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RPA adoption to expand amid business resiliency needs

Leslie Joseph, principal analyst at Forrester, expects a surge in RPA demand, with financial services, manufacturing, energy and utilities, and logistics outpacing other verticals.

The COVID-19 pandemic has surfaced a new use case for robotic process automation: business resiliency. Interest in creating digital workforces that can keep toiling through a public health crisis will spark a wave of RPA adoption, according to Leslie Joseph, principal analyst at Forrester Research, a market research firm based in Cambridge, Mass. The resiliency factor has implications for IT service providers and outsourcing firms, which use the technology in-house and deploy it for customers.

In this Q&A, Joseph discusses his recent report on the effects of COVID-19 on enterprise automation, which, along with security and managed public cloud services, is expected to see continuing customer demand amid the pandemic.

Business continuity (BC) planning, at least on the tech side, has tended to focus on backup and disaster recovery. Given COVID-19, and the potential for similar events in the future, do you think RPA will become a standard part of enterprise BC plans?

Leslie Joseph: The COVID-19 crisis has broadened our appreciation for the nature and scope of risk. In this context, a digital workforce of bots represents not just a cost-takeout opportunity, but also a way to keep enterprise processes running when your human employees are stranded at home. Bots don't fall ill. They don't need to stay home. Moreover, intelligent automation (IA) technologies -- RPA plus AI -- are becoming more capable of handling unstructured data. This enables them to take on more and more complex processes that would have otherwise needed human workers.

My report predicts that RPA and IA technologies will see significant growth in the aftermath of the crisis as companies look to shift spend away from rehiring their human workforce and into digital or hybrid workforces. I am beginning to clearly see this interest manifest itself in my conversations with business leaders and vendors.

I already see, anecdotally, a large uptick in appetite for digital and hybrid workforces in BPO firms.
Leslie JosephPrincipal analyst, Forrester Research

Will we see some industries step up their use of RPA and automation compared to others, or do you see greater RPA adoption across the board?

Joseph: I expect the surge in demand to manifest across industries, although those verticals that already have a high penetration of RPA, such as financial services, manufacturing, energy and utilities, and logistics, will grow faster.

I'd like to point out two specific sectors where I see a surge in demand for RPA/IA. The first is the public sector. Several government entities struggle with outdated systems and processes that are now creaking under the weight of higher demand. A case in point is the situation with unemployment offices in the U.S. that are struggling with ancient COBOL-based software. However, for these public sector entities and government agencies, the need to reduce headcount will often be less of a driving factor for automation compared to improving service quality or coping with demand.

The second industry segment where I anticipate significant growth for automation is the business process outsourcing (BPO) industry. The industry has already struggled for years with eroding margins and narrowing wage gaps between client and destination geographies. COVID-19 has drastically impacted their business model, with many having to transition a large chunk of their manpower to [work-from-home] modes or, in some cases, house them within their office facilities. I already see, anecdotally, a large uptick in appetite for digital and hybrid workforces in BPO firms.

As automation eliminates some jobs, will it create others?

Joseph: Yes. Forrester predicts that by 2027, 29% of existing U.S. jobs will be lost to automation, while the automation economy will create 13% equivalent of 'new' jobs. Some of these … jobs are already emerging, such as data scientists and automation managers. Others are yet to emerge -- jobs for which we don't even have names yet. AI ethics auditors? Knowledge curators?

We expect new jobs centered around human-machine collaboration to emerge in areas such as telemedicine or synthetic biology. That said, the most interesting aspect of this change will be in the transformation of existing jobs to suit the new world of automation.

Humans will have to reskill themselves to effectively work side by side with -- and even be managed by -- bots, algorithms and intelligent machines. This is a challenge that demands attention across four axes of people and skills, organizational design, leadership and trust, as defined in Forrester's robotic quotient framework. Most enterprises are ill prepared for this transformation.

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