robotsby Patricia Ames, Workflow

In 2014, Rodger Dean Duncan wrote in Forbes that “the challenge to do more with less is industry agnostic” and that it “will be an ongoing mantra far into the future.” But that doesn’t seem to be the case, exactly. In the not so distant future, the new mantra will be “doing more with robots and data,” and it’ll be powered by business intelligence and analytics platforms (BI) and robotic process automation solutions (RPA).

BI platforms are like those tremendously powerful telescopes in outer space, except they’re on your server (or more likely, in the cloud), and they’re surveying all of your business’s data instead of the infinite depths of space. RPA is strikingly similar to its tangible robotic counterparts — slaving away in a factory, repeating the same task(s) over and over and over again — but instead of welding joints on a Ford, it’s automating the company’s billing processes (and other things). In tandem, these systems will revolutionize the way businesses operate. 

No more paralysis by analysis 

At its core, a BI platform pulls data from disparate internal systems (like an ECM, CRM or ERP system) and external sources (like a website or cloud service) so it can be queried against or compiled into reports, dashboards and other data visualizations, ultimately to help decision makers and front-line workers accelerate and improve decision-making processes, optimize internal processes and operational efficiency, and to identify business problems and market trends. For example, a retailer can aggregate data from its CRM system to visualize its customers’ shopping habits —  what they buy, how much they spend, and if they’re more likely to purchase online or in the store, for example — and use that to tailor better and more effective marketing strategies or improve its inventory management practices.   

2017 is BI’s tipping point, and it’s about to get real

BI is at the proverbial vertex of the world’s largest roller coaster, and it’s about to come roaring down the tracks in 2017. Gartner’s Rita Sallam said that BI is “past the tipping point of a more than 10-to-11 year transition away from IT-centric reporting platforms to modern BI and analytics platforms that make up much of the new buying in the BI and analytics market.” And in its white paper, “Top Ten Business Intelligence Trends for 2017,” Tableau predicts that modern BI will be the new norm. The company anticipates that “in 2017, modern BI will become the top priority for global enterprises, early-stage startups and everything in between.” 

So why all the hype? 

Touted as “Modern BI,” the latest generation of BI products focus on self-service and an easy user experience plus data sharing and collaboration capabilities. The latest iteration of BI platforms are hosted in the cloud, scale nicely, and can integrate with virtually any data source you can think of. 

Modern BI empowers the knowledge worker to be self-reliant. Traditionally a job reserved for data specialists and IT professionals, the latest iterations of BI are relegating data preparation chores such as parsing data, data wrangling, and JSON or HTML import, plus advanced analytics tasks like data mining, predictive analytics, text mining, statistical analysis and big data analytics, to the end user. Many platforms feature intuitive drag-and-drop interfaces, so users can throw together dashboards or other data visualizations in a moment’s notice.         

And there will be a dashboard in every app, too. Embedded BI is going to bring together all of the relevant data from disparate data sources — in real time — that a user needs to make an informed business decision, all from within the applications they use every day. For example, call centers can embed BI tools in their CRM systems to help improve customer service. Customer service professionals can pull up relevant, useful data, like a customer’s complaint history or their purchasing habits, with a few clicks. With that information at a glance, your call center should be experts in creating “customer delight.” 

Embedded BI can also be leveraged to automate workflow processes. The system can be configured to execute a specific task in a workflow based on the parameters set. For example, embedded BI can be used to process loan applications, and based on its analysis, send a rejection or acceptance letter and notify the relevant stakeholders should further action be required. 

And these solutions are being developed with the modern IT landscape in mind. According to Forbes’s Louis Columbus, this generation of BI solutions will grow in the cloud. Summarizing a joint study by BARC Research and Eckerson Group, Columbus wrote that 78 percent of respondents are planning on using BI and data management in the cloud over the next 12 months. The reasons are typical: it’s cheaper up front, there is less to manage, your users can access it from anywhere on-demand, and it’s likely in much safer hands than your own.   

A digital workforce 

According to the Institute for Robotic Process Automation & Artificial Intelligence (IRPAAI), an independent professional association and knowledge forum, “RPA is the application of technology that allows employees in a company to configure computer software … to capture and interpret existing applications for processing a transaction, manipulating data, triggering responses, and communicating with other digital systems.” 

RPA is driving automation – it relieves businesses of the painfully high costs associated with employing a large labor force of workers to carry out tons of transactional processes every day. It can turn over business process much faster with significantly fewer mistakes than a traditional human labor force. And if your business hits spikes or has a perennial busy season, RPA solutions scale to accommodate any demand. And a robot can work 24/7, so you can schedule certain tasks to occur overnight or during off hours to reduce network load. They also never need a break, never call in sick, never take vacation and never leave you for a competitor. None of this is to say that you can walk into a meeting with potential clients and say, “I can completely cut your labor costs.” RPA works side by side with workers to help cut out inefficiencies so your customers can be lean, mean, automated machines. 

Namely, RPA focuses on process automation — specifically, repeatable, rules-based, non-subjective tasks. Software robots can execute swivel chair processes — where robots interface and interact with all of the same websites, portals, and applications that your employees use — to free your employees from slow and tedious tasks so they can focus on other problems, like growing revenues, developing better products or helping customers. For instance, banks can program software robots to compile data into properly formatted reports from their ECM, ERP and customer facing web portal, then forward that report to the loan officer handling that account, all before you can say “approved” or “denied.” Faster processes means your business can get more done, and leave customers with a smile.  

RPA is an alternative to long and costly development projects. Sure, your clients can pay someone six figures to develop and maintain processes in-house, then wait months for results. Alternatively, with a good RPA system and strategy, you can swoop in with your cheaper, easier-to-maintain solution that can be up and running as quickly as a month or two. According to one RPA developer, businesses can expect an ROI in one year or less. It’s even driving better cognitive decision making for businesses. 

Potential, potential, potential

As artificial intelligence (AI) continues to advance, RPA is only going to get better. The leading RPA developers are pushing the technological envelope, and it’s shifting a lot of workflow, back-office and management paradigms. For instance, some RPA platforms are leveraging machine learning technologies to help software robots learn from interactions with natural language recognition — which uses voice UI/UX to solve customer problems and can respond to a wide variety of queries — which can potentially change the way call centers are managed. 

RPA is still a relatively new field, so there is certainly room for growth. In “Worldwide Content Analytics, Discovery and Cognitive Systems Software Forecast, 2015–2019,” IDC predicts that the worldwide content analytics, discovery, and cognitive systems software market will double from $4.5 billion in 2014 to $9.2 billion in 2019 — a 12.66 CAGR.

The future

RPA and BI are just another element in a rapidly changing landscape. For businesses looking to branch out into managed services, RPA and BI services are a largely untapped, growing market. RPA and BI provide a tool that solves two universal problems: “How can I be more efficient, and how can I cut costs?” And with RPA and BI, you can look across the table, smile, then tell your potential clients, “I can do that for you”

The robots are coming, and you should be walking them to your clients’ front doors.  

Patricia Ames is senior analyst for BPO Media and editor-at-large for Workflow.

This article originally appeared in the May 2017 issue of Workflow.