State-of-Automation blog-header-pink 2@4x

The state of automation and the emergence of “automation-first” software stacks

November 17 2020

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By Michael Peach

Today at Tray.io, we unveiled The state of automation, a new survey of 200 professionals across 13 industries that reveals how business software impacts productivity and why more companies are adopting automation to do more, faster.

As a company, we’ve seen rapid growth from business teams looking to take control of their processes and improve efficiency throughout their tech stack. We commissioned this survey to take a broader look at these trends:

  • What are the strategic initiatives driving technology investments?
  • When and why do business teams acquire new software?
  • How much do they struggle with manual work?
  • And why are they investing in automation as a result?

The picture that emerges is complex and shows a technology landscape in flux. Software stacks are still growing, but business teams now view automation as a way to make their software more effective, and in some cases, as an alternative to certain software tools. While most automation initiatives are still ad hoc, organizations are increasingly developing formal programs. Growing automation maturity will reshape technology stacks as software acquisition shifts to an “automation-first” mentality.

The limitations of growing software stacks

Our survey didn’t show a lessening appetite for new software applications. Despite having 100 or more applications on average, most respondents reported that they expect their departments to acquire more software in the coming years. At the same time, the survey highlighted increasing challenges associated with all this software.

Put simply, more software leads to more manual work. And it drives a desire for more automation. 62% of respondents said that they spend more than 3 hours a week manually moving data between applications, and 80% of respondents agreed that automating more of their work would increase productivity.

Notably, respondents rated their automation projects as more effective than stand-alone software applications at driving key enterprise outcomes, including improving employee productivity, supporting new products, and improving customer experience. Teams that can automate their own processes have greater control and can execute the way they want to rather than accommodating the design of an application or the limits of native integration features.

The shrinking role of IT

Integration and automation projects have historically been the purview of IT teams. IT’s ownership of integrations is due to the technical complexity of these projects and the tools typically used to support them. The emergence of business-friendly automation tools is changing this dynamic. Our survey respondents reported that functional and company leaders were the primary driver of these projects. Only 20% of respondents indicated that automation was an IT-led function.

The democratization of automation is following the pattern first set by shifts in application ownership. The emergence of SaaS ushered in a new wave of highly-usable business applications, and consequently, ownership of these applications shifted out of IT and to business teams. The growth of low-code, user-friendly automation tools is doing the same for integration and automation.

The growing maturity of automation programs

The influence of low-code automation software was apparent as survey respondents discussed the maturity of their automation efforts. While many organizations are just getting started, some have developed ongoing programs with a designated budget, and 90% expect their investments in automation to grow in the next few years.

Companies that were just beginning to implement automation into their processes were more likely to bring in consultants and outside experts to advise them. Meanwhile firms with more-mature programs were more likely to use automation platforms. The responses indicate that growing automation skills paired with flexible low-code tools will become prevalent across teams in the coming years. As functional teams become more proficient at building automated processes, their relationships with business software will evolve.

The rise of “automation-first” software stacks

What do our findings mean? Ultimately, organizations are looking to technology to help them improve operations and deliver better experiences to their customers. Automation is going to be an increasing part of these investments moving forward. How companies do things, otherwise known as their processes, are key differentiators. Companies that can effectively build automated processes aligned with the ways they want to work will have an edge.

Key to this “automation-first” approach is the democratization of automation. Scaling automation programs can’t rely on 3rd-party consultants or skills and tools that are locked up in IT departments. Business teams need to build their own automated processes, and IT teams need the governance and controls to let them. Our survey suggests that this shift is well underway.

The growth of automation doesn’t mean that software applications are going away. As the survey shows, most companies expect to increase the size of their software stacks over time. What will change is the buying criteria. If you know that you’ll use your applications in the context of automation, you’ll place more value on flexibility and API access rather than breadth of functionality. Users won’t be looking for monolithic applications to manage whole processes any longer. Instead, they’ll be looking for valuable functions that they can knit together in the ways that best serve their businesses.

For software providers, “automation-first” means that their APIs are just as important, if not more so than their user interfaces. Business users will expect programmatic access to all the core functions of the software they use. Products that don’t integrate easily and well with other applications or with automation platforms will lose market share to those that do. For product leaders, integrations will move from “nice to have” to “must-have” features.

The state of automation

In many ways, the survey results align closely with what we’ve seen in the marketplace in the past few years. Business-led automation will represent a significant shift in the ways that organizations acquire and use technology. The survey results show that we’re still in the early stages of this change. 90% of companies implement some workflow automation, but less than 20% have full-scale programs in place.

We’re excited to follow the evolution of automation and how taking an “automation-first” approach will transform business software. Moving forward, The state of automation will become an annual report that tracks the progress of automation, software, and the future of work. In the meantime, to learn more about these findings, you can:

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