7 intelligent automation trends to expect in 2021

With businesses continuing to navigate the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, what can we expect to see from automation and AI next year?


This is a contributed article by Liz Benson, Senior Strategy Director at Kofax.

At the start of 2020, global organisations had improvements in employee productivity and customer experience squarely in their sights. Viewing digital transformation as the key driver of competitiveness, B2B companies aimed to leverage advances in automation and artificial intelligence to reimagine organisational workflows.

Then COVID-19 arrived, forcing global organisations to rethink how and where business took place. The momentum for digital transformation accelerated. Now, as we shift into 2021, it’s clear remote work and virtual business transactions are here to stay. Here are seven major trends we expect to see for the workplace next year.

  1. Say hello to complete digital workflow transformation: Before the pandemic, open floorplans, bean bag chairs, latte machines and electronic whiteboards were just a few of the tools organisations used to foster more agile and competitive ways of working and thinking. COVID-19 upended this approach with startling speed, as employees and customers pivoted to remote work. Digital workflow transformation is now the main vehicle for driving employee productivity and customer experience. Organisations mastering the digital landscape – from collaboration tools (Zoom, MS Teams, etc.) to automation tools (intelligent automation, financial process automation and enterprise output management) are thriving. Companies stuck in analogue business models are falling farther behind. This trend will accelerate in 2021 and will continue even after offices open up again.

  2. Next-level business workflow builds on RPA: RPA caught on like wildfire because it made automating routine, mundane tasks fast, easy and dare I say, fun. Motivation-killing work like monotonous, cut-and-paste data entry is now a drudgery of the past. What’s next? For savvy B2B companies, 2021 will be all about harnessing their RPA automation expertise – and leveraging it with complementary technologies like process orchestration and document intelligence to automate their mission-critical business and create high-value workflows.

  3. Prioritise high-value workflows: Organisations run on workflows – sequential tasks like onboarding, invoice processing or approving documents – that are part of a complex business process. Workflows are organisations’ intellectual property – the DNA encoding how they do things smarter, faster, better, cheaper. But not all workflows are created equally. In 2021 organisations will need to prioritise automations yielding the most value, the soonest. Those are workflows whose ‘DNA’ has the following characteristics:
    • Document intelligence: Workflows that apply cognitive capture and artificial intelligence to unstructured data to automate and extract information and unlock data insights
    • Process orchestration: Workflows involving orchestration of digital workflows in collaboration with users, systems and data
    • Connected systems: Workflows involving multiple critical business systems – enterprise applications, legacy systems, mobile, chatbots and more – across internal and external business processes

  4. Ecosystems are the next evolution: Integrated intelligent automation platforms – one-stop-shop platforms with pre-integrated, complementary automation technologies – were the preferred method of driving digital workflow transformation results in 2020. But while they provided all the capabilities and AI needed to automate quickly, drive rapid results and reduce technical debt, many organisations still require customisations. The next evolution required to fill that gap? Ecosystems. Platform providers have developed vast networks of technologies, applications and services operating within their open, dynamic and integrated architectures – providing access to a network of services, pre-built connectors, templates and solutions. Companies in 2021 will increasingly rely on these ecosystems to buy the business outcomes they desire – accelerating their ability to achieve desired automation results.

  5. ‘Citizen developers’ will set the pace: As more intuitive intelligent automation platforms emerge, business line leaders – partnering with IT – will be empowered to focus automation efforts to drive specific strategic business outcomes. These ‘citizen developers’ will work with IT in a federated model, harnessing intelligent automation to transform information-intensive business workflows. Many companies excelling today in the New Normal are already following this approach, creating agility, reducing technical debt and accelerating time-to-value. Other organisations seeking to accelerate their digital transformation efforts will emulate this model.

  6. Prepare to surf the 5G data wave – or else drown in data: In 2021, 5G will enable companies to transmit, collect and analyse exponentially more data than ever before to fuel business strategy and decision-making. Organisations with the capacity and ability to ingest this surge of data, digitise and transform it into business insights will be able to surf the 5G data wave and attain new heights of performance. It all starts with having document and data intelligence technology necessary to convert unstructured data locked in 5G transmissions into structured data assets. AI and Cognitive Capture will be key for achieving document/data classification, sentiment analysis and content extraction from key documents such as financial records. Those unprepared will be inundated by a tsunami of unusable information, and risk drowning in it.

  7. AI empowers the masses: Embedded in intelligent automation platforms and leveraged as a key accelerator to achieving digital workflow transformation, AI will no longer be the sole domain of data scientists within global organisations. In 2021, it becomes more accessible to everyone within the company. Machine Learning (ML), Natural Language Processing (NLP), Intelligent Optical Character Recognition (OCR), and Image Recognition embedded in intelligent automation platforms will empower citizen developers to achieve digital workflow transformation – dramatically elevating productivity levels and accelerating work throughout the global enterprise.

As these trends show, AI and intelligent automation will enable global organisations to be more efficient, as they offload routine work to digital workers and enable employees to focus on higher value work. Harnessing digital workflow transformation at scale will drive the agility global organisations need to create their competitive advantage in 2021.

Liz Benson is the Senior Strategy Director for Kofax, driving corporate-level strategy formulation and leading alliances to partner with complementary ecosystem technology companies - creating scalable and transformative solutions for customers. She previously led the Conversational Artificial Intelligence practice for Deloitte across the federal, state and local government and higher education markets.