI and Intelligent Process Automation European Practices, IDC Europe)
John O'Brien
John O'Brien (Research Director)

When business conditions — and our lives — change radically, you might think that the topic of business automation is strange, or even inappropriate, to bring up.

The history of business automation is associated with two things: first, optimizing work for certainty, quality and minimum cost, rather than for speed and agility; and second, headcount reductions. Until relatively recently, the reality of business automation was that it was pretty much an all-or-nothing proposition: tasks, decisions, processes, or request handling were either automated, or they weren’t.

The New Landscape

However, the past decade of innovation in business automation technology has created a new, much more sophisticated automation toolkit that can do something very different from streamlining and reducing wasted work; it can help organizations become more flexible and resilient.

With the capabilities that now exist across what we call the new business automation toolkit — across RPA, workflow, integration platforms, AI and more — businesses of all shapes and sizes should take the opportunity to have a fresh look at automation right now.

There are three ways in which today’s business automation landscape gives organizations the ability to drive resilience in uncertain times.

  1. Cloud-based technologies

First, many automation vendors have enthusiastically adopted cloud-based technologies and delivery models, as well as other Third Platform technologies and innovation accelerators. The result is business automation platforms that can create new working environments that place few, if any, constraints on what work needs to be done and by whom, when it needs to be done, and where it needs to be done.

One of digital technologies’ fundamental business value drivers is that they make the coordination of all kinds of resources across time and distance more economically efficient. These are not just physical resources like materials, plant and machinery and buildings, but also people, relationships, data and knowledge. Business automation technology vendors have embraced this.

  1. Advanced analytics, machine learning and AI

The second feature of this new landscape comes from innovation in advanced analytics, machine learning (ML) and AI. Also, shifts in computing economics that enable us to bring contextual intelligence, predictions and recommendations right into the flow of work.

Ten years ago, it was impractical for most organizations to deliver effective “always-on” predictive models that could be deployed right into peoples’ work environments to help guide decision-making and action-taking. So people did the best they could, with the data and knowledge they could find.

The situation is different now.  Modern business automation platforms can leverage advanced analytics, AI and ML techniques to create new kinds of collaboration between people. Also, they can self-improve, providing always-on “smart systems” in order to make decisions and take actions.

The result, if these new techniques are implemented well, is systems that augment the skills and experience of personnel, and which have the potential to make “everyone as good as the best”.

  1. Agility

The third key feature of this landscape is how it also enables more agility in the way tools themselves are used. “Low-code” and “no code” approaches are sweeping across the business automation technology landscape — from workflow, case management and more general app development, to robotic process automation (RPA), AI toolkits, and integration platforms.

All these are becoming easier to use, primarily through graphical tools that allow relatively non-technical people to design and build aspects of systems using “drag and drop” methods, without coding.

In turn, these approaches enable much wider participation in automation projects: they no longer have to be set up and delivered by hard-pressed, overworked IT departments. When they’re combined with cloud-based delivery and flexible subscription models, low-code or no-code tools enable dispersed, multidisciplinary teams to collaborate and quickly and iteratively develop business automation solutions.

What if You Don’t Adapt?

As the current situation continues to play out, many organizations are going to find themselves even more exposed by their legacy siloed systems and working practices as impacted teams try to work remotely.

Take for instance a company wedded to a traditional on-premise HR and finance system and dependent on administration via a shared service center that has been closed. Even if that organization has been building intelligence and resilience into its processes using RPA or AI-related tools to speed up the processing of forms and remove manual admin, the disconnection caused by the shutdown will massively impact on the availability of people, systems, and support.

The knock-on effect on business when things get back to normal could be immense, when core business processes like accounts payable and receivable are operating with a skeleton staff and become a barrier to getting back up to speed fast. There’s no doubt too that pressure on HR departments is going to surge, just at the time that resources are under huge pressure.

In Sum: Modern Automation Platforms Are Resilience Platforms

We’re used to looking at the value of business automation through the lenses of operating efficiency, work quality and, in some cases, customer satisfaction. However, by digging into the capabilities of modern business automation platforms and the associated services propositions, it’s clear that there’s another lens through which to look at the value: resilience.

That’s a value dimension which will continue to be top of mind in the months and years to come.

We’ll be expanding on this in a new IDC research report to be published in the coming weeks. In the meantime — please let us know what you think!

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