Image: Deloitte

A “perfect storm of circumstances” is cementing a place for intelligent automation in day-to-day business operations, according to a new report from Deloitte. Seventy-three percent of respondents to the firm’s annual global executive survey said their organizations have embarked on a path to intelligent automation—compared to 58% last year, the Automation with Intelligence report found.

The number of surveyed organizations deploying intelligent automation at scale has nearly doubled since 2019, according to the report. Deployments range from pilots, with one to 10 automations (37% of respondents), to scaling with 51 or more automations (13%), the report said.

“It seems that robots—although still bearing the burden of deep-seated human stigmas—have entered the mainstream,” the report stated. “The challenge is no longer how will we accept intelligent automation in the workplace, but how can we apply it wisely and to the greatest benefit.”

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The COVID-19 pandemic is expected to leave a lasting effect on how work is performed, so the increase in automation is almost a given, the report stated. But rethinking how work is conducted began even prior to the pandemic, with 78% of respondents saying that they are implementing robotic process automation (RPA) and 16% are planning to do so in the next three years.

To successfully integrate intelligent automation, organizations “must first acknowledge that transformation is necessary,” the report said. “It starts with making a conscious choice about what they want to achieve, based on the ‘art of the possible.'”

Then organizations can begin developing a “robust and realistic intelligent automation strategy.” In reality, however, only 26% of respondents to the Deloitte survey are piloting and 38% of those implementing and scaling have an enterprise-wide intelligent automation strategy, according to the report.

Process fragmentation and a lack of IT readiness were barriers ranked by survey respondents at the top of the list, which is consistent with responses in the past two years, Deloitte said. Resistance to change was ranked third, closely followed by a lack of a clear vision.

How to deliver on the promise of automation

Automation-as-a-service (AaaS) is gaining popularity, but not yet full acceptance, as a critical way to deliver intelligent automation in the next three years, the report noted. Already, 64% of respondents said they use some form of AaaS, most often for end-to-end development, followed by management and maintenance of automations, and then development of automations.

“This remains an area of unexploited potential for the 36% who reported they are not using AaaS,” the survey said.

Cloud technology is also becoming more widely regarded as future enabling technology for automation: Almost half of survey respondents already use it for some of their automations, and 13% run automations solely on cloud infrastructure.

However, 11% said they do not plan to use cloud infrastructure for automation solutions, “overlooking its ability to keep pace with demand and be scaled to ensure capacity is always optimized: a key benefit in minimizing operating costs,” the report said.

There is also the human element to consider. With the introduction of intelligent automation, executives should be gauging how much of their workforce has seen changes to roles, tasks, and ways of working, the report noted.

“Of the implementing and scaling organizations surveyed, 58% have not yet made this calculation, and such a myopic view of transformation may filter out a key benefit: combining people with automation solutions to form ‘super teams,'” the report said. “An all-encompassing approach is needed–one that enhances resilience and adaptivity with humans front and center.”

Those organizations that have recognized the integral role humans play are training workers affected by automation and appear to be placing emphasis on uniquely human skills, the report said. Fifty-nine percent of respondents said their organizations are focusing on process skills, like active listening, and critical thinking.

More than half of respondents are offering retraining in cognitive abilities, such as creativity and problem solving, according to the report.

Overall, the study found that “great strides have been made to arrive in this brave new world of widespread intelligent automation. But the race to our robotic future is not quite won, because adoption does not guarantee added value.”

The organizations that see the greatest benefits from automation, according to Deloitte, will be the ones that have “engaged in entity-wide transformations, rooted in forward-looking, human-centric strategies.”