While companies are currently looking to reduce the negative impact of COVID-19 on their bottom line, many are also looking at ways to reduce the impact of such an event on their future development. There are many different possibilities with remote work, a shake-up of business organization and more effective use of human resources high on the list of areas up for discussion, technology and the benefits it brings is also under examination.

Automation and Risk

In response to the health crisis, Forrester has published new research that looks at one area of technology that many companies were already looking at before outbreak, notably automation. Titled the COVID-19 Crisis Will Accelerate Enterprise Automation Plans, it says that companies will be looking to lower their exposure to future business disruption that comes from having humans executing most processes and functions within the organization. "Enterprises across the world are watching as large segments of their human workforce and human-driven value chains are suspended," the report reads. "As we emerge from the crisis, firms will look to automation 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 robotic process automation (RPA)."

Automation in Enterprises

Given the massive investment required to realize automation projects, is this a realistic assessment of what will happen with automation driven by AI and machine learning in the coming years? Deepu Prakash is SVP of process and technology at New York City-based Fingent.

He pointed out that the move to automation was already well under way and that all that was needed to push it center stage was an economic recession that would spur investments in automation. Owners and CEO's, now faced with a recession, need to find alternate ways to increase efficiency, drive revenue, and meet customer needs.

Citing a paper titled Job Polarizaiton and Jobless Recoveries by Nir Jaimovich and Henry E. Siu, Prakash points out that 88% of job the losses incurred during three different economic recessions took place in routine highly automatable occupations. “The trend is here to stay, so we can expect more investments in automation,” he said.

He added that the capabilities of automation are essential during an economic recession for the sole reason that economic uncertainty puts efficiency, accuracy, maximizing the human intellect and output, and it is necessary for survival and growth. The process of automation, he said, is effectively enabling the 4th industrial revolution (4IR). “4IR not only disrupts the industries in many ways but also it helps firms to adopt new technologies for competitive advantage,” he said.

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Automation for Business

In practical terms, this means functions as fundamental as finding, extracting and using business documents according to Sean Allen  VP of marketing at Chattanooga, Tenn.-based SkuidHe pointed out that even in the early days following many of the shelter-in-place orders, vendors were seeing a surge of enterprise businesses seeking to automate processes that broke overnight. As people were separated from their offices, files and teams, it became painfully obvious that things that were simply annoying things, two weeks later no longer worked at all.

Paper, spreadsheets and manual processes are inherently slow and inefficient for businesses, especially in a distributed environment, but then when businesses start constricting because of economic turbulence, it becomes a huge obstacle. While many companies are furloughing, laying off, or otherwise constricting resources, leaders are looking inward at how they can save time and money, and automation is often the solution. “All industries are looking to streamline processes: federal, healthcare, education, finance, energy, you name it, everyone is testing low-to-no-code solutions to automate and react quickly as priorities shift,” he said.

Turning to these approaches and application solutions was already a growing trend, but this health crisis essentially put the demand into overdrive.  He added that these businesses need solutions now and they do not always have a team of builders to digitize dozens or hundreds of processes and workflows.

Learning Opportunities

But automation is not just about mundane tasks, it is also about protecting businesses from events like the COVID-19 outbreak. Given the rate of technical progress over the past few years in the robotics industry, Debjit Mukerji who specializes in investments in autonomous systems as, a partner with Next47's global investment team in Palo Alto, Calif,  believes that many organizations will mitigate employee risk and ensure business continuity through automation. The impact will be greatest on enterprises that currently have worker-dense environments, operate in mission-critical industries where uptime is critical, or are part of the seismic shift towards a more delivery-oriented economic paradigm that has been accelerated by COVID-19.

The three essential ingredients driving enterprise adoption of robotics are cost, accuracy, and reliability. “Customers cannot afford to bring on robots that constantly make mistakes, break down, or have exotic price tags,” he said.

In the past two years, due to more accessible hardware and major developments on the AI software front, we see robotics finally hitting threshold levels of performance and cost. Robotics technology companies have also come a long way towards making the return-on-investment of their products easy to understand; and quick to set up and implement.

COVID-19 as an Enabler

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the transition to cloud and SaaS-based platform, Prasad Ramakrishnan, CIO at San Mateo, Calif.-based Freshworks, said.

In a SaaS and cloud-based environment, the key to success is effective integration between various platforms. This is where data integration and process orchestration via robotic process automation (RPA) enhances the effectiveness of the processes being automated. Most companies have already started investing in AI-based solutions, whether they know it or not, because most of the underlying tool vendors have already started including AI in their platforms.

Many industries are seeing a huge reduction in demand, and delays in processing the few orders coming in can add risk to every transaction. The use of RPA-based processes eliminates friction in the process and helps lock-in potential revenue.

In the current crisis, COVID-19 is an enabler. Enterprises that have already been exploring automation have been pushed to adopting it in workflows. For the others, the biggest impact will be organizations finally making automation decisions that they have been considering for a while.