As enterprise automation rapidly accelerates during the COVID-19 crisis, it’s important to accurately understand its impact. While its effects are felt deeply across an organization, the phrase “enterprise automation” paints an intangible picture. It does not, for example, mean that androids will enter our homes or offices and complete corporate tasks in our stead.
So, what does the automation revolution actually look like at the enterprise level — and what role will humans play in that future?
To answer these questions, I’ve outlined four key predictions for the near future of AI and automation below. The takeaway: These technologies have the ability to dramatically improve our most tedious and mundane processes, empowering humans to be more, well, human.
1. Rule building by AI
Within the next five years, I believe up to a quarter of decisions in human-centric workflows could be made by artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). These technologies will study previously defined processes, past experiences and ongoing interactions to develop basic rules for common scenarios.
For example, AI/ML could be used to develop rules for time-off requests. Today, most time-off requests require a manager’s manual approval to move forward. Yet the effort needed to track individual employees’ PTO balances and cross-reference their requested dates with upcoming projects and deadlines is time-consuming and monotonous. AI/ML tools could easily be programmed to automate the entire process.
Similarly, when a customer complaint is escalated, a customer support representative typically has to go to a manager to obtain approval for a discount or gift card to appease that customer. AI/ML, however, can learn from these patterns and develop rules to automatically offer a discount before a customer incident reaches an escalation state.
AI can also assist in operational enablement tasks, like improving data governance, security and compliance. As the quantity and complexity of data increases, so does the risk of human error. Automation can not only streamline data management, but also flag anomalies and prevent potential breaches.
According to Microsoft’s Work Trend Index, 31% of U.S. respondents reported increased burnout at work during the pandemic. AI rules could provide much-needed efficiencies and give workers — who noted “unmanageable workload or hours” as one of their top four stressors — more time back in the day.
2. The decline of printed documents
Considering we all have mini computers in our pockets, the fact that we still rely so heavily on old-fashioned paper documents feels paradoxical. Yet while “going paperless” has long been predicted in workplace trend pieces, consumption of paper products continues to rise each year. The confluence of current events, however, might finally result in that prediction coming to fruition.
During a global pandemic when many office workers work remotely, sharing paper documents is not feasible, and to do so would pose a health risk. Likewise, the shift to remote was abrupt, leaving many without access to common workplace resources, like printers, in their home office spaces.
At the same time, climate change has been top of mind as wildfires continue to rage across the western United States. While a shift to digital documents wouldn’t solve the issue, it would help us consume less, on both individual and corporate levels.
Going completely paperless is likely a pipe dream, but current conditions have made it more likely we’ll finally see a significant decline in printed documents in the workplace. In their place, automated forms for enterprises will continue to gain popularity.
Digital forms provide UX-friendly features like drag-and-drop tools, reduced errors with advanced business logic and responsive designs that seamlessly translate across devices. Additional features like barcode scanners, geolocation tags and attachment uploading make digital forms a more natural fit for today’s increasingly dispersed workforce. And as health precautions remain in effect, digital forms can be used as check-ins for employees and visitors reporting to job sites.
3. AR/VR in the workplace
No longer relegated to the gaming world, the augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) market is expected to hit $55 billion by next year. AR/VR simulation technologies are already in use across the manufacturing, medical and aeronautics industries.
Of course, using AR/VR to learn how to fly a plane doesn’t make much sense in an office environment. But there are plenty of opportunities for AR/VR to enhance certain enterprise processes, especially training and onboarding workflows.
Imagine a personalized virtual assistant, represented as an avatar, available to walk you through onboarding forms and documents when you start a new job. In an office setting, a virtual assistant could eliminate the need to track down HR every time you have a simple paperwork question. And with remote work on the rise, virtual assistants could streamline hiring and onboarding employees at a distance.
Workplaces could also deploy remote classroom technologies, like Google Expeditions, an immersive educational tool that enables students to go on VR trips and interact with AR objects. Microsoft’s Hololens, an immersive mixed reality pair of smart glasses, could similarly be used to increase employee engagement during workplace training sessions.
4. Process automation in STEM
Lastly, STEM curriculums at all education levels will soon incorporate more diverse types of automation to ensure future generations have the skills to streamline workplace processes. Many STEM programs already include robotics courses, which teach kids how to build robots that can complete manual labor tasks, like moving products on a factory floor. But the next evolution of STEM programs will include process automation courses designed to teach kids how to automate business workflows.
As the competition to produce top tech talent heightens, these curriculums will become a key pipeline for success. It’s likely we’ll also see universities engage more deeply with businesses. These partnerships will result in graduates possessing more hard skills out of the gate.
Similar to vocational programs for electricians, nurses and mechanics, process automation trade schools may soon pop up. These programs would give students the hands-on training they need to enter the workforce — without the price tag of a four-year university.
Eventually, low- and no-code process automation experience will be the new standard for applicants entering the workforce — just as experience with productivity software, like Microsoft Office, is now a given. In fact, Garner predicts that over 50% of medium to large enterprises will have adopted a low-code application platform by 2023.
What sounds like the plot of a sci-fi novel may not be too far off. Imagine a future where humans leverage machines to maximize economic output while enjoying more leisure time to spend on hobbies, volunteering, relaxing with family or traveling.
At the very least, the expansion of automation in the workplace would allow us to spend less time on rote tasks and tedious processes and more time ideating, innovating and engaging in truly meaningful work.
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