Business process management (BPM), robotic process automation (RPA), intelligent process automation (IPA) – each represents a giant step forward for enterprise operations in terms of automation. South African businesses are moving slowly, however, now is the time to accelerate this adoption. Even as local organisations begin to implement RPA and understand its impact on people, processes and operations, IPA is setting new horizons.
RPA reaches across multiple systems simply, easily and cost-effectively to automate repetitive rules-based tasks. But, as this article from IBM points out, add unstructured data (say an email attachment) into the process or change the rules of the process and RPA stalls. With the entry of cognitive computing – Artificial Intelligence (AI)-driven chatbots, advanced analytics, natural language processing and machine learning – many of these challenges can be overcome. Add AI to RPA and intelligent automation is born, ushering in a next level of human-less end-to-end automation.
What does that look like? Chatbots replace human agents in call centres, identifying customer needs through a few choice questions and a growing ability to interpret sentiment, then calling an RPA process to complete the request. What might this mean for the current human workforce?
At Amazon, RPA and analytics combine to drive demand forecasting and planning, previously a human task. The reality is that RPA + AI can and will rapidly begin to replace human workers. Already, a bot is less costly to acquire and deploy than an entry or mid-level admin clerk or call centre agent. A bot is also less complex to manage and maintain and performs consistently well 24×7.
McKinsey describes IPA as the core of the next-generation operating model. It lists five key technologies as the foundation of IPA, namely RPA, smart workflow, machine learning, natural-language generation and cognitive agents. These technologies will automate, interpret, learn, make decisions, track and drive processes, and facilitate workflow between systems and humans.
Despite the ease with which IPA can be deployed – it requires no changes to the IT landscape of the organisation, just the acquisition of a bot license – many South African organisations remain unaware of its impact. Within five years, IPA is likely to be mainstream. Organisations that are left behind will find themselves quickly eliminated by more efficient, effective, creative competitors.
The way forward? Companies need to identify which processes can be automated. Pilots or proofs of concept can show business value and Return On Investment (ROI) within weeks. These successes need to be replicated and IPA technologies added to drive deeper and broader automation. As the tasks of the human workforce are taken over by IPA, the human workforce will be freed up to do more creative, higher value tasks, for which they may need to acquire new skills.
Traditionally, adoption of automation is challenged by cost of human capital, categorically in developing countries where human capital is in abundance. However, IPA has crossed this tipping point as operational cost of a cognitive bot is becoming lesser than human resource for similar work. The next era of digital workforce will be dominated by intelligent cognitive bots and will have major influence on human resources and skill development. However, the extent of this impact on entire socioeconomic landscape is yet to be seen. As IPA and other new age technologies become easier and easier to deploy enterprises can enjoy benefits without burning money or losing late night sleep. This is a tipping point for developing countries like South Africa – making IPA the inevitable.
By Sumit Kumar Sharma, Enterprise Architect, In2IT Technologies