Has COVID-19 accelerated the adoption of AI and automation?

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought such unprecedented change into our lives, on a scale that nobody could have predicted or fully prepared for, in the space of only a few short months. One of the most notable changes, which will also undoubtedly become a lasting legacy from the crisis, has been on the way we work.

As we gradually start to emerge from lockdown restrictions and the world begins to reopen, businesses need to start considering what they can do to protect themselves should another pandemic occur again in future. While there are numerous, potential ways of achieving this, the adoption of automation and autonomous technologies seems to be the biggest contender, according to a recent report made by Forrester.

Automation technologies

Automation technology was being utilised as a driver of change within organisations long before the COVID-19 pandemic, so what is the reason for this new-found interest in its implementation?

A lot of businesses were forced to hit pause once the pandemic hit, which had a particularly detrimental impact on those who were reliant on humans executing the majority of their organisational processes and functions. For many, the crisis opened their eyes for the first time to the risks that future crises pose to the supply and productivity of their human workers.

The Forrester report explains that as we come out of the current crisis, there will be a significant uptake in the adoption of chatbots and Robotic process automation (RPA) technologies. Cognitive capabilities and applied AI, industrial robotics and service robots are also predicted to grow in popularity in a post-COVID business world.

This investment into emerging intelligent, automation technologies is intended to increase business resilience and adaptiveness should another crisis of this scale occur in future. By reducing their reliance on humans for some of their processes, businesses are learning from their mistakes this time around and using their new-found knowledge to better prepare for the unexpected.

We were interested to see if the professionals we work with had seen their organisations using more automation and autonomous technologies since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. So, we took to social media and posed the question to our audience. Despite 59% of our participants saying they hadn’t seen an uptake over the past few months, 41% had noticed an increase in automated technology being used within their organisation.

However, just because not all of the professionals we spoke to have seen an uptake doesn’t mean that Forrester’s predicted rise in the use of automation technologies within businesses won’t happen as we regain a new sense of normality.

Jobless recoveries and increased automation

There’s no denying that the coronavirus pandemic has given business leaders food for thought on implementing more automation within their organisations. But what do these accelerated enterprise automation plans mean for the human workers within these organisations?

The Forrester report predicts that “jobless recoveries” could be on the horizon because historically, recessions are often followed by waves of automation. Following on from the recessions we experienced during the 1970s and 1980s, jobs came back within a matter of months. However, this wasn’t the case during the three recessions we experienced between 1991 and 2009, where it took up to two years for the jobs market to bounce back. This was in part caused by businesses investing in automation rather than hiring human employees.

If the Forrester report is to be believed, the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic will be no different. It says "The impact of jobless recoveries via increased automation will deepen the automation trends that were already in progress pre-pandemic. Routine jobs with a cognitive (i.e., nonmanual) aspect will continue to bear the highest risk as the automation water level rises. These include sales, administration, and support jobs that were already under pressure."

The automation of business workflows and processes may have been around for many years at this point, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that these reinvigorated efforts will be swift. Automation technologies are still relatively new and require people with certain skill sets to integrate them into existing business processes. These people are and will continue to be difficult to find moving forward.

Many pre-COVID-10 automation efforts were stalled because many companies didn’t have the necessary skillsets and resources to implement them in-house. This resulted in different sectors within an organisation experimenting with automation in isolation, with contrasting standards, which meant they failed to achieve scale. However, Leslie Joseph, a Forrester principal analyst and lead author of the report thinks that “with automation now becoming a top-down boardroom initiative, we can expect greater stewardship and oversight of a firm's automation efforts."

However, while large-scale automation of business processes is set to become more achievable, it might not necessarily lead to job losses and replacements. Joseph explains in the report that “automation is not just like any standard technology implementation. It requires significant participation and support from the existing workforce. Successful automation leaders will bring their people along on the journey. This will include elements of reskilling of people whose jobs are sidelined by bots, to bring them back into helping run and manage the automation program itself." This should be music to the ears of employees concerned that their roles might be taken over by bots during a continuously uncertain time in our economy.

Even though automation and autonomous technologies are being hailed as the solution to business resilience and adaptiveness post-COVID-19, it seems that fully automated organisations are still many years away yet. But this uptick in interest, particularly from organisations who hadn’t considered automation until now, shows that change is happening and the way we work will never be the same again.

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Al Vickers

7th July