Forrester: AI and automation will help organizations rethink the future of work


Automation, not surprisingly, is aimed at the employee experience. In 2021, digital transformation initiatives in more than three-quarters of enterprises will focus on automation, the firm said.

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A lasting legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic is that work will never be the same. Thanks to the two As, automation and artificial intelligence (AI), expect to see significant growth and changes in 2021.

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“The ‘great lockdown’ of 2020 will make the drive for automation in 2021 both inevitable and irreversible,” according to Forrester’s Predictions 2021. “Remote work, new digital muscles, and pandemic constraints will create millions of pragmatic automations in 2021; document extraction, RPA (robotic process automation) from anywhere, drones, and various employee robots will proliferate; and, as expected, the mad dash to automate will bring trouble.”

At the same time, while AI didn’t predict the pandemic, it will help businesses rethink the future of work; drive more efficiency, elasticity, and scale in operations; and reimagine customer and employee experiences, Forrester said. AI is driving the growth of automated processes, helping them become smarter. Companies that adopt machine learning, a subset of AI, “will massively multiply their number of AI use cases, including for employee augmentation and automation,” the firm said.

Forrester expects “hypergrowth in AI, along with the proliferation of artificial data and the beginnings of a Blockchain-based approach to data trust.”

AI adoption grew 15 percentage points in the past year, and maturity is rising as firms move past small, incremental deployments, according to Forrester. “In 2021, the grittiest of companies will push AI to new frontiers, such as holographic meetings for remote work and on-demand personalized manufacturing. They will gamify strategic planning, build simulations in the boardroom, and move into intelligent edge experiences.”

Yet, the firm also believes there are many deterrents to AI success: A lack of trust, poor data quality, data paucity, a lack of imagination, and a dearth of the right power tools to scale.

“But 2021 will see companies tackle these head on, not because they want to or suddenly have the wherewithal to overcome these in this unprecedented year–but because they have to,” Forrester maintained. “They have to rebuild their businesses not for today or even next year but to prepare to compete in an AI-driven future. 2020 has given leaders the impetus, born out of necessity, and coincidence to embrace AI, with all its blemishes.”

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Forrester advises firms not to shy away from AI. “Plan to quadruple your investment next year. Build your internal AI team, engage consultancies to implement domain-specific solutions, and upgrade your data, analytics, and machine learning platforms to rethink how you use AI.”

Automation is also a top priority now, and thanks to the pandemic, it is aimed at the employee experience, Forrester said. In 2021, digital transformation initiatives in more than three-quarters of enterprises will focus on automation—whether for core records, customer operations, or engagement, the firm said. Advances in AI, changes to work patterns as a result of the pandemic, and a fierce global recession have made this drive for automation inevitable—and irreversible, according to Forrester.

Other predictions Forrester is making in AI and automation in 2021:

No-code automated machine learning (AutoML) will be used to implement more use cases. AutoML can dramatically accelerate ML model development versus the traditional coding approach. In 2021, lucky laggards will use AutoML to implement 5, 50, or 500 AI use cases faster, leapfrogging their competitors. AutoML lets data scientists configure parameters and run hundreds or even thousands of experiments in one go. With AutoML, Forrester estimates that these teams can implement eight times the number of use cases aimed at operational efficiency or personalized customer experience—and greatly amplify the impact of digital transformation.

A fifth of enterprises will expand investment in intelligent document extraction. Even before the pandemic, there was strong investment in intelligent document extraction platforms (IDEP) as firms wanted to use it to classify many types of documents. Combining computer vision with advances in machine learning has made platforms more valuable and easier to build and maintain.

A notable failure will occur as a result of the rush to automation. The pandemic accelerated investment in various forms of business process and IT automation. Two-thirds of enterprise organizations that encountered broken processes during the pandemic were pressured to patch in automation solutions. But rushed and haphazard automation exposes systems and the business to serious risk. This can lead to monumental failures that not only damage a company’s reputation and customer trust but also limit broader public trust in automation (specifically AI) as a result of media scrutiny. In 2021, up to 30% of organizations will ramp up their focus on quality by better planning and testing automation before deploying it to production or exposing it to employees.

Intelligent automation suites will provide a quarter of all RPA solutions. Commoditization, major enterprise software acquisitions, new entrants, specialization, and public market ambitions are resulting in a diverse RPA market. Like machine learning, RPA will become an embedded feature of many platforms by the end of 2021. 

A fifth of enterprises will use commercial drones to automate business operations. Recent rapid growth in the consumer drones industry has sparked momentum in the commercial drone market. While social distancing is a factor in drone usage, two forces will accelerate adoption in 2021. First, governments are crafting better regulations to facilitate drone adoption and commercialization. Second, the rapid evolution of computer vision and 5G will enable real-time drone intelligence over ultra-reliable, low-latency communications.

Intelligent automation will advance to support one in four home workers. Three times as many information workers will work from home all or most of the time, while many companies will institute hybrid models. As a result of the pandemic, new forms of automation will support one in four remote workers either directly or indirectly by 2022. Direct support in the form of giving a bot to individual workers to support their daily journey will be rare. But indirect support will blossom, with intelligent automation handling employee benefits, questions, and supporting documents, customer service, and line-of-business tasks that are often invisible to the home worker.

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