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Automation adoption is up, but challenges persist

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A new report from consulting firm Emergn, Realizing the Human-Machine Relationship, finds that while automation isn’t helping to create new products, the return on investment (ROI) remains high in the enterprise. A majority of the barriers preventing organizations from seeing positive impacts from automation are related to people, according to the report, while better guidance around best practices for implementation has the potential to ensure greater ROI from automation.

In May 2021, Emergn surveyed 320 directors, VPs, presidents, and chief officers from organizations in the life sciences, insurance, and financial services industries across Germany, Switzerland, the U.K., and the U.S. The study examined how organizations are incorporating automation technologies including workflow automation, chatbots, task automation and robotic process automation, and machine learning into their operations, as well as how this automation is impacting the work of employees.

Countering assertions that automation is more trend-following than strategic, 91% of respondents told Emergn that automation technologies have affected their business positively. ROI varied, however, with companies founded in 1999 or earlier seeing slightly less return compared with companies founded after 2000. The report’s authors speculate that the dichotomy is a symptom of the challenges in transitioning from legacy systems — a fixture at older brands — to new solutions.

Automation isn’t the end-all be-all; only 20% of companies say that they use it as a way to innovate and create new services. But 90% of respondents say that the technology automation has met or exceeded their expectations and positively impacted employees. Over the course of the next 12 to 26 months, 87% told Emergn that they expect their investments in automation skill sets to increase. Eight-six percent anticipate investing more in automation technologies.

“The human-machine relationship is still in the ‘getting to know you’ stage. Roles have been developed, ROI has been delivered, and positive impact has been proven across the organization. However, the true nature and value of the relationship between employees and intelligent automation is yet to be established,” the report reads. “Most organizations have done an excellent job leveraging automation for specific use cases and business needs — but to realize its full value, they will need specific automation expertise.”

Barriers to adoption

Companies are betting on digital transformation and automation to accelerate a post-pandemic economic recovery. Some 60% of CEOs polled for a recent Gartner survey cited AI as the “most industry-impactful technology” over the coming years. And in a recent K2 survey, 92% of business leaders said they consider digital channels and process automation vital to success in the modern workplace.

But blockers stand in the way of automation adoption — and they’re related to talent. According to Emergn, managing and integrating multiple processes, resistance to process change, and a lack of expertise were cited by organizations in the survey as top challenges.

Given most employees aren’t afraid automation will take their jobs, the hesitance to fully embrace the technology might be borne from other reasons, the survey found. Only 2% of respondents told Emergn that their team had the right skills to benefit from automation, while half of all respondents said that they want their employees to learn advanced IT skills and programming. Moreover, 31% said that their teams have yet to master basic digital skills and that better guidance and recommended practices for implementation would have ensured greater ROI from automation.

Misaligned goals around automation are another problem plaguing organizations, with 35% of respondents believing more C-suite support would have ensured better return on investment. Perceptions of automation differ between the C-suite and the frontlines, the survey found; 16% of directors say the top barrier to limiting automation is budgetary restraints — a view with which only 10% of chief officers agree.

“The C-suite may not understand the full potential value that intelligent automation can deliver … It will be important for members of the C-suite to grow their IT knowledge to complement their business knowledge, so they better understand how exactly automation can fuel their organization’s needs,” the report continues. “They must also communicate with the frontlines of IT and business and allocate resources and hands-on support appropriately.”

To address the issues, Emergn recommends the establishment of automation centers of excellence to align common practices and approaches, like design principles and reusable components. It also recommends educating employees on the potential value and use cases for automation, training the C-suite on the technical side of automation, and providing guidance around leveraging automation to drive a competitive edge.

“Organizations need experts who understand how to build unique maturity models, set organization-wide expectations, select impactful use cases … and enable democratization for all employees,” the report reads. “Hands-on consulting firms know which skills and tools are needed to empower employees, align the C-suite and drive the most ROI. Now that the human-machine relationship has surpassed its ‘over-hyped’ reputation, it’s time to nurture it as a long-term asset to the business.”

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