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COVID-19 Driving Increased Robotic Process Automation Adoption

Cloud AutomationNot surprisingly, the pandemic is a forcing function that companies are leveraging to streamline operations, conserve cash, and insulate the bottom line by deploying more automation.

With the availability of effective vaccines on the horizon, the world may soon get a reprieve from the COVID-19 pandemic. Even so, the impact on the global economy will be felt for years and is only now beginning to be understood. According to multiple reports, Jerome Powell, the chairman of the US Federal Reserve, said that the economy, as we knew it, is likely over. Specifically, telework and automation have changed, and will continue to change, the way millions of people do their jobs.

According to the business news channel CNBC Power said, “We’re not going back to the same economy. We’re recovering, but to a different economy and it will be one that is more leveraged to technology … I think you’ll see more telework, you’ll see probably the acceleration of automation. All of that was in the process of happening, but you’re going to see much more of it.”

RPA Taking Center Stage

Primary among the automation technologies companies are a evaluating is Robotic Process Automation, better known as RPA. At its core, RPA is about using automation in the form of bots (not mechanical robots, but software robots) to perform repetitive tasks like filling out forms, looking up and collating information to create things like customer profiles, or generating routine reports using multiple data sources. Many routine information gathering, sharing, and sorting tasks across a variety of business processes can be automated using RPA.

The beauty of RPA from a technological standpoint is it can do of these things at the presentation layer of the application, according to the global consulting and business advisory firm, Chazey Partners. That means RPA can mimic a human user by using the application's existing connections and integrations to do its job. And, unlike macros and scripts, it can be taught by example how to perform an action and, though the incorporation of machine learning, get "smarter" as time goes on.

The benefits of this are obvious. Organizations can save a lot of money by executing the same tasks with fewer employees while improving the accuracy, timeliness, and efficiency of those tasks. When combined with other technologies like AI, optical character recognition (OCR), natural language processing (NLP), and chat bots, business processes (as opposed to just isolated workflows) such as invoicing, employee onboarding, compliance reporting, or payroll payment can be automated with RPA.

Insulating organizations from future global events that cause major disruption to their workforce is another attractive feature of the technology.

Soaring Adoption Rates

According to IT research firm Gartner, half of all healthcare providers in the US will be investing in RPA next year. This is up from just five percent in 2020.

“Cost optimization is a consistently recurring theme among healthcare providers,” said Anurag Gupta, a Gartner research vice president. “The money that RPA saves by not having to spend as much on an unreformed process translates into cash that is available for front-end clinical functions, which is especially important while healthcare organizations combat the COVID-19 crisis."

Gartner predicts the global RPA software market will reach $1.89 billion in 2021, an increase of 19.5 percent from 2020. Even in the face of "economic pressures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the RPA market is still expected to grow at double-digit rates through 2024." By 2022, they forecast that the vast majority of large organizations around the world will have adopted RPA in some form.

And it's not just the big boys. Middle market companies also will be exploring RPA, said Kirstie Tiernan, a principal with financial advisory firm BDO, in a April blog post.

"The pressures of normal business operations have only been magnified by the current climate," said Tiernan. "Many companies have experienced significant revenue reductions and are under pressure to curb costs and do more with fewer resources to survive."

More vulnerable to market forces, these firms need to meet customer expectations and maintain the ability to respond quickly to industry and market changes all while cutting costs to stay solvent. "Adaptability calls for both cost efficiency and operational efficiency—which is where Robotic Process Automation (RPA) comes in," she said.

Executive buy-in
Six months ago, said Craig Le Clair, a vice president and principal analyst at the technology research firm Forrester, automation discussions were met with polite smiles from business leaders and boards of directors. Today, not so much. "Now automation has moved to heated board-level discussions that often end with statements such as 'If we don’t automate everything we can, we may not survive'", said Le Clair in a blog post.

To meet these demands, Le Clair predicts the market will respond by embedding RPA functionality in intelligent automation suites that combine multiple technologies such as business process automation, machine learning, low-code/no-code programming platforms, analytics, and distributed ledgers like Blockchain to create self-learning workflows. The goal is to create semi-autonomous business processes that adapt on their own as demands and needs change.

RPA adoption also is being driven by the success of organizations that deployed automation technologies pre-COVID-19, said Ernst & Young. These companies are "likely experiencing fewer problems with keeping a steady workflow, maintaining productivity, aiding customers and supporting staff."

To recover from the pandemic as quickly as possible, E&Y recommends that companies invest in RPA now to avoid having to hire temporary labor when the economy rebounds.

"As organizations are getting back on track, now is the time to introduce a digital workforce to support your organization and to help deal with your backlog of work," E&Y said. "It will also prove useful in overcoming future crises ... RPA is simply the best and most flexible way to perform repetitive human-driven processes. It allows you to hand over critical and tough manual tasks and it frees up time for more meaningful work."

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