Organizations are always looking for ways to improve their operating efficiencies and next-generation automation like robots and artificial intelligence have the potential to drastically change the workplace as we know it. The capability and demand already exist for next-generation technologies enabled by abundant computing power and new software solutions. Emerging technologies in the automation arena could be the solution to many challenges businesses face today.
Information technology enables automation
Information Technology (IT) has been enabling automation for years. Many organizations have applied technology to their business processes through the use of ERP and other applications. However, many of them still have less-than-optimal business processes and apps that do not talk to each other. This predicament could be due to growth and not being able to manage growth systematically. Even organic growth can lead to a lack of attention to scalability and ‘siloed’ applications.
Organizations have responded to these challenges in various ways. For example, there are those that use next-generation operational data stores (ODSs) to help address problems of scalability, speed, latency and more.
Two types of automation tools
Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is applying technology to partially or fully automate manual, rule-based, repetitive human activities.
Intelligent Automation (IA) relates to automation that mimics human behavior such as perceiving, gathering evidence and reasoning. It is enabled by cognitive technologies that show great potential for the future and is the best fit for processes involving unstructured data from non-standard sources.
RPA solutions and their benefits
Classic processes that can benefit from RPA typically have predictable and repeated interactions with IT applications. RPA software ‘robots’ can perform routine business processes because they can mimic how people interact with applications through a user interface and follow the rules to make decisions.
Software robots are now able to perform end-to-end processes with very little human interaction. The robot-based process is more consistent, predictable, and less prone to errors. Implementation time is fairly short and carries a lower risk than big IT implementations.
In a number of organizations, automation of manual processes via transforming IT isn’t warranted due to their limited scale or value. Desktop automation tools and macros are too limited to address them effectively. RPA can fill the gap. Organizations do need to be judicious when applying RPA and make sure they are using it for the right processes.
Organizations using RPA solutions experience many benefits, including cost reduction. Robots do not require sleep meaning 24/7 operations are possible. There is more flexibility, scalability and improved accuracy.
The tasks and processes most suitable for automation are usually those least enjoyed by employees and freeing them from these tasks enables them to perform more meaningful and rewarding tasks of higher value. Monitoring and recording at every step can produce valuable data and an audit trail that supports the further improvement of processes and better regulatory compliance.
Intelligent Automation – a new breed of cognitive technologies
Non-routine tasks, such as those requiring judgment, problem-solving, intuition or persuasion, are more difficult to automate. Decreasing data storage costs and processing power have led to rapid developments in the field of AI. A new breed of cognitive technologies has capabilities like humans, including natural language processing, the ability to identify images and recognize handwriting. This is still a nascent market but pioneering organizations are already utilizing IA for several purposes.
Global banks use IA to monitor the electronic communications of their employees and improve regulatory compliance processes. Wealth management firms use IA to determine meaningful metrics, analyze portfolio data and generate natural language reports for customers based on fund performance. Insurance firms use IA to answer customer queries in real-time.
IA has extensive potential uses but solutions take longer to implement than RPA solutions and are more expensive.
Factors that make implementing automation attractive
Several factors, including the need to protect data and high labor costs, can make implementing RPA and IA attractive. These solutions can increase efficiency, prevent data theft, save costs and much more. Implementing RPA can help to free up resources and time so employees can focus on high-value, more stimulating activities. Over time, organizations could see lower turnover, higher morale, and more internal innovation as a result.
There are many reasons we will see the increased deployment of existing RPA technology. Combining robotics with artificial intelligence will allow it to be implemented in ways it couldn’t be before. Recognition of unstructured data, voice-driven interaction between humans and robots and automated analytics are all areas where we’re likely to see major development in the future world of automation.
Some limitations of automation
RPA and IA solutions cannot replicate human reasoning. RPA software robots mimic humans in how they interact with application user interfaces but they have to follow very methodical instructions. IA solutions use cognitive technologies but still require training from humans and are unable to fully replicate human reasoning at this point.
Reliability is also not perfect because poor quality input data can cause exceptions. The ways in which robots can recognize elements of application user interfaces is good but they aren’t totally impervious to system changes.
New opportunities to merge robotics and cognitive tools
While some roles in IT may be reduced by automation, others may increase because IT typically takes responsibility for governance, systems infrastructure, security, resilience and recovery. These functions are as important as ever. Software robots can interact with business applications via the user interface alone but in many cases, they are more effective when they are integrated using system APIs.
Solution providers are adding new capabilities to existing offerings all the time and exploring opportunities to merge robotics with cognitive tools.
A final word
Many organizations can benefit from automation and should be considering how to apply it. They need to assess which processes would be good candidates for automation, how automation would best support their business needs and what operating model would work for them. Identifying automation partners and planning an automation roadmap is critical for optimal implementation of automation.