We all know that automation is coming to the workplace. But to what extent? A recent survey of 1,000 office workers across the UK found they believe as many as 40% of tasks in their organisations could be automated over the next three to five years.
There is also a sense of optimism among respondents, with nearly half (48%) believing the impact of automation technologies will benefit the workplace. Staff responsible for finance in particular are thinking a lot about what automation can do for them, with a huge 85% having given serious thought to how it could support their department with day-to-day processes.
Unsurprisingly, respondents saw the most potential in areas such as invoicing, managing expense claims, reporting and administration tasks – freeing up time to do higher value, core business tasks, lowering operational costs and improving the accuracy of results.
So far, so good. Yet the same survey found that only 13% of those questioned are currently benefiting from automation. This isn’t just a UK phenomenon. In my experience, businesses in other countries such as the US, the Nordics, and other parts of Europe are also hesitating.
What’s stopping companies from taking advantage?
One issue is the question of technology. Many businesses are struggling with uncertainties about how to select, implement, and manage automation in their organisations. Dividing lines between robotic process automation (RPA), artificial intelligence (AI) and AI’s subset machine learning can blur, making it difficult to know what’s best suited for individual circumstances.
Another is the fear of cybersecurity threats. In the survey, cybersecurity was the most commonly referenced obstacle to adopting AI. A general fear of AI is not surprising given the technology is in its infancy – remember the caution there was surrounding the cloud.
There are perception issues about what AI actually is, what it can do, and more importantly how it can be implemented within a business to improve operations. The very nature of the way some AI engine operate can cause concern due to their black box nature. It’s hard to peer inside to understand the rules being derived and improved through the learning process. How do you control or validate the outputs of something that is difficult to monitor?
Then there’s the question of financing the transition. Just under a third of respondents to our survey said that implementation costs were the main barrier across all the technologies.
I believe there are some understandable misconceptions here – understandable because for many this is as yet uncharted territory. There’s a fear factor – should we adopt? How should we do it? What benefits will we see?
To answer these questions, companies need proof-of-value solutions. They need to start small. As time passes and data grows and populates the model, they’ll start to see the benefits that can be achieved. It doesn’t need to be a huge up-front investment. There’s a great deal of free open-source software out there to help companies explore the potential. The key is to start small with a pilot to see what works and then scale once they’re better able to manage the cost profile and the benefits.
A question of skills
But there’s another disincentive to adopting digital automation – the need for appropriate skills. Many organisations may be aware of the potential benefits of automation, but they lack knowledge not just of the technology, but also of the knowledge and experience necessary to implement it. There is a growing concern that if they attempt to impose automation on inefficient processes, and if they don’t have the right skills to effectively scale and manage, they may not realise the full potential. Worse still, it could inadvertently create even bigger issues for the business. What’s more, companies may be thinking of the monetary hurdles. Not only will the technology cost money, but the skills needed to run it effectively will cost money too.
The good news is that proof-of-concept (POC) implementations needn’t be expensive and that acquiring the requisite expertise can also be done cost-effectively. Many major vendors and service providers are willing to assist with POC trials and can bring with them knowledge of the appropriateness of a solution to the task in hand – whether that solution be based on RPA or AI, separately or in combination.
I would urge all businesses to start looking at the skills and expertise they need within their organisation for future implementation, to stay competitive in the years to come.
The potential benefits of automation are too great to allow doubts about technology, cost and skills to stand in their way – especially when those doubts can be so effectively overcome.
We certainly expect to see more and more businesses benefitting from the transformational power of technologies such as AI, robotics and automation in the near future. All of these technologies represent an opportunity for growth for businesses in every industry sector.
It’s time for business to take the next step. It’s time to automate.