More automation to suddenly look like a jolly good idea as businesses struggle through coronavirus crisis, say analysts

I, for one, welcome our robot replacements... Wait, no I don't

Businesses should revisit automation with renewed vigour as the COVID-19 crisis abates, according to Forrester.

In a paper describing the top-level response to the pandemic and the resulting attitudes to emerging technologies, the analyst noted that pre-coronavirus, 57 per cent of global data and analytics decision-makers at enterprises said their company had implemented automation technologies or was in the process of doing so.

"However," it said, "many of these automation initiatives suffered from the problem of automation sprawl, ending up as disconnected, localized islands of automation across the enterprise. In the post-pandemic recovery, enterprises must revisit their automation plans."

Companies should also re-evaluate and re-scope existing automation plans to serve the recovery cycle. This means assessing localised investments in chatbots, AI, or robotic process automation (RPA) within specific business functions, or catering to certain customer segments, for broad-based applicability and value.

"Enterprises across the world are watching as large segments of their human workforce and human-driven value chains are suspended," the paper said. "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 robotic process automation."

Part of the reason is to plan for predictable but unusual events such as COVID-19. "CEOs will demand that their business leaders strategically focus on risk mitigation and recovery from global 'white swan' events," Forrester said. "Investments in automation can remove some risk of dependence on humans and adapt without intervention to demand fluctuations."

Interest in automation among investors has not been dampened by the pandemic or falling stock markets. In the UK, RPA specialist Blue Prism secured £100m in funding even after the outbreak was reaching its peak across Europe and around the world.

Last week, Ginni Rometty, former CEO and current executive chairman of IBM, said that businesses might look to remove middle management and that customers were looking to accelerate automation and modernise applications as trade returns following the crisis.

But Forrester went further, saying that manufacturing and retail sectors would look to bring their supply chains closer to key markets to avoid disruption from events like COVID-19. They would move away from just-in-time supply and toward "greater global diversification and technology-enabled demand responsiveness using big data, AI, and cloud technologies".

If businesses do tackle automation with renewed focus as economies reopen, it won't be as easy as flicking a switch. Success depends on getting a grip on organisation-wide data and understanding business processes accurately and in detail. IT will be called on to help achieve both goals. ®

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