Automating Your Business

Amid a Pandemic Driven RPA Surge, Businesses Should Consider These 4 Things

By Andrej Kovacevic posted Fri November 06, 2020 01:27 PM


In any normal year, businesses of many different types face challenges that can disrupt their everyday operations. From sudden key employee departures to natural disasters and everything in between, it doesn't always take very much to bring mission-critical business functions to a halt. For that reason, it's become standard procedure for companies to create business continuity plans designed to handle unforeseen operational impediments.

But 2020 hasn't been a normal year.

The sudden and overwhelming disruption created by the COVID-19 pandemic has put businesses into a defensive posture, with many scrambling to do whatever was necessary to keep working under difficult circumstances. And it's also forcing a wholesale reevaluation of what pre-pandemic business continuity plans looked like, and how well (or badly) they were working in the present situation.

One of the key takeaways that most businesses are ending up with is that their pre-pandemic assumptions were based on the loss of individual facilities and or small parts of their workforce. They were not, however, ready to accommodate a mass-shutdown of their offices and workplaces. They also didn't plan for workers who did hands-on work to be forced into an all-remote setting.

Those conclusions are now fueling a big surge in interest in robotic process automation (RPA), with experts predicting a sharp increase in technology adoption rates in the post-pandemic world. But as with anything, there's a danger in rushing into automation. It's not a cure-all, and it can't succeed without thorough planning. Here are the four most important things business leaders should be considering as they look at RPA as a post-pandemic business continuity option.

Digitization Must Come First

The first- and most important – consideration that business leaders have to take into account when looking at RPA adoption is that they have to make sure their business processes are already adapted to accommodate it. Even though it is possible to roll out an RPA initiative on a per-process basis, that often results in technology fragmentation that harms efficiency and increases costs.

So, for a business that's still using paper-trail processes and is already behind the curve in its digital transformation efforts, it's a good idea to map out a path that begins with digitization before moving on to RPA. Doing things in that order helps to make sure that the early-stage work results in digitized processes that are ready for RPA without having to revamp processes twice.

And leveraging solutions like IBM Automation Document Processing at the digitization stage is an excellent way to make a quick transition from a variety of paper-driven processes into ready to automate digital data streams.

Choosing the Right RPA Candidates

The second thing business leaders need to focus on is choosing which business processes are good candidates for RPA. And as easy as that sounds, it's a task that's not as straightforward as you might think. To get it right the first time, decision-makers should use the following as a rough guideline:

  • If the steps in a process change frequently or require manual high-touch actions (or more than one), or if the process takes place in a volatile environment – it likely isn't a good candidate for RPA.
  • If a process contains a mix of steps that appear easy to automate and some steps that have to remain manual – the process is a candidate for semi-automation.
  • If a process includes decision-making that can be replicated by AI and features all-digital inputs – it's a good candidate for a custom-programmed RPA solution.
  • If a process is repetitive, stable, and operating in a static environment – it's a high-value RPA candidate and should be at the top of the target list.

Avoiding Customer Disruption

The third major thing that decision-makers should be considering in their drive towards RPA is that they should be taking great care to avoid automating processes that might negatively impact customers. For example, there's been a big push toward using AI-powered chatbots and other automation technologies in customer service in recent years – but survey after survey confirms that customers prefer talking to a real person when they need something of consequence.

For that reason, businesses adding RPA to their arsenals should think long and hard about who those automated processes might affect. For example, it could be fine to automate a workflow for email follow-ups in a help desk tool, but not as acceptable to automate handling consumer complaints and service requests. It's critical to always weigh the costs and benefits to every RPA decision – and to remember that not everything that can be automated should be automated.

Consider Hyperautomation Only When Ready

Last but not least, businesses have to resist the urge to move too quickly with their RPA adoption than prudence dictates. This is a particularly important consideration right now when the pandemic is pushing businesses to embrace automation faster than they otherwise would have. That sense of urgency is certain to drive some businesses to embrace hyperautomation – which is a solid end goal to pursue – but is probably still a bridge too far for most businesses.

In many cases, moving too quickly toward automation as a result of the pandemic is the strategic equivalent of 'fighting the last war'. That means businesses will be preparing to confront a situation that isn't likely to happen again very soon. And that will prevent them from making logical and bottom-line driven decisions. It's far better, by contrast, to embrace whatever automation can help in the near term (while the pandemic is still a factor), while weighing (but not rushing into) solutions focused on post-pandemic operations.

The Bottom Line

There's little doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic is going to put RPA at the center of most post-pandemic business continuity plans. Even IBM seems to recognize this, with their recent acquisition of WDG Automation being driven in part by the pandemic's market forces. But how businesses go about their adoption processes is going to play a big role in how well the technology serves the purposes it's being tapped for. And as long as their plans are slow, deliberate, and future-focused – they should get some major benefits out of what is undoubtedly an unfortunate sudden necessity.



Tue December 08, 2020 09:54 AM

Great article Andrej. Spoken like someone who's been through it!