The COVID-19 outbreak and ongoing recovery is bringing a new enterprise mindset to automation, placing an emphasis on speed, business resilience and improved orchestration.
The prospects for partner business growth seem promising as organizations accelerate automation to deal with the potential for future lockdowns. But automation consultants and integrators are likely to encounter new priorities among customers pursing robotic process automation (RPA) and intelligent automation (IA), which brings together RPA and AI. The still-unfolding RPA market trends could change the game for partners.
They might, for example, find customers reimagining RPA centers of excellence (CoEs) as faster-paced automation strike teams. Work will likely shift from devising governance strategies to coding software bots to speed up automation. And partners can also expect to see a greater emphasis on coordinating isolated automation efforts and making sure such projects are in sync with an enterprise's broader digital transformation programs.
A May 2020 report from Forrester Research asserted the pandemic has resulted in a shift in "automation psychology" that will spark an 18- to-24-month period of rapidly accelerating IA. That surge will follow a multiquarter pause in activity, according to the market research firm, based in Cambridge, Mass.
RPA market trends: New automation groups, priorities
In the coming market, partners could encounter changes in how enterprises organize their RPA work. The creation of strike teams is one such direction, noted Craig Le Clair, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester and author of the 2019 book Invisible Robots in the Quiet of the Night. He said the center of excellence term has become dated and brings with it a reputation for heaviness or excessive centralization and bureaucracy.
"If you look at how projects are being done at companies, they tend to be more federated and driven within the business," he said. "So, the strike team is meant to reflect the agility needed in the post-pandemic era." He noted the pressure on companies to automate at a much faster clip than previously anticipated.
The new thinking is also influencing customers' automation roadmaps. Projects that provide more operational resilience and address business continuity concerns -- an investment to automate a more localized supply chain, for instance -- will move to the top of the list, Le Clair said. Ditto for automation efforts that support remote business. Examples could include remote deposit projects for banks or e-forms and e-signature initiatives across a range of industries.
"Investment in automation, in particular, is crucial to supporting growth and innovation, in turn, improving business resiliency and leading to cost-savings and efficiency gains," said David Schatsky, managing director at Deloitte.
In addition, RPA is getting a lift from digital transformation initiatives, some of which are still going forward despite the economic downturn.
David SchatskyManaging director, Deloitte
"RPA has become a major part of digital transformation, which is continuing to see significant investment across industries," Schatsky said. He cited Deloitte's digital maturity study, which found respondents, on average, planned a 15% boost in their digital transformation investments in 2020. The study, published in May, polled 1,200 U.S.-based executives.
Schatsky said companies are automating processes across a range of business functions. Popular internal business functions include IT and finance, while consumer-facing processes include customer service and order fulfillment.
Processes that span more than one department are also ripe for automation. The purchase-to-pay process, which links an organization's procurement department with accounts payable, provides one example. Rapid Deployment Solutions (RDS) Inc., a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., consulting firm is focusing on this area. The company provides strategy, planning and implementation services around content and records management systems.
Greg Kowalik, president at RDS, said the procure-to-pay process is often very paper-heavy, adding that a few companies -- particularly, those still processing paper invoices -- have reached out to RDS during the pandemic. "They see the problem and the problem is much magnified in the current environment," he said.
RDS earlier this month entered a reseller agreement with Nipendo, a company that provides an RPA platform for purchase-to-pay process automation.
Eyal Rosenberg, CEO and co-founder at Nipendo, said new sales prospects now have a better understanding of RPA's value due to COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdown. Existing customers, meanwhile, are expanding their use of the company's purchase-to-pay RPA platform. Rosenberg said customers' management teams noticed their RPA-based procurement and invoicing processes were operating normally, despite the pandemic. That observation left an impression.
"What we are seeing is a massive ramp up with existing customers to add more spend categories and add more suppliers," Rosenberg said.
Filling the talent gap
Across those processes, the nature of the typical project is likely to change in light of COVID-19. Le Clair said RPA consultants and integrators have been working with customers to create operating models for supporting RPA. They've also provided assistance in launching automation CoEs. That focus will shift to bot development, as enterprises with limited in-house automation expertise will turn to outside parties for assistance. Le Clair said specialized consultants, integrators and contractors have been filling the skills gap, and will continue to do so, as organizations ramp up their automation efforts.
Shail Khiyara, a thought leader in automation technologies and recent executive with RPA vendors Automation Anywhere, Blue Prism and UiPath, also noted the lack of in-house automation skills among businesses. He said the hypergrowth of micro-adoptions -- deployments of fewer than 10 software bots -- "has not led to the hypergrowth in talent available, despite many free courses and university programs available."
That dichotomy "still fuels the need for RPA consultants," Khiyara said. Even developments such as automated process mining and process discovery, which take a bite out of some consulting services, haven't eliminated the need for many other areas of RPA consulting, he noted. He cited advisory services as an example.
The demand for development services, meanwhile, could stand consultants in good stead. But their ability to demonstrate bot-building competency will be key.
"I think one of the really important skills needed is being ... conversant in IA," Le Clair said, citing participation in the automation platform vendors' training academies as a step in that direction.
"It is in their [consulting firms'] interest to have as many developers as they can proficient in the platforms," he said.
But automation programs that focus exclusively on development are potentially dangerous, Le Clair added. Organizations risk loosening governance in their haste to create more software bots. He said consultants can help customers make sure they have the appropriate controls in place, but noted the responsibility ultimately belongs to the customers.
Moving toward better orchestration
Partners might also find business helping clients improve their orchestration of software bots as deployments grow.
"A very common goal of companies adopting RPA is to scale up from a handful of isolated deployments to major, cross-enterprise usage, in order to maximize the benefits of automation," Schatsky noted.
Better coordination, particularly under the umbrella of digital transformation, has downstream business affects.
"In our digital maturity survey, we have seen that companies that pursue more of an overarching digital transformation strategy, as opposed to individual projects, perform better financially -- above industry average -- and experience more comprehensive business benefits, which ultimately support resilience in times of disruption," he said.
Schatsky, however, pointed out that automation is just one part of the digital transformation journey. He said companies that invest across a range of technology-related capabilities and assets, such as data mastery, infrastructure and business model adaptability, in addition to automation, are significantly more likely to obtain the full benefits of digital transformation.
Khiyara cited more interest among enterprises in pursuing better orchestration. Indeed, isolated or unidentified bots can create challenges for organizations.
"Tight orchestration, bot identification and bot pulse are all of critical interest to enterprises," he said. "You have the ability to universally manage and identify the talent in your organization that interacts with your systems of record. Wouldn't you expect the same for bots?"