Since the initial outset of the 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the world has been adapting to living with the virus on a day-to-day-basis. Much as we face new norms in our social lives, the work we conduct daily is transforming.
Companies find themselves strapped for resources to meet changing demands. Their long-term strategic initiatives have been derailed. In many cases, their operations were completely shut down when the virus hit. As one customer told me, any process that required paper just completely paused for weeks. Weeks. Most of the world’s businesses simply were not prepared for a disruption of this scale.
Leadership needs to ensure that they’re never caught this unprepared ever again. They must harden their processes to withstand any interruption and guarantee business continuity. At the same time, leaders realize that flexibility in operations will allow them to react to the changing environment around them. They need the C-suite to buy—and employees to embrace—automation as an enabler rather than a threat. And not just to get through the challenges of today but also to thrive when the economy recovers.
In this world, some things will snap back to previous form, while others will be forever changed. Playing it safe now, understandable as it might feel to do so, is often the worst option.
McKinsey Digital, Digital Strategy in a Time of Crisis
So how do leaders pull this off?
Over the last four months, I have spoken to dozens of customers about the challenges they are facing and have tracked the general sentiment of the world’s most influential publications and thought leaders. One theme has emerged clearly: it’s time to automate.
We’re no longer just responding to a crisis. We are entering an accelerated pace of digital transformation. Enterprises now must work to glean the lessons learned from the early days of the pandemic to prepare for the next normal.
From McKinsey & Company to Harvard Business Review to Deloitte to Forrester Research and others, reports show automation as the key to short-term survival and long-term success in the new future of work. In fact, these experts point to the pandemic as a key factor in accelerated digital transformation plans, with automation as the technology at the center of it all.
Report after report indicates that automating today ensures the business continuity needed to survive and the adaptiveness to thrive in the new reality.
Thankfully, companies won’t need to reinvest in their underlying technology stack. Their core enterprise applications remain vital systems of record. What they have discovered is that automation technologies can augment these legacy systems to bring the adaptiveness and resiliency they seek.
Automation bridges the gaps of an existing application architecture to enable lines of business owners, as well as IT, to design new workflows in hours rather than months.
A hyperautomation platform—with robotic process automation (RPA) at the center, flanked by artificial intelligence (AI), process discovery, and citizen development and analytics capabilities—brings together key technologies and capabilities into one place.
To rationalize the general sentiment of the market, I’d like to share the research I’ve gathered in the past few months. Three main observations have surfaced from industry experts and reports:
Agility and adaptability are essential for crisis response and planning.
Business resiliency and continuity were undervalued and are now in prime focus to ensure survival in changing markets.
Leadership must embrace automation and show employees its potential in order to increase adoption.
As leaders turn their focus from crisis management to longer-term planning, let’s dig into what experts have to say about why it's time to automate.
To quote a recent McKinsey & Company article: “In a world of extreme uncertainty, a rigid, deterministic plan won’t be right for very long.”
The luxury of time has disappeared, and with it predictability. Experts are pointing to a common need in response: adaptability. According to McKinsey & Company and Deloitte, automation technology provides the flexibility and scalability to meet business needs as companies move from playing defense into recovering.
In his recent article for the San Antonio Business Journal, CEO Coach and Vistage Master Chair Tom Cuthbert refers to this tipping point as the “explore and test" stage of recovery, followed by strategy planning, capturing of new business, and sustaining growth.
He writes: “Smart companies will rework their sales playbooks, rebuild business plans and reinvent marketing strategies.”
New tools are giving C-suite leaders a way to respond to the new pressure to drive operational and cost efficiencies. According to DMEXCO, 70% of executives in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland report that the pandemic is accelerating their digital transformation.
In response, companies must think about automation strategies in terms of weeks, not months or years, according to the McKinsey Digital Digital strategy in a time of crisis report:
"If a silver lining can be found, it might be in the falling barriers to improvisation and experimentation that have emerged among customers, markets, regulators, and organizations. In this unique moment, companies can learn and progress more quickly than ever before."
To support this new pace of digital transformation, according to McKinsey & Company, business leaders must develop multiple long-term strategies centered on automation tools. They must prepare for a variety of possible crises, with automation at the core of each response.
I’ve seen this shift begin in nearly every industry in the last few months. Hyperautomation tools have been particularly useful for call centers, many of which have implemented AI to handle basic support requests so humans can focus on fostering better connections with customers.
In the travel industry, AI, RPA, and other automation tools have made it easier for agencies to handle cancellations and changes. In health care, customer service automation has improved providers’ ability to keep up with high call volumes.
Outside of customer service use cases, automation has helped manufacturers shift to remote operations by supporting employee access from mobile devices and home laptops.
Hyperautomation tools are, at their core, uniquely able to provide scalability, flexibility, and speed to make each company, department, and team crisis-proof.
Reports from Forrester Research, as well as research from news outlets such as The Hill, indicate that companies must foster business resiliency through new technologies such as AI and RPA to avoid losing ground in future crises.
Agile technologies will prove essential in making companies adaptable and fast enough to stay afloat during “gray swan” events—events that are high impact but infrequent—such as pandemics and recessions.
By investing in automation technologies in the wake of COVID-19, business leaders ensure that their core operations are supported even if employees are unable to work at full capacity. They foster greater business resiliency by lowering dependence on manual processes and paperwork.
As The Hill reports, COVID-19 will continue to trigger economic distress, and successful companies will look to AI to reduce labor dependencies in production pipelines, driving home the need for automation-centered crisis response strategies. Such planning will lessen vulnerabilities to future pandemics and human-centered crises by ensuring that core operations can continue even if human labor is disrupted by quarantines or other disruptions.
The Forrester report, The COVID-19 Crisis Will Accelerate Enterprise Automation Plans, goes on to indicate that automation provides a reliable backup to operations when onshore and outsourced labor forces can’t support them:
"Enterprises across the world are watching as large segments of their human workforce and human-driven value chains are suspended. As we emerge from the crisis, firms will look to automation as a way to mitigate the risks that future crises pose to the supply and productivity of human workers. They will invest more in cognitive capabilities and applied AI, industrial robotics, service robots, and RPA."
These new automation capabilities will standardize processes and fuel digital transformation to drive business resiliency and continuity in future uncertainty.
In the sage words of Managing in Turbulent Times author Peter F. Drucker: “The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence itself, but to act with yesterday’s logic.”
Research clearly backs this up and goes on to say that the new, strategic digital transformation projects are successful when they are driven from the top with adoption from the workforce carefully considered and planned.
The "Digital strategy in a time of crisis" report from McKinsey Digital indicates that companies that hold on too hard to the legacy systems that sustained them in the past will fight to match the rate of change and disruption happening around them. To keep up with their competitors—and the rapid digital transformation their peers are embracing as a result of COVID-19—leaders must fully embrace automation.
Simply put, the old way of doing work isn’t working, and the future of business promises a better way. Leaders must answer the call.
"With jobs at the heart of how work gets done, leaders have an unprecedented opportunity to reimagine them by rearranging work and having employees take on different responsibilities to better respond to the evolving needs of their organizations, customers, and employees."
— Harvard Business Review, "How the Coronavirus Crisis Is Redefining Jobs"
In the C-suite, chief financial officers (CFOs), and chief information officers (CIOs) are pushing for change because of cost pressures from the pandemic. They must build capacity to carry the company forward with strained resources while staying competitive in the market, and automation is the way to ensure both.
Because of automation’s ability to drive cost and efficiency gains at scale, Forrester states in The COVID-19 Crisis Will Accelerate Enterprise Automation Plans report that automation is a strategic initiative during this and future crises and should be prioritized in board-level discussions.
But leadership buy-in alone will not do. To truly capitalize on automation, companies must also bring their employees along. Thankfully, it shouldn’t be hard to do.
Even before COVID hit, companies saw an uptick in employee interest in automation. According to The Right Technologies Unlock the Potential of the Digital Workplace report by Aruba, 71% of employees wanted the future of work to be fully automated, even before the pandemic made remote work more common.
Employee hunger for automation is only growing, and your people are demanding tools that support flexibility and diversity in the new normal of work. This enthusiasm and openness to new technologies can be leveraged to help employees learn new skills that support automation and innovation throughout the company, according to the "Digital strategy in a time of crisis" report by McKinsey Digital.
Leading companies are ushering in automation for employees through a combination of top-down corporate and bottom-up employee-led approaches. This hybrid strategy enables companies to harness the power of automation by targeting high-volume processes that run across the business, while also empowering citizen developers to automate their own long-tail work.
Automation at scale is easier to achieve than ever before and is more vital to success than we’ve seen in previous eras. In the past, digital transformation was difficult to undergo because it was done in silos between departments. Now, with top-down boardroom initiatives, along with employee buy-in, automation at scale is possible and is key to enterprise survival.
If reports around COVID-19 and the economic downturn have taught us one thing, it’s that companies shouldn’t wait to adapt until they’re in the heat of a crisis. By adopting automation technology now, businesses ensure that they will not only be prepared the next time around but will also be better positioned for the recovery that will come from today’s crisis.
However, many companies don’t have the resources in house to drive automation at the level needed. That’s where the UiPath Platform built for hyperautomation and our network of expert partners come in.
As you undertake this new chapter of digital transformation and innovation, we’re here to provide you with the tools you need to automate today and thrive tomorrow.
I spoke about this topic in detail during the UiPath Live: It's Time to Automate show. If you missed the live show, you can still access the recording and watch at your convenience.
Editor's note: The follow-up to this article is now available - A Simple Framework for Determining What Enterprise Processes You Should Automate.