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The pandemic has spurred an increase in the use of automation, with a third of enterprises reporting they have employed automated processes in five or more departments during the past year — up from 15% in 2020. That’s according to Workato’s inaugural Work Automation Index, which was released today and drew on nearly 700 mid-sized to large enterprises using Workato’s workflow automation platform.

“Enterprise automation experienced a rapid surge in adoption this past year — no surprise, as business leaders closely examined where they could be more efficient in their operations and support remote teams amid a global pandemic,” Workato CIO Carter Busse said in a press release.

The Work Automation Index, which looked at enterprises with between $50 million and over $2 billion in revenue from April 2019 to March 2021, found “pronounced” automation expansion in specific lines of business. For example, customer support automation saw the biggest uptick of any department (over 290% year-over-year), with automation of return and refund processing experiencing 476% growth from the pre-pandemic period.

During the pandemic, enterprises turned to automation to scale up their operations while freeing customer service reps to handle challenging workloads. According to Canam Research, 78% of contact centers in the U.S. now intend to deploy AI in the next three years. And research from The Harris Poll indicates that 46% of customer interactions are already automated, with the number expected to reach 59% by 2023.

Chatbot usage in particular exploded during the pandemic as organizations looked to bridge gaps in customer service and onboarding. In 2020, the chatbot market was valued at $17.17 billion, and it is projected to reach $102.29 billion by 2026, according to Mordor Intelligence. There was also a 67% increase in chatbot usage between 2018 and 2020. And Gartner predicts that by 2022, 70% of customer interactions will involve emerging technologies such as chatbots — an increase of 15% from 2018.

Automation growth

Finance automation was another growing priority for enterprises over the past year, Workato found, with the volume of automated processes across the finance sector increasing by 199% — almost threefold. At the same time, data pipeline automation — i.e., automation of pipelines connecting business apps with cloud data warehouses — surged by 152% as companies embraced digital transformation. But recruitment saw the highest automation expansion of any single process at 547%, reflecting the digital shift of employee hiring, onboarding, and offboarding.

Security and compliance automation grew by 171%, meanwhile, reflecting the broader industry trend. Known as an autonomous response, defensive AI-powered security automation can interrupt attacks without affecting day-to-day business. According to a recent Darktrace report, 44% of executives are assessing AI-enabled security systems and 38% are deploying autonomous response technology. In a 2019 analysis, Statista reported that around 80% of executives in the telecommunications industry believe their organization wouldn’t be able to respond to cyberattacks without AI.

Overall, the Workato report reinforced the notion that the number of industries automation touches is still growing. A Deloitte report predicts the technology will achieve “near-universal adoption” within five years. And Gartner estimates that organizations can lower operational costs 30% by combining automation technologies like robotic process automation (RPA) with redesigned operational processes by 2024.

“Automation was a key driver in departments we anticipated, like IT and finance, but also provided increased capabilities in areas we didn’t expect, such as recruitment and customer success,” Busse continued. “From boosting employee productivity to creating better customer experiences, automation freed businesses and teams to focus on the priorities that mattered most at an incredibly uncertain time in the market.”

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