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  • Expleo’s Rob McConnell delves into how robotics and automation will play a pivotal part in Northern Ireland’s economic recovery

    The last number of months have seen immense changes in how we work. 

    As enterprises become increasingly digital, their demand for IT and technical skills is increasing in tandem – to a point where demand is far outstripping supply and many companies are unable to afford the highly sought-after specialists they need to compete on a local and global level. So, what can businesses do?

    Rob McConnell, Global Head of Digital Labs at Expleo, a technology consultancy firm delivering innovative solutions to local and global enterprises from its Belfast base. Guiding organisations through every step of their digital transformation journey, Expleo sees the challenges facing Northern Irish businesses every day. McConnell says part of the solution to the skills dilemma must come from increased investment and deployment of automation and associated technologies.

    “Companies are still investing massively in IT and digital capabilities; integrating and upgrading systems in order to stay competitive,” says McConnell. “Digital enablement and transformation, spurred on by COVID-19, are top of the agenda in most global boardrooms. That will not change anytime soon: the current global situation requires it.

    “Every business is now trying to quickly understand the future of work, how people will collaborate and how technology will better support a new business model. We keep hearing the term ‘the new norm’ but few really understand what that might mean. Part of the answer must lie in evolving the digital workforce. By that, we don’t just mean training people in digital processes and technologies, more that the use of robotic process automation (RPA) will be a key driver of change.”

    By this, McConnell isn’t suggesting replacing one workforce with another, but rather fuelling economic growth – and therefore jobs – with automation. Since COVID-19 restrictions on people and businesses were announced in March, we have seen how automation has helped organisations to stay afloat. It has allowed those who have experienced a rise in demand to meet that need, enabled others to cut costs, and has aided businesses in clearing backlogs caused by the sudden disruption to their business.

    McConnell predicts that the very act of getting people back to work and in the office – at least some of the time – will be a mammoth task that, if it is to be efficient, will require the automation of systems and processes.

    As technology continues to advance, so too will automation and its various applications. Businesses therefore must ensure that they are using the right technology, in the right way, with the right people.

    “Automation is providing speed, capacity and freeing people up to focus on more creative tasks,” says McConnell. “It has matured to not just offer support on tedious and time-consuming processes, but also the handling of front office tasks such as interacting directly with customers, offering options, giving feedback and taking and processing orders.

    “As with all technology investment, the business case has to stack up. The change approach has to be well orchestrated and managed to be successful. Like so many other IT investments, RPA can fail to deliver and meet business needs and expectations if it is not implemented correctly and for the right reasons.”

    This presents a conundrum: organisations need to digitise more and more processes to compete, yet the dearth of skilled IT professionals who can implement the necessary changes remains. It sounds like the making of an IT headache for businesses, but McConnell says it needn’t be. 

    “One rapidly growing and mature aspect of process automation, and an aid to digital transformation, is no code/low code technologies and platforms,” he explains. “As the name suggests, the key principle of low code is that it greatly reduces the need for specialist technical skills. The low code platforms offered by big-name vendors such as Microsoft, OutSystems and Salesforce have matured significantly in recent years to the point where they now offer a real, scalable alternative to traditional approaches.”

    Attendees at this year’s virtual BelTech conference may already have been familiar with the promise of low code technologies. There, attendees were shown how business applications can be built using low code platforms in just one day. However, McConnell points out that greater simplicity doesn’t make these platforms a silver bullet.

    He explains: “If used and implemented correctly within the right delivery processes and teams, low code technologies can be highly effective; delivering speed and cost benefits for the development of digital solutions. However, the focus should always be on quality and user experience. It is easy for businesses to lose sight of this and instead get bogged down with ensuring they are using the technology to its full potential. If it is helping an enterprise to address an unmet technology need, or is helping software engineers to become more productive, then it has worked.”

    The ‘new norm’ may well be a concept that few of us can grasp right now. However, what we do know is that technology will be critical to business success, while issues with access to talent are likely to remain. The key for Northern Ireland’s enterprises right now should therefore be using that technology smartly so that every organisation can play its part in reigniting the economy.

    To find out more, visit the Expleo website or talk to the team today.

    This article first appeared in the summer edition of the Sync NI magazine and it can be found here.

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