What's in the stars for 2021?

Editorial Type: Feature Date: 2021-02-01 Views: 592 Tags: Document, RPA, AI, Collaboration, Covid-19, Strategy, Kodak Alaris, PFU, Hyland, Nuxeo, EASY Software PDF Version:
Our annual get-together of industry leaders yielded a number of topics likely to be on everyone's minds in the coming year, with the recurring theme of Covid-19 running through almost every aspect of the discussion

If there's one thing we can all agree on, it is surely that 2020 was a year like no other: the pandemic impacted every aspect of our work and personal lives in a way that very few of us had ever experienced before - and certainly none of us wanted to go through again!

It is therefore no surprise that when we asked a panel of industry experts for their thoughts on what 2021 might bring to the sector, the shadow of Covid-19 hung over every response in one way or another.

Mike Nelson of PFU EMEA summed up the general feeling: "Many of us have spent the last few months managing an appropriate return to work. Particularly in the services industry, this experience has also helped us advise our partners and customers travelling on the same journey. For those of us dealing in equipment, it does however present a clear challenge; how do we make sure our solutions can operate as effectively in the new normal? The return to a blended form of work will be a challenge for many companies moving into 2021, and it is why we expect to see far more blended IT offerings come to market where organisations don't simply purchase devices for the office, but the home as well."

BACK TO THE OFFICE?
Home working then is here to stay, in some form at least, even as businesses try to prepare for some kind of return to the office this year. Amanda Holmes of Kodak Alaris comments: "Whilst flexible working has long been a mainstay of many organisations, mass home working as a result of lockdowns has completely changed where work gets done - perhaps forever. The coronavirus pandemic has normalised remote work, and as a result much has been written about the demise of the traditional corporate office. It is highly likely that post-pandemic, we will see a new hybrid work model that blends in-office work with remote work. But for the hybrid workplace to be successful, it must be well planned and executed; business leaders will be looking for ways in which to securely, cost-effectively and efficiently provide hybrid workers with access to the right technology and services on demand - wherever they are."

For many, this 'blended' future approach will of course mean an even greater emphasis on the cloud, as Hyland's Tim Hood explains: "Cloud solutions provide remote employees access to information they would traditionally leverage in the office environment. Access to information and the ability for team members to collaborate are essential in driving businesses forward in a year like no other."

Collaboration, for long a partially-delivered buzzword for so many organisations, will be central to IT planning for the future. "The sudden shift to telecommuting due to the COVID-19 pandemic forces enterprises to rethink the way their teams work together," says Stéphan Donzé of AODocs. "With the absence of the physical meeting room, modern collaborative tools like Google Workspace are no longer a 'nice to have' and will play an increasingly important role in a company's ability to operate efficiently.

"Collaboration platforms that allow a team to work together on the same single version of a document, spreadsheet, or slide deck - with each contributing simultaneously to the content - become a real differentiator, compared to the traditional model where each person works separately on their own copy of the document and contributes a sprawling chaos of countless copies and versions."


"To this point, A.I. and M.L. are very much niche - requiring hand-holding and supporting specific use cases. To be successful this has to move to a model where they are fully embedded into the applications we use daily. The user doesn't need or want to think about A.I. - they want systems that make it easy for them to complete their tasks." - Fergus Wilson, Repstor

CHOOSING TEAMS
EASY Software's Tony Cheung agrees, at least in part: "The importance of centralised corporate information management has never been highlighted more, especially since the impact of managing through the lockdown. There has been an explosion of users relying on their collaboration platforms such as Microsoft Teams which came with their Office 365 subscriptions or the use of Salesforce for their Customer related activities. However the lack of organised information management for their key corporate documents in these new information silos will need to be addressed quickly before subscription costs spiral."

Fergus Wilson of Repstor also sees an increasing role for the Microsoft tool: "Teams changes everything: its adoption is key to successful implementation of content services systems. Existing content systems suffer from unfamiliar interfaces and inadequate integration with Office applications. Now we have Teams - familiar, easy-to-use, and always open on the user's desktop. It is designed to give seamless access not just to Office, or Microsoft 365, but to other systems within an organisation. Content system vendors will be scrambling to provide their functionality in Teams. Customers will start to think of Teams as the new, easy-to-use content system."

Kofax's Liz Benson goes further still: "Pre-COVID, organisations were obsessed with driving efficiency, collaboration, and innovation through analogue strategies like smart office equipment and innovative office design. Open floorplans, bean bag chairs, latte machines and electronic whiteboards were just some of the tools that supported employees in generating more agile and competitive ways of working and thinking. Fast forward to 2021 when employees and customers are virtual: there's now a premium on digital transformation as the vehicle for driving employee productivity and customer experience. Organisations mastering the digital landscape - from collaboration tools (Zoom, MS Teams, etc.) to automation tools (intelligent automation, financial process automation and enterprise output management) are thriving. Companies stuck in analogue business models are falling farther behind. This trend will accelerate in 2021 and will continue even after offices open up again. Digital workflow transformation is here to stay."

TAKING A LEAD
Digital transformation itself could be a trend that really takes off in 2021 and beyond, thanks in part to the demands of a post-pandemic shift in how we all work. As Amanda Holmes of Kodak Alaris adds: "2020 forced businesses around the world to hit 'fast forward' on their digital transformation plans. Facilitating effective remote working on a scale never seen before placed IT departments under massive pressure to very quickly ramp up the use of digital-first technologies to keep business moving. For companies committed to digital transformation before the crisis hit, the transition was undoubtedly much smoother than for those whose transformation efforts were in their infancy.

"2021 will be the year that separates the digital leaders from the digital laggards. Lessening reliance on paper-based workflows, eliminating manual processes and replacing them with streamlined digitised alternatives that seamlessly integrate into line of business operations and enable faster access to information; will be critical to maximise organisational efficiency, employee productivity, and most importantly, profitability."

Sean Baird of Nuxeo agrees: "The major changes to the workplace environment in 2020 have accelerated the focus on digital transformation in many organisations, and I expect that we'll see a continued focus on adoption of the technologies that enable firms to achieve this. Content will continue to be critical, and the organisations that can bring content-centric applications to market quickly will be well-positioned for 2021 and beyond. In addition to the need for content services, organisations are increasingly looking at artificial intelligence to help automate their content-centric business processes. I expect AI to become mainstream in 2021, as an increasing number of organisations achieve real AI successes."


"Any organisation that isn't using R.P.A. is missing out on serious automation quick wins. The pandemic gave companies added motivation to automate in general, especially around mundane tasks, the type that are in R.P.A.'s wheelhouse. Even those with an automation solution in place with traditional tools like workflow, will benefit from the 'automation extension' provided by R.P.A." - Tim Hood, Hyland

LEARNING TO SUCCEED
Several of our panellists cited AI and machine learning as technologies that will help organisations to get the most from their content, including Max Kelleher of Generis: "AI/ML solutions will absolutely become a commodity over the next 5 years for the large majority of standard use cases. While before customers were forced to reach out to specific AI-focused companies in order to run POCs with crossed-fingers, now vendors are taking up that role and integrating algorithm services directly into their platforms for a repeatable and consistent quality of product. With that, the market competition will resolve not around who can understand or implement the technology, but the accuracy of the results and the ability to provide greater value beyond standard methods."

AODocs' Stéphan Donzé agreed: "AI will play an increasing role in automating manual and mundane tasks, which continue to increase efficiency and accuracy while enabling information workers to focus on more strategic and high-level activities. In particular, AI will be leveraged in 2021 - and beyond - to substantially reduce manual data entry where human fingers would have been used to enter information into a database from an invoice, a W9, a scanned driver's license, and so on. The nature of AI is that it continues to get better and better at understanding and processing unstructured documents, and this is a game changer for enterprises that are still tethered to manual processes."

Repstor's Fergus Wilson also feels that AI is on the verge of becoming a commodity service: "To this point, AI and ML are very much niche - requiring hand-holding and supporting specific use cases. To be successful this has to move to a model where they are fully embedded into the applications we use daily. The user doesn't need or want to think about AI - they want systems that make it easy for them to complete their tasks. So AI and ML will become seamless - and this will be helped by commoditisation of this technology with initiatives like Project Cortex from Microsoft."


"Content Management and Data Management have become commodities. The value that businesses will be looking for in their systems is to be able to step through their entire business process, regardless of whether individual steps involve content or data - and to do so in as few different systems/user interfaces as possible." - Max Kelleher, Generis

AUTOMATION FOR THE PEOPLE
Alongside AI, RPA was one of the topics we returned to again and again throughout 2020, so it was no surprise to see it feature in the thoughts of many of our panel. Amanda Holmes of Kodak Alaris said: "Intelligent capture in combination with RPA will be particularly powerful in areas such as finance, IT, operations and information governance that have large process volumes and amounts of unstructured information and content tied to critical processes. RPA technologies which can automate repeatable processes, uncover efficiencies and provide insights, will make the path to digital transformation faster and more cost-effective, enabling companies to take information capture to the next level, by making total automation and paper-free processes a business reality."

Hyland's Tim Hood agrees: "Any organisation that isn't using RPA is missing out on serious automation quick wins. The pandemic gave companies added motivation to automate in general, especially around mundane tasks, the type that are in RPA's wheelhouse. Even those with an automation solution in place with traditional tools like workflow, will benefit from the 'automation extension' provided by RPA. A typical use case is integrating with an otherwise inaccessible application to copy and paste data from one system to another. The future of RPA will have self-learning bots with the integration of AI, especially machine learning. Systems and bots will learn from previous decisions to handle more and more rules-based processes independently. "

Liz Benson of Kofax expands on this theme: "RPA has caught on like wildfire, because it made automating routine, mundane tasks fast, easy and dare I say, fun. It made motivation-killing work like monotonous, cut-and-paste data entry a drudgery of the past. Where does RPA go from here? It's all about workflow." She goes on: "For savvy companies, 2021 is about harnessing their RPA automation expertise - and leveraging it with complementary technologies like process orchestration and document intelligence to automate their mission-critical business workflows."

For some, the idea that certain technologies are on the verge of being seen as commoditised is not limited to emerging tech such as AI and RPA. Generis' Max Kelleher again: "Content Management and Data Management have become commodities. The value that businesses will be looking for in their systems is to be able to step through their entire business process, regardless of whether individual steps involve content or data - and to do so in as few different systems/user interfaces as possible: meaning a true enterprise workspace is the shape of the future, not as an empty phrase but really as a space to do all your work. The lines between content and data will become increasingly blurred: it will be essential to be able to extract data from documents, manipulate and manage the data through complete workflows and lifecycles, and then build documents from data."

PFU's Mike Nelson sums up the general view of most of our experts: "Solely embracing digital technologies will not help businesses adapt to the new normal. A significant 86% of decision-makers say that managing the amount of information in their business is a challenge, and almost a quarter cited inaccurate decision making and lost documents as a result of 'information overload'. Therefore in 2021 we expect to see more organisations look to harness their collective organisational intelligence, breaking down silos and creating opportunities for the document management industry as a result."