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AI and Automation Bring Opportunities—And Challenges

The ultimate goal of almost all enterprise technology is to automate manual activities into digital processes. BPM (business process management) and workflow systems have been used for decades, and, under the cover of most business applications, sit complex process, task, and workflow management. It is hard to define the sheer scale and breadth of process automation other than to say that it is pervasive. Indeed, although industry analysts love to slice and dice technologies into quadrant and wave silos, doing so with process automation technology is difficult and often, though not deliberately, misleading.

A decade ago, there was a clearly defined BPM market. Today, a once cohesive market has shattered and is fragmented across sectors. It is one that is still growing but (somewhat ironically) challenged by real-world business change, unrealistic expectations, and market turbulence.

Challenge 1: Data Growth and Variety

It is common knowledge that the volume of data created and processed each year is growing at a staggering rate. Scaling a process management system to handle more of the same is relatively straightforward; you may only need to add more processing and storage capabilities. However, the breadth and varieties of data types and sources are also growing at a staggering rate. Process management vendors once focused only on customer relationship management, enterprise resource planning, or document silos. Today, there is a demand for a broader context for the data and to factor in omnichannel data from sources such as social media, chatbots, or IoT. That sounds good but is incredibly hard to pull off. At times, it can feel as if fighting with fog. 

Challenge 2: Robotic Process Automation (RPA)

Though RPA (in the form of screen scraping) has been with us for decades, it’s only in the last 5 years that it has morphed into a giant, and heavily funded, technology sector. Led by Blue Prism, Automation Anywhere, and UiPath, the RPA software market has grown from less than $200 million in 2016 to a $1 billion market in 2021. You can add another $2.5 billion in services to that number in 2021. The market capitalization and access to finance that RPA vendors have today is even more staggering, enabling them to target acquisitions and grow even further. RPA came out of nowhere to challenge and, in some cases, overtake much more established process management vendors.  

Challenge 3: The Promise and Limitations of AI

Data growth and variety are challenging, but also create an opportunity. In a market with easy access to money, the lure of AI to modernize process management and deal with increasing complexity is strong. We are now in a period of “AI washing” in which adding a small machine learning or AI module to an expansive legacy platform ensures everything is relabeled as “driven by AI.” AI holds great promise, but concerns regarding ethics, legislation, and the need for human supervision have dampened buyer enthusiasm. These are all legitimate and difficult concerns for technology vendors, and they will need to be addressed sooner or later.

Challenge 4: The Shift From Employer-Led to Employee-Led Transformation

Some have dubbed it “the Great Resignation,” but, call it what you will, the pandemic era has ensured a sharp shift in the power dynamic between employer and employee. Hiring, particularly for critical roles, is more complex, costly, and the employee has more control and say in the deal than ever before. After years of touting the need to transform and automate digitally, organizations are having to face up to the fact that it’s hard, and employees are fully aware that automation means they lose their jobs. The idea that employees would move onto more “interesting” work once their current roles are automated holds little water today—if such statements ever held much in the first place.

Challenge 5: Transformation to Fix and Mend

In a sense, a perfect storm has been brewing, driven in part by the rise of RPA and enforced remote working, to shift many—if not most—organizations to focus on fixing and mending immediate problems and thus move away from grand and strategic transformations. Those strategic discussions continue, but such a sudden and dramatic disruption exposed many problems that now must take precedence—be they the problems of accessing on-prem data remotely or managing workflows that had been hard-coded for an on-prem, fixed workforce.

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