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ITWeb: The perils and promise of smart automation in South Africa

By Johan Steyn, 9 June 2021

The automation of business processes has a long history and has proven to increase processing speed and reduce costs. In an ever-more increasing global competitive environment, all business enterprises seek to deliver more work with fewer workers, while adapting faster to the demands of their clients.

The smart automation era (also called intelligent automation), underpinned by record-high processing speed, cloud computing and new technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, has catapulted business process automation into a new age.

With the excitement and promise of these new technologies, society should justifiably be increasingly concerned about the impact on workers. We have already witnessed the start of massive job displacement globally affected by smart automation.

Globally, it is the developing economies that have the most to lose. High levels of unemployment, collapsing infrastructure and education systems that have not kept up with global demand may cause these countries to experience a pandemic of job losses. The South African economy will certainly not be spared from the smart automation onslaught.

The following, in my opinion, are the main challenges we face in the local market related to smart automation:

  1. Almost all enterprises are grappling with the speed of change. They are under increasing shareholder and client pressure to deliver goods and services at a faster pace, while dramatically decreasing their operating costs.

  2. Many businesses approach automation as a technology initiative while partly or mostly ignoring the impact it is having on its workforce.

  3. Few organisations have efficient change management and reskilling programmes in place.

  4. In many businesses, the top leadership (CxOs) have little knowledge about smart technology and its potential impact on their organisations.

  5. More often than not, smart automation is not approached as a solution to the technology ecosystem (data, privacy, legacy applications, ways of working, etc).

Where should a business start in its intelligent automation journey?

It should first, and foremost, be driven by the business strategy. Too many technology initiatives are initiated and managed solely by the technology team.

It is understandable that technologists are keen to lay their hands on new technology platforms, but frequently the business case is poorly defined. Therefore many of these initiatives fail to gain cadence and continued funding.

Smart automation will introduce a significant change to how the organisation operates.

The business case for smart automation should be related directly to lowering operational costs, increasing the speed of delivering new products and features, and most importantly, better client experience.

It is important to consider the tools and platforms already in place before a decision is made to invest in new technology. The likes of robotic process automation (RPA) can deliver vast benefits to executing repetitive, back-office tasks, but RPA is not a silver bulletto solve basic process and skills challenges.

Business leaders should start with plans to mature current business processes and better utilise tools already in use.

Smart automation will introduce a significant change to how the organisation operates. This will have a direct impact on organisational culture.

Peter Drucker is credited with the saying “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. With all the hype and fears around automation, workers will naturally be pessimistic, or even resistant toward automation initiatives. We have to take our people on a journey and ensure they understand that smart automation will benefit their day-to-day work activities.

With all the changes that smart automation will bring to the ways people work, an adequate target operating model needs to be created. What is the anticipated end state for the initial part of the automation journey? What kind of work will people be expected to do because their current work will be largely automated? And do people have the needed skills and training to perform new types of work?

It is clear that South African businesses have a lot to do in order to ensure they utilise intelligent automation to increase their competitiveness on the global stage. There is clearly a looming gap between technological planning and the future of the workforce.

Government, business leaders and society have to work together to ensure our businesses thrive in the era of the fourth industrial revolution while maintaining our responsibility to our fellow citizens.

Johan Steyn is a smart automation and artificial intelligence thought leader and management consultant. He is chairman of the Special Interest Group on Artificial Intelligence and Robotics with the IITPSA (Institute of Information Technology Professionals of South Africa). He writes in his personal capacity.


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