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2025 Outlook: System wide automation – II

Increasing levels of enterprise process automation. From ERP – Enterprise Resource Planning, to BPM -Business Process Management- up to RPA -Robotic Process Automation- where robots and humans are fully integrated with “point to point Thinking”. Image credit: 4C Group AG

The Digital Transformation, DX, is moving a growing part of enterprise processes to the cyberspace. This shift has accelerated during the pandemic and companies had to “patch up” their processes to have them working in the cyberspace, This has led to increased automation, system-wide, to integrate tools and humans (employees) through the cyberspace. A few companies have saw this as an opportunity to re-think their processes: rather than patching up existing processes to be workable in the cyberspace (like creating private virtual networks and tunnelling to support employees work-from-home) they have re-designed their processes from scratch, to take advantage of the cyberspace (like transferring some activities previously executed by employees to soft-robots, digital twins, chatbots….). This transformation has led to changes in activities and interactions among employees and the company processes/resources.

This changes are depicted in the graphic and are not a novelty: the forced DX has just accelerated the shift. Using applications for planning the use of enterprise resources is a well consolidated way of working, ERP: Enterprise Resource Planning, that companies are used to optimise the use of their resources (tools, assets, providers, ….). The evolution step is towards the orchestration of the whole business through support software (that in turns requires the company to adopt specific processes), BPM: Business Process Management.  Whilst the ERP is focussing on well defined entities the BPM embeds aspects that are more difficult to define, like risk assessment, environment (legislation, raw material supply, market demands, labour force/skill availability… ),…

Now the DX by shifting many activities to the cyberspace can enable automation at the level of soft skills shared by tools (robots and software) and human resources. Welcome the RPA: Robotic Process Automation. Notice that, in spite of its name, the RPA is not a “robot”  business, it is an enterprise business because it aims at the integration of the thinking space of the company, thus including all human resources. The goal of RPA is to support a low cost “fast” implementation (whilst BPM is characterised by a low cost, slow implementation and ERP by high cost, slow implementation).  The crucial point here is the “fast” implementation.

The pandemic has forced companies to face overnight a completely new operation settings. This is one of the point that has been emphasised most by all CEO/CTO/CIOs I have been talking to over these two years. Whilst in 2020 to focus was on “let’s patch it up to continue operation” the focus has now shifted to “how can re-think my company’s operation so that it can be changed as needed in a very short time? This is pushing towards RPA.

Operation in the cyberspace clearly enables much faster changes, as long as it is not a patched up solution (where you constantly move from the cyberspace to the physical space along the process – a very comsamon situation in several companies during the pandemic crises). Most of the time it is not just about the operational processes, it is about the product itself, the way functions are delivered. The softwarisation of functions is clearly creating a much more flexible product but at the same time it requires a re-thinking of the whole value chain as well as the availability of different sets of skills.

The shift towards RPA has started and by 2025 several companies will operate under that paradigm. Artificial Intelligence is a crucial component for operation in that context: it supports seamless interactions among human employees and (soft) machines. By decade end we might expect several companies to operate in the cyberspace reducing the operation in the physical space at the very last moment.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.