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Is South Africa ready for large-scale process automation?

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2019 is the year in which automation technologies take centre stage, Forrester Research predicts.

Robotic process automation (RPA), business process automation (BPA) and artificial intelligence (AI) will become a key focus area for technology investment as the drive toward digital transformation intensifies, says the research firm.

And one of the most visible consequences of this - particularly as RPA and AI become ever more closely entwined - will be the creation of a new kind of digital worker in more than 40% of enterprises globally.

In two of its reports, Predictions 2019: Artificial Intelligence and Predictions 2019: Automation, Forrester Research is enormously bullish about the way in which the once disparate disciplines of AI, RPA and BPM will come together to 'turbocharge' innovation efforts in enterprises.

It predicts that by the end of the year, automation will eliminate 20% of all service desk interactions, owing to a successful combination of cognitive systems, RPA, and various chatbot technologies.

"Firms are already combining AI building block technologies such as machine learning and text analytics with RPA features to drive greater value for digital workers in four use cases: analytics that solve nagging platform issues; chatbots that boss around RPA bots; Internet of things (IOT) events that trigger digital workers; and text analytics that lift RPA's value," Forrester says.

However, Rajeev Mishra, Process Automation lead at Johannesburg-based systems integration and business process specialist, Ovations, believes it will take a while longer for South African enterprises to achieve this.

SA reality: RPA1.0

Mishra categorises the type of RPA alluded to in the Forrester reports as RPA2.0 or "cognitive automation". Most South African organisations - with the possible exceptions of the large financial institutions - have not yet gotten to grips with RPA1.0.

"RPA1.0 is a very basic software that automates mundane, rigid and defined processes where the rules are very clear and where there is no requirement to deal with exceptions. Once RPA is enhanced with AI - albeit basic AI involving machine learning and text analytics - we get cognitive automation, or RPA 2.0, which is better able to process unstructured data, deal with exceptions and assist with more insightful decision making. We're still a long way from this in South Africa," he says.

Forrester, however, which estimated that the global RPA market would have grown by 109% between 2017 and 2018, and which it predicts will reach revenues of $1.70billion in 2019, also believes that some 10% of current jobs in the United States will soon be lost to automation. This number is expected to rise to 27% by 2027.

However, the automation economy is also expected to create new jobs such as that of bot masters, operational employees who handle exceptions and escalations, and who manage the performance of the bots. In fact, by the end of 2019, Forrester maintains that these new jobs will account for the equivalent of 3% of today's jobs with one-tenth of all start-up businesses employing more digital workers than human ones.

In addition, Forrester predicts that intelligent automation (IA) will replace one-fifth of service desk interaction, with automation eliminating 20% of all such interactions by end-2019.

Whether this is achieved, certainly in the short-term, remains to be seen because, as Mishra notes, people generally - and certainly those in South Africa - are still more comfortable dealing with a human than a bot.

However, there is no question that RPA does offer businesses enormous upside potential. This will be discussed at a Cape Town event, hosted by Ovations in association with IBM, on 28 February.

For info, call 011 658 8500.

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