Emerging trends in process excellence

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Ian Hawkins

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It's been a busy few weeks at PEX: putting the finishing touches to The PEX Report 2020, hosting BPM Live 2019 and attending OPEX Business Transformation Europe in Amsterdam. Those three links show the breadth of what we do at PEX Network, and although we cast the net wide with research, physical and digital events, there are a couple of themes that have come through and which we will be elaborating on as we approach the end of the year and begin to look forward into 2020.

What to expect in 2020

The big change has been in how we talk about automation. This report from Pega says that businesses which have embraced automation have not had an untroubled union, with 87 per cent said they had substantial problems with broken bots and 41 per cent claiming they are spending more time and resources than expected to maintain automations. The idea that RPA is a panacea simply does not hold water: look no further than online clothing retailer Asos which suffered a 68 per cent drop in profits, in part because "a warehouse in Berlin struggled with a switch from processing orders manually to automated systems."

The focus has shifted. Businesses are now looking for solutions more than sheer numbers of bots. In last year’s PEX Report, I wrote that there could come a day when the metric for measuring the size of a company was not the number of employees, but the number of digital workers it employed. I was at best premature if not wrong. As LEGO Continuous Improvement Director Peter Evans has said, “Nobody is talking about the number of bots being deployed now, they’re looking at solutions.”

This is not to say that RPA has not been an effective force for transformation; it does, however, point to the difficulty of predicting the future. For those worried – or hopeful – that RPA would turn out to be a job destroyer, the reality as we approach 2020 is that digital workers are distinguishing themselves from human workers, rather than directly replacing them. Employers are looking at how to use the freed-up hours more effectively rather than lay off staff, and one way that people can add value is in making sure the robots work properly. It has become apparent that you cannot just ‘get a robot to do it’: digital workers need real people to keep an eye on things, and this management is what makes the difference between an automation project that is a success or failure.  

Training is the last issue that will become more important in 2020. Automation is offering opportunities, but they are not opportunities we have seen before. I have been party to a number of conversations about ‘future-proof skills’ and what measures we can take to ensure that our jobs are not automated away. New technology will bring in new skill requirements, and businesses will have to choose between trying to find new employees with these skills or re-train existing workers. The conclusion of every conversation about future skills I have participated in has been that a willingness to learn and change in the first place is the safest strategy. Agility applies to businesses in turbulent times. At times like these, it applies to people too.