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IA: The Barriers, Benefits and Future

Duncan MacRae

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Intelligent automation seems destined to be one of the great technological disrupters, but what is it and how is it changing the way we do business?

Intelligent automation (IA), the combination of artificial intelligence and automation, is beginning to transform every sector of the global economy, and it’s expected to be one of the most significant technological disrupters since the creation of the internet.

IA is an advanced technology that can transform how people work. And, although the use of technology to improve productivity is hardly a new concept, IA’s ability to combine human and machine capabilities is.

Why embrace IA?

As with most technologies, there are those who will readily embrace IA and those who will be wary of implementing it. And, as with the adoption of any new tech, there are benefits to be had and challenges to be overcome.

So what are the actual benefits of IA? “The obvious answer is efficiency”, says Neil Ward-Dutton, VP, AI and DX European Research Practices at IDC.

“But there’s more to it than that. Organisations can increase customer satisfaction (by helping customer-facing personnel complete tasks more quickly, and so spend more time with customers); increase quality (reducing occurrences of human errors, which can happen a lot in routine work where it can be difficult to concentrate for long periods); increase transparency; reduce risk; and improve regulatory compliance.”

IA can allow workers to focus on higher value tasks that humans do best, such as problem solving, empathy and creativity. Technology can focus on speeding up the process of managing mundane and highly repetitive activities.

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) vendor, Kyron Systems, found in a recent survey that more than 40% of those they interviewed are fed up completing inefficient and repetitive tasks. According to accountancy software firm Sage, companies are currently spending an average of 120 working days a year on this sort of work. It’s hardly surprising that employees are sick to their back teeth of mind-numbing chores.

Ultimately, IA can lead to cost savings as well. As work is automated, production can be completed quicker and run 24/7, leading to increased output and a fatter bank balance.

What’s the current state of IA adoption?

Putting a finger on exactly how prevalent IA adoption is can be a challenge in itself, as there is no 100% clear-cut definition.

Ward-Dutton says: “IA isn’t very consistently defined, but if we assume that it needs to involve some use of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) technology alongside other automation technology – RPA, for example – then it’s not very prevalent at all – yet.”

So what’s putting people off?

Despite all the good stuff, not all companies are getting on-board the IA bandwagon just yet.

Right now the biggest barriers are all related to skills availability. Companies are concerned about the potential cost (not particularly of the technology, but of consulting/expert personnel), and also as yet unsure of what kinds of applications are going to get them the best return on investment, according to Ward-Dutton.

How can we overcome the barriers?

“Investment in and adoption of IA technologies are occurring at a rapid pace, but many organisations are struggling to demonstrate significant impact,” says Cliff Justice, KPMG in the US, principal and head of Intelligent Automation.

“Without a holistic digital transformation strategy that underpins IA investments across an entire organisation, these projects are stunted in pilot mode and fail to deliver the intended results. Yet, when implemented with a clear vision and integrated approach, IA is propelling businesses, not only with a competitive business edge but financial success.”

To get the most value out of IA, companies need to make sure they think through all aspects of IA implementation – not just the technology. Ward-Dutton advises: “But also take into account the nature of the process(es) being explored, the nature of any data that will be required to help train the technology, the people currently carrying out the tasks being explored and their skills and experience, the landscape of systems underpinning the process(es), and so on.”

The future of IA?

At the moment, the UK is at the forefront of IA adoption, according to IDC – although it’s early days. “In terms of industries, we’re seeing interest from across the board: not only in the places one might expect (financial services, for example) but also in industries as diverse as automotive manufacturing, healthcare, retail, and utilities,” Ward-Dutton explains.

IDC expects that the combination of RPA and AI/ML, in particular, will become commonplace in businesses in the coming two to three years.

Ward-Dutton says: “RPA technology is already well-established in large enterprises in particular, with mid-sized businesses now adopting enthusiastically too. The integration of AI/ML with RPA is still very much a niche pursuit – though we know from our research that more half of UK organisations are planning to do this.”

Since 2015, analyst firm Forrester has tracked the impact that automation technologies are having on employment.

While popular assessments insist that nearly half of jobs will be destroyed, Forrester analysts believe that humans and machines will collaborate in many workflows and that the automation economy will create new jobs.

“In 2019, we’ll see more creation than in 2018 (2%), as CIOs hire bot masters to manage RPA bots, creatives and designers to improve user interfaces of chatbots and voice skills, and process experts to solve business problems,” a recent Forrester report states.

As for jobs lost, they won’t necessarily drive up the unemployment rate if labour participation rates remain relatively low. The end result of this growth in automation will be a benefit in employee experience as rote tasks get handed off to able bots.

Organisations will invest increasingly in structures and frameworks, Forrester suggests. “By the end of 2019, we predict that 40% of enterprises will have automation centres and frameworks in place.

“Proliferating automation platforms (from RPA to digital process automation (DPA) to business process management (BPM) to ML and beyond) make aligning the right solution to the right use case challenging. In response, companies will invest in centralised coordination centres – automation centres or centres of excellence – designed based on unifying frameworks.

“These automation centres will determine how to apply different automation technologies to various business problems while driving base practices and technical compatibility and integration.”

Other Forrester predictions for the year’s end include one in 10 startups beginning life with more digital workers than human ones. Today’s most successful companies generally operate with fewer employees than those of the past, states Forrester.

“Consider that Kodak at its peak in 1973 employed 120,000, but when Facebook bought Instagram in 2012, the photo-sharing site employed only 13 workers.

“In 2019, we predict that one in 10 startups – operating in a more agile, lean, and scalable fashion – will look at the world through the lens of tasks, not jobs, and will build business models around automation-first principles.”

These and other developments in automation will continue to reshape how we all do business. While hype around IA remains a concern for some, there are so many practical, real-world use cases that the automation revolution will only accelerate throughout 2019 and beyond.

Duncan MacRae

Editor

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