Update: Content was revamped on July 28th, 2020, to better reflect the current and upcoming automation trends.
Like any technology, automation is constantly evolving. In 2018, we watched the rise of robotic process automation (RPA) and the incorporation of cognitive technologies like AI. As we continue to move through 2020, which of these trends will remain relevant—and what will the state of automation be in 2021? Here are six automation trends that are worth keeping an eye on.
1. A stronger focus on delivering high-quality experiences—versus only automating rote work.
Initially, businesses saw automation as a means of eliminating repetitive, manual tasks—and this perspective still dominates today. According to a recent Capgemini report, automation is mostly limited to back and middle-office functions. That’s the low-hanging fruit. But when it comes to scaling these use cases and automating front-office functions, many companies are struggling.
During the remainder of 2020, expect to see businesses shift towards a more holistic view of automation. Instead of automating one or two isolated tasks, they’ll approach it from an experience perspective: how can we use automation to make Experience X better? Faster? More delightful?
(This isn’t to say that back-office processes aren’t an important part of creating experiences; they absolutely are. But these behind-the-scenes automations by themselves aren’t enough—they need to be woven together into holistic, coherent journeys.)
As Samuel Stern of Forrester notes, this focus on experience won’t be limited to just the customer. Over the last couple of years, the employee experience has also moved to the forefront:
“Companies that care about customer experience—and almost every executive at least pays lip service to customer focus these days—know that their potential to deliver high-quality customer experiences is limited by the quality of their employee experiences.”
In other words, companies that care about their customer experiences have a mandate to create excellent employee experiences, too. In 2020 and 2021, expect to see businesses deploy automation as a key plank of their experience creation strategy—for customers and employees.
2. The Head of Business Systems will become the greatest change-maker in the organization.
Over the past twenty years, there’s been an accelerated shift towards digital within the enterprise. Digital transformation, going digital-first—no matter what you call it, the undeniable truth is that there’s a fundamental difference in how businesses operate today.
From a practical standpoint, this means businesses have a lot more tools at their disposal. The average enterprise now uses 1,935 apps.
This app explosion has birthed changes in leadership, as well. Today, many companies have a dedicated Head of Business Systems who is responsible for making strategic decisions about which tools to invest in. Broadly speaking, they have a mandate to:
- Identify appropriate solutions and technology for scale
- Increase the ROI of systems and technology
- Ensure project success by understanding the needs of business teams and leadership
It’s easy to see why the Head of Business Systems is most likely to lead the charge towards greater automation. They have a vested interest in making sure that all of the apps, databases, and systems in their organization work well together, and that employees can easily work across those tools.
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3. RPA will be used in conjunction with other tools.
One of the most exciting developments in automation was the growth of RPA. According to a recent APQC study, RPA is at the core of about 69% of digital strategies.
Moving into the new year, however, organizations are beginning to encounter RPA’s weak points. Though it’s still valuable for automating a host of processes—like document processing—it can’t do everything. It can also be quite brittle.
In their quest for pervasive automations with a low total cost of ownership (TCO), I predict we’ll see more businesses using RPA+: robotic process automation in conjunction with other automation technologies. In fact, there’s already a term for this—intelligent process automation, or IPA.
Related: Everything you need to know about intelligent automation
By combining RPA with other tools like workflow orchestration and machine learning, organizations can automate across a wide range of processes. This flexibility will be especially key as businesses look to improve upon entire experiences, which often involve multiple cloud-based, on-prem, and even in-house apps.
4. Prioritizing re-usable automations instead of building them from scratch.
When it comes to automation, a big pain point for all businesses is scaling their use cases. According to our study, more than 80% of business technology professionals are already backlogged with building integrations and automations.
Related: A study on the state of business technology
Part of the problem is that automations are challenging to build. Many require custom code or scripting, and even the most user-friendly automation tools have a steep learning curve. In fact, a lack of automation talent is the #1 barrier companies face when attempting to scale their automations. When polled by Capgemini, 57% of organizations said they struggle to find talent with a deep enough understanding of automation technologies, and 40% said that a lack of technological awareness among mid-level management is hampering their attempts to scale their automations.
It’s clear that businesses need to rethink the way they build and scale their automations. In the coming year, I expect that they’ll do just that: look for ways to automate sustainably, without sapping valuable resources.
Being able to reuse already-created automations is probably the easiest way to make scaling easier (see what a community-driven automation library looks like). If you can copy an order-to-cash automation from another organization, tweak it to fit your unique needs, and implement it, you’re miles ahead compared to where you’d be if you started from scratch. You’ve saved valuable time and effort by not re-thinking the wheel entirely. That means you have more resources to automate more processes and tackle the challenge of automating multi-faceted experiences.
5. More bots that are actually useful (and maybe even a little voice)!
If businesses really want to prioritize creating great experiences, they have to meet employees where they are. And that place, overwhelmingly, is workstream collaboration tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams. Whether they want to complete a sprint, triage new leads, or approve PTO requests, employees are constantly looking for ways to turn chat apps into a work hub.
Automation is key to making these dreams reality. Here at Workato, the Intelligent Integration and Automation Platform, we found that our paid users utilizing Slack for their enterprise workflows recently increased 5x in a year, for a grand total of 380,000 Slack recipes. Likewise, companies using Microsoft Teams grew 3x on the Workato platform, which now features over 14,000 Microsoft Teams recipes. This shows that a truly useful workstream collaboration tool will help you do work in and between your apps. It’s not just about communication; it’s about executing holistic workflows in a unified UI. These workflows span three broad categories:
- Basic app integrations (like notifications);
- Native workflows (executed from inside the chat console); and
- Enterprise workflows (which require integrating with big apps like NetSuite).
The push towards workstream collaboration in the enterprise shows no signs of slowing down, but it is evolving—just as it evolved for consumers. Amazon CTO, Werner Vogel, outlined his plan to get Alexa for Business into every office. And employees are ready; they want the flexibility of asking a smart assistant to start their conference call or request time off.
In the coming year, I expect we’ll see many more automations incorporating smart assistants. As voice becomes a more popular means of doing work, automation platforms will develop connectors for heavy-duty enterprise apps. (For example, we’ve already connected Alexa and Siri to Workday—and we know that’s just the tip of the iceberg.)
6. An emphasis on intelligence—whether that’s incorporating AI into workflows themselves or using smart tech to create better automations.
Finally, cognitive technologies are set to come to the forefront of automation. It’s already fairly common to use intelligent tools—like IBM’s Watson and Salesforce’s Einstein—to power everyday workflows. I expect to see these use cases proliferate even more rapidly.
But I also expect that businesses will begin applying AI and machine learning to the process of creating automations. Because they’re faced with the challenge of scaling their automations, they need to expedite every aspect of the implementation process—including the creative parts. Cognitive technologies can easily pick up on patterns that humans might take a while to see, so they can optimize your automations for you.
On the Workato platform, this takes the form of RecipeIQ: a smart engine that analyzes every automation recipe our users build and then offers intelligent suggestions during the creation process. It’s one of our most popular features, and I think it will continue to be.
In short, 2020 and the years that follow will be critical for automation. You can expect automation to become more intelligent, more scalable, and more personable. I’m excited for what the future of automation holds—and you should be, too.