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As enterprises struggle with the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, they must enable employees to augment their workloads from their at-home locations. Digital transformation, primarily by using AI and robotic process automation, may be vital to this process.
Digital transformation, the adoption of new technologies to enhance an organization's processes, has long been necessary for enterprises to grow in the digital era. The pandemic hasn't changed that, but it has made digital transformation more critical than ever before.
Importance of digital transformation
In a live-streamed interview Wednesday during the IBM Think 2020 conference, held virtually, Rob Thomas, senior vice president of IBM Cloud and Data platform, noted that the pandemic likely isn't going to change businesses' digital transformation efforts fundamentally. Instead, he said, it will accelerate what would have happened anyway.
We've seen "an acceleration on the things that were already on the back of their minds," he said.
For enterprises, that may include using more robotic process automation (RPA) to automate front-end processes or turning to AIOps or DevOps tools to automate infrastructure and network operations. In general, however, using AI in digital transformation means automating processes that once were manual to more quickly scale services and enable employees to focus on more critical tasks.
Box and Slack chiefs on digital transformation
In a separate IBM Think session, Thomas spoke with Aaron Levie and Stewart Butterfield, the heads of Box and Slack, respectively, in an interview that touched on the coronavirus pandemic and the importance of digital transformation.
For Levie, CEO, chairman, and co-founder of Box, digital transformation is vital to a business's growth.
"When you think about how much manual work we do to run our IT environments and our businesses, it's just not going to scale," he said. "The only way to do it at scale, at some point, is to use some form of intelligence."
Aaron LevieCEO, chairman, and co-founder, Box
Enterprises' use of AI and RPA has skyrocketed over the last several years as AI technology has matured and become cheap and easy enough to use for most organizations to deploy. In a Gartner survey from 2019, the research firm found that the percentage of enterprises using AI technology increased by 270% over the previous four years.
Meanwhile, another Gartner report from mid-2019 predicted that AI augmentation will create $2.9 trillion in business value in 2021.
AI augmentation, which refers to the use of AI to aid businesses and employees in decision-making, learning and productivity, starts with basic automation such as RPA, which enterprises use to automate typically repetitive, tasks such as filing invoices.
Automating to save time and money
Automation, noted Butterfield, co-founder and CEO of Slack, has been used for decades. For years, the technology had been mostly limited to automating spreadsheets and databases, workloads that were "more automatable" at that time, he said.
With technologies like RPA and AI, enterprises now use automation to tackle repetitive front-end tasks. They are beginning to use it to handle back-end tasks, such as automating network operations, cleaning data or building machine learning models.
"It's exciting to anticipate what we will see going forward," said Butterfield, noting the expanded use of AI in network management.
"I love that idea of augmenting the efforts of humans … really augmenting the human intelligence," he continued.
The haves and have-nots
According to Levie, how an enterprise uses AI augmentation and automation will soon determine how well that enterprise can do.
Soon, he said, the difference between successful and unsuccessful enterprises won't necessarily be about money or size, but instead about whether the company has undergone a digital transformation or not.
"AI and automation are going to be fundamental for [digital transformation]," he said.
For enterprises behind in their digital transformation efforts, they should start making changes now, according to Thomas.
"Now is the time to act, and that's something you can do in your company," he said.