Forrester: The new automation fabric is where digital business happens

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A new report describes how a collection of automation technologies including RPA, low-code tools, chatbots and machine learning, are converging atop the application layer.

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Automation is changing the paradigm that development was limited to app development and delivery professionals with specialized skills, a new report from Forrester finds. Today, with low-code tools and robotic process automation builders, "business users and non-coders can now build bespoke workflows and customized functionality," according to the Automation is the New Fabric for Digital Business report.

But a piecemeal approach to automation technology has created as many problems as it has solved, according to the report. One issue is that tactical automation undersells transformative potential.

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While automation is the enabler supporting transformation at multiple levels, "tactical, cost-focused automation disconnected from digital transformation goals can inhibit this broader vision."

Other issues outlined in the report:

Islands of automation lead to a myopic view of the possible. Companies are crisscrossed by multiple automation programs that each exist in its own silo. For example, a company's finance team may use RPA while the IT team champions low-code or artificial intelligence and the contact center dabbles in chatbots. Automation silos between different tech initiatives prevent teams from reaping the obvious synergies between these convergent technologies.

Overreliance on a single automation technology causes suboptimal outcomes. Companies can overcommit to a given automation technology without considering whether it's the best approach to achieve a goal. This syndrome can be avoided by using holistic automation governance approaches.

The report quotes Pavan Subramanya, director of intelligent automation at Fiserv, who said the company has pivoted to focus on the business problem rather than the technology to solve it. "Today, our automation architects' approach is to design the technology solution using multiple tools to deliver the most optimal solution that fits the business case," Subramanya said. "All technologies are open for consideration, including low-code applications, chatbots, RPA, BPMS, IVR automation, SMS gateways and AI."

Tactical approaches create technical debt. Tactical automation can often temporarily patch over pockets of inefficiency, allowing CIOs and CFOs to defer modernization investments, the Forrester report said. The tactical approach "only lets inefficient legacy processes and applications stay broken. And if you let processes proliferate without strong governance, automation might only end up making them more brittle. This causes unpredictability in the short term and creates long-term technical debt, which impedes transformation later," the report said.

The automation fabric unifies diverse technology options

Today's diverse automation options are already beginning to coevolve and converge into a broad weave—a "fabric"— that sits above the app layer, Forrester said. This fabric combines digital workers and AI agents such as chatbots with event-based and integration-centric orchestration.

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Forrester defines the automation fabric as a system for whole-of-business automation that integrates multiple adjacent and complementary automation technologies, process architectures, organizational behaviors and partner co-innovation models, to support the goals of human-centered automation and an autonomous enterprise.

An automation fabric is not a product available on the market but organizations can buy the technologies that they need to flexibly address their transformation goals, Forrester said.

Within the fabric, automation is the application

The automation fabric is weaving together diverse technologies to reduce the complexity of underlying application and process landscapes, enabling work and empowering workers, the report said.

When this occurs, the fabric starts acquiring characteristics such as processes woven throughout, and the ability for applications to "express themselves through the fabric," the report said.

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The fabric also orchestrates interactions between humans and bots. AI capabilities are injected into the fabric, which offers opportunities for new forms of engagement. The fabric's extensibility also promises support for future use cases, the report said.

"Many real-world processes are disconnected from the ambit of process automation. Imagine a world where a user-created workflow triggers an automated process that ends in a robot flipping a burger or a drone delivering a package," the report said. "Such workflows are difficult to engineer today but will become commonplace in three years as sensors, drones, robotics and 5G proliferate. Due to its flexibility and openness, the automation fabric can extend to support cloud robotics platforms and several emerging use cases."

The report recommends organizations adopt five behaviors to help create success with the automation fabric:

  • CEOs and heads of digital must embrace and drive automation as a "strategic motion. Set a "big hairy audacious goal" to achieve automation-fueled transformation. Enterprises that excel at automation will obliterate competitors that do not.
  • Converge fragmented automation initiatives rather than allowing these technologies to remain in their own silos. Unify multiple automation skillsets such as RPA, low-code, APIs, data science and machine learning into a common framework.
  • Use balanced scorecards to govern automation and provide visibility into its true impact.
  • Empower business users to lead the charge. Let them build and support automations.

Make user and customer experience a key focus. Automation design often has no user experience or CX support. This is at odds with the fact that employees and customers are often those who interact the most with automation. Organizations must make CX tools, such as customer journey mapping, a core part of the automation toolkit, the report said.

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