Throughout the year, 2020, companies everywhere had to reimagine their businesses and the future of work. It made us realize that digital transformation was not a fad or incremental project to roll out by department; it’s imperative to be agile and remain competitive during disruptive times.

Digital transformation will continue to be a top priority for CIOs in 2021, according to new research by Constellation Research. Here is how to reimagine digital transformation in 2021.

The Constellation Research surveyed Fortune 500 CIOs and found that 77.3% prioritized digital transformation for their 2021 budgets over any other business activity. It will undoubtedly affect the entire business – from customers to employees to management.

There are several lessons learned that emerged from the year 2020 business.

Businesses should take into consideration with future digital transformation initiatives. You’re likely launching or scaling a robotic process automation (RPA). Maybe you are implementing or looking to fix or optimize some other intelligent automation transformation.

Understand that any automation speeds up the value of business and improves customer experiences. Here are the top five revelations that will help leaders reimagine how they digitally transform their organizations in 2021 and beyond.

  1. RPA is not a strategic initiative

RPA has proven to be a useful tool for automating desktop manual tasks to increase speed and productivity, and there is an expected continued uptick for it in 2021. However, enterprises adopted it too quickly and added it to several projects that didn’t deliver the value they expected.

One of the most challenging aspects of RPA is that it isn’t smart; bots will repeat broken processes and cannot process unstructured content, which makes up 70% of enterprise content.

Transformation leaders are now realizing that in order to generate the most value from RPA, they need to take a more strategic approach and have a complete understanding of how their processes work and how employees interact with them overall.

Using process intelligence to back their decisions will validate the value it will deliver before starting any initiative. Additionally, RPA software bots need cognitive skills equipped that enable comprehension of any form of content and automate repetitive tasks to minimize human intervention.

  1. The difference between desktop automation and true enterprise transformation

Automating tasks that workers used to perform from their desk was often the beginning of digital transformation initiatives. However, the disruptions enterprises encountered during COVID highlighted that there’s a big difference between automating manual data entry and digitally changing how entire processes are executed.

In 2021, more companies will boost automation and enhance human intelligence with AI to help with workplace disruption for location-based, physical, or human-touch workers who are working from home.

According to research firm Forrester, this includes applying AI for intelligent document extraction, customer service agent augmentation, return-to-work health tracking, or semiautonomous robots for social separation.

True enterprise transformation involves not just automating tasks and processes for the sake of automation, but using advanced technologies to understand how people, processes, and content interact together, and completely re-engineering how they work together.

  1. Leaders need to better understand and optimize their workforce

There has been a myriad of productivity and collaboration tools introduced to help employees conduct their work faster and more efficiently. But is it really improving their workflow? Most employees say they deviate from set processes to successfully complete their tasks. One in four get so frustrated they want to quit their jobs.

It’s not just about tweaking processes in order to make them digital; it’s reimagining them to meet changing environments and expectations. One way of doing this is by understanding how employees complete their tasks within the programs and systems they use, and how it impacts other workflows and business outcomes.

Introducing workforce optimization tools, like task mining, monitors how tasks are done – not to be confused with monitoring employee actions as part of their performance. Its goal is to find optimal patterns of task completions so that organizations can shift away from highly repetitive tasks and empower employees to focus on higher value tasks.

It can also be effectively used as a personal productivity tool for employees to see how they’re working, how they can improve, and identify areas where additional automation can assist them. For example, if an employee doesn’t see the benefit from a program in place, they can show their employer how many hours they lose with the current program or how it’s negatively impacting their productivity.

  1. Workers are capable of working with AI

Now that organizations have introduced RPA digital workers to their human workforce, management and workers alike realize the benefits of having a digital colleague. More companies will equip staff with their own software robot to augment their daily work for tasks with invoicing, onboarding, loan processing, and more.

Knowledge workers will be able to easily train, set up, and monitor their digital coworker with a new breed of low-code/no-code software solutions and infuse them with specific AI enabling skills such as reading, understanding, and reasoning documents specific to their jobs.

Robots that do these tiresome tasks – from replying to emails to sorting through documents for relevant data – will give employees more time for higher-value work like handling exceptions or nurturing customer relationships, which, in the age of social distancing, allows for more personal connection.

  1. Data can do more than you think

Data used to be the last step of a business process – filed away after a transaction was complete. With customers’ growing expectation-of-now, leaders realize that rather than extracting then inputting data at the end of processes or on an as-needed basis, workers (human and digital) need access to relevant information in real time.

Content needs to be an active stream of critical information fueling processes and decisions in real time without intervention from the team that implemented it.

Making data work smarter for organizations will be big in 2021 and will make content intelligence and document processing solutions more popular than ever. From digitizing documents, structuring dynamic data like emails, images and PDFs and streamlining the intake by multiple systems.

By combining data with business analytics and process automation platforms, leaders will have an end-to-end view of their interconnected processes and a greater understanding of the health of their organization.

While digital transformation isn’t new, the current COVID-19 pandemic has driven companies to rethink their entire business models, with many launching DX initiatives in a short amount of time.

With businesses accelerating their transformations, others cannot afford to delay digitalization; new disruptors will continue to appear and more enterprises will push their CIOs to plan strategies that will establish the best technology in order to meet new needs and standards and customer experience demands.

Solutions like automation and AI will continue to gain relevance and remain even when the pandemic ends. While the ongoing digital revolution may bring serious challenges to many businesses, it also provides them with the opportunity to reimagine what a better way of doing business could look like and will only enable those prepared to embrace DX to succeed.

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Bruce Orcutt

Bruce Orcutt is VP of Product Marketing at ABBYY, a Digital Intelligence company. He helps organizations to gain complete understanding of their business and raise their Digital IQ.