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How to Rally Amid COVID Crisis: Get More Aggressive with Automation

Roland Alston, Appian
May 5, 2020

As the economy grinds to a halt amid COVID lockdowns and massive job loss, experts are urging businesses to get more aggressive about preparing for transition to a more automated economy.

"... Simply put, you need a foundation for rapid process automation now. If your organization is already using a low-code, DPA, or CWM platform, apply it aggressively to automate processes that aren't functioning. If you lack a platform, go get one...You don't have time for a normal product-vetting process."

So says research firm Forrester.

Before the pandemic subsides, news reports say the U.S. economy could shrink by a whopping 5.6% in 2020, ending the year with a double digit unemployment rate, and millions of people forced into isolation.

On the flip side, though, the crisis will motivate businesses to rally with the help of digital process automation.

Digital process automation was a C-suite priority before the COVID crisis. The robotic process automation (RPA) market, for example, was expanding at an eye-popping 63% in 2018, making it the fastest growing category in enterprise software according to Gartner.

Beyond Small Ball Automation

And, yet, many organizations chose to play small ball with automation. Today, research shows only 3% of enterprise automation projects have 50 bots or more. (By the way, bots are automation applications that can perform routine tasks). Many organizations turned to desktop RPA to soften the impact of digital disruption. But it's hard to orchestrate numerous bots from multiple vendors with desktop RPA alone.

Cloud-based, full-stack automation is the opposite of that, offering the capability to quickly scale digital and human labor in the same workflow by combining automation and AI capabilities on a single low-code platform.If you're not familiar with low-code, it's a model-driven approach to building applications without writing code.

Low-code is user-friendly and graphical. So, rather than a keyboard, a developer can use a mouse to build a business application up to 20x faster than writing code.

So far with COVID, 2020 has been a year of massive disruption for businesses everywhere. Yes, states will gradually lift business restrictions. But that's no solace for companies reeling from the lockdown. Consumer spending has nosedived. Major conferences are being stopped. Travel, hotel and restaurant bookings have evaporated. The world has forever changed.

Cracking the Automation Conundrum

As the shutdown subsides, organizations will have some tough choices to make. As revenues decline, will they gear up with process automation to augment human labor rather than replace it? Will they leverage automation to reshape customer experience? Or will they stand pat and wait to see if another disaster hits?

Before the pandemic, digital leaders moved to transform their business processes with BPM, RPA, AI, and case management via a low-code platform. They embraced full-stack automation as a far more scalable way to automate than RPA alone.


For example, Ryder, a Fortune 500 truck rental and leasing company combined robotic process automation with a cloud-based low-code platform to rev up the productivity of its rental business. Before embracing low-code automation, though, Ryder's process for capturing a rental signature was mostly manual and paper-based.

But Ryder decided to digitally store and record documents, so they could be automatically pushed out to customers. This enabled company reps to pull up documentation on any vehicle at any location via a mobile device.

The impact was remarkable: A 50% reduction in vehicle return and dispatch time .

The Options Clearing Corporation (OCC) is another case in point. OCC leveraged low-code and robotic process automation (RPA) to digitize complex manual processes and make them more transparent, visible and auditable in a highly-regulated environment where millions of financial transactions are processed every day.

But rather than coding applications, OCC used visual development tools that allowed them to automate their business processes exponentially faster than ever before. Company officials, for example, were able to build and deploy nine critical risk management applications in just 18 months, automate some processes within a day and most in eight weeks or less.


Jump-Starting Business Recovery in the age of COVID

In the run-up to the coronavirus pandemic, grocers and big chains deployed robots to clean floors, stock shelves and deliver food to shoppers. Digital leaders embraced AI-powered image recognition, document classification, data extraction, and translation services to make employees far more efficient at processing data and making decisions.

At a macro level, the devastation of the pandemic has underscored the urgency of being able to quickly adapt to volatile conditions. After peaking at 29,000 in February, the Dow Jones Industrial Average plummeted by nearly 30% by mid-March according to USA Today.

And on March 16, the Dow fell by nearly 3,000 points, the largest single-day drop in history.

But COVID didn't just shut down the economy, it also exposed weak spots like the vintage systems propping up the operations of many organizations. Quartz recently reported that 92 of the top 100 banks, as well as 70% of the Fortune 500 and much of the world's healthcare, finance, utilities and governments rely on inflexible systems that could be overwhelmed by another pandemic.

We may never get back to pre-coronavirus "normal," but the economic uncertainty of the pandemic will end one day. As signs of progress emerge from the search for a coronavirus vaccine, the masks will come off and stay at home orders will end. We may even get back to doing business beyond laptops and Zoom.

In the meantime, how can you jump-start business recovery? And if you're eager to do that, how do you bring together digital and human labor to quickly respond to the coronavirus crisis and rally faster after the disruption subsides?

Perhaps Forrester says it best:

"Favor platforms accessible to business experts, but, aside from that criterion, the choice of platform is less important than acting now."

(For a deeper dive into digital process automation, check out Forrester's Analyst Report here.)