The sweet spot for robotic process automation in the COVID-19 response

RPA can smooth some of the bumps of working from home, but don’t expect it to solve everything

The sweet spot for robotic process automation in the COVID-19 response
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We are living through the largest real-world experiment of our time. As the COVID-19 crisis goes on, our homes have become a distributed platform from which we continue to perform our jobs while maintaining the necessary social distancing.

This experiment threatens to explode in our collective faces. During the COVID-19 emergency, business continuity and productivity have deteriorated significantly. Many people are working from home for the first time in their lives, employed by organizations that have not adapted their roles, processes, or tools to support that mode of operation.

Universal working from home may not be the new normal

What we’re experiencing right now is a mad scramble in which everybody is doing whatever’s necessary to keep the economy from running off the rails.

If your work life is anything like mine, you’ve noticed that many organizations are struggling to manage even the most mundane processes as rapidly, accurately, or efficiently as they did before the pandemic hit. For example, I have had to put up with painful delays and screwups on several fronts of my life—financial, medical, legal, and technological—due to the fact that the involved personnel were suddenly required to work from home.

If these confused administrative processes are the new normal, then heaven help us. Those in the RPA (robotic process automation) market are positioning their technology as the best solution for this new age, but I’m not at all sure it is.

RPA adds value in work-from-home processes but is no panacea

At first glance, RPA seems aligned with the work-from-home movement. One might regard RPA as the Trojan horse of the “citizen programmer.” It involves using configurable software to emulate how people carry out tasks when interacting with digital systems. By enabling knowledge workers to build applications from external interfaces, the technology requires little or no changes to existing IT systems. Consequently, it can be a surgical drop-in to application development and process design initiatives, enabling workers to boost their productivity by implementing lightweight orchestrations among built-up applications.

By the same token, RPA seems aligned with the trend toward pervasive automation as a means for controlling human-borne infectious diseases. Indeed one can attribute some recent tech-industry acquisitions, including IBM’s of WDG Automation and Microsoft’s of Softomotive, as partly motivated by the need to accelerate the automation of administrative workflows that execute entirely or partly across work-from-home environments.

However, organizations are playing with fire if they drop RPA into the middle of the COVID-19 work-from-home scramble. Knowledge workers are already pulling their hair out trying to figure out how to do their jobs under standard operating procedures while working from home. Expecting those beleaguered workers to rethink and reprogram those processes from home feels like a recipe for disaster.

RPA can offer value in the current emergency by providing yet another channel for remote collaborative coding of administrative processes by IT personnel, not by the end-users who handle manual tasks in those processes. If you keep your RPA tools in the hands of traditional developers—who may themselves be working from home—they can avoid the chaos that comes when each individual worker is encouraged to automate his or her limited personal segment of a business process.

RPA can be key to business continuity 

Another core use for RPA during the pandemic can be to ensure that both business and IT processes can weather any staff shortages that may result from particular workers taking sick time, being quarantined at home, or being locked out indefinitely from their usual offices.

In fact, the actual use cases reported by the RPA industry during this period are primarily for those situations, not for retooling these processes for a supposed new normal of everybody working from home. Indeed, RPA has been an essential tool for helping organizations maintain business continuity during this critical period even as their own personnel become sick or are quarantined. Automation Anywhere has solutions to help businesses allow their customer service agents to collaborate, communicate from anywhere, as well as ensure business continuity through aggregated contact-tracing data displayed on a health-status dashboard.

By the same token, the company is helping automate manual processing of World Health Organization clinical case forms to assess employee risks for managing COVID-19 in mainland China and to direct citizens in Macao to vital information through a public service dashboard.

No one knows the future

Let’s not rush history’s judgment on what will constitute the new normal of work when the pandemic wanes. People may be so worn out by social distancing that in-person “social intimacy” (brick-and-mortar retail, big splashy physical events, travel for business and pleasure) will come back in vogue. There may be a mass migration of workers back to normal multiperson offices, albeit ones that are disinfected regularly and rearranged for greater social distancing.

The current emergency has demonstrated how a mass contagion can endanger every aspect of a traditional business continuity plan. In the event of a stay-at-home order, primary and secondary disaster-recovery sites may all become equally off-limits to IT staff. Building and administering the software, hardware, and services that sustain business operations must be conducted at a distance. And by making in-person encounters potentially deadly, viral outbreaks make it difficult to complete day-to-day activities—among business and IT personnel equally—that involve such interactions.

In the likely future, organizations may continue to use RPA and other intelligent process automation solutions, but partly as business continuity enablers in case pandemics and similar emergencies require distributing key work processes yet again.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.