The Role of Automation in Times of Social Distancing

The Role of Automation in Times of Social Distancing
The Role of Automation in Times of Social Distancing. Image source: Pixabay

Following the global crisis brought about by COVID-19, organisations face previously unthought-of scenarios in order to maintain business-as-usual activities. Many business functions have had to quickly adapt to being performed from the home office with software such as Microsoft Teams, Skype and Zoom being used on an unprecedented scale as organisations scramble to set up virtual offices. Organisations are having to adapt to cater remotely not only for crisis management and planning for the future, but also for day-to-day execution of processes.

Some organisations have chosen to follow one of two main trends in these challenging times that necessitate social distancing to ‘flatten the curve’. Either they are rapidly increasing the speed at which they want to automate processes or, less commonly, they are stepping away from automation as such projects are seen by some as non-essential. An example of each these trends follows.

In fictional organisation A, employees used to be able to rely on a paper trail that involved walking across to a supervisor’s desk with invoices for the approval and release of bank payments. As things stand today the process has fallen apart and payments are behind, opening up the financial and reputational risk of the organisation to its creditors.

Before South Africa’s lockdown came into place, each invoice was either received physically or printed out, manually captured on the core system, sent for physical signature and then released for payment. Since this organisation doesn’t perceive automation to be of strategic importance, they have suspended their automation roadmap during the 21-day lock down period – much to the detriment of the organisation.

Not only are manual activities presenting the ‘usual’ risk of fraud and human error, but now they are an even greater risk to the organisation’s reputation to external stakeholders. Business-as-usual is difficult and onerous to achieve, and certain core processes of the organisation are at a deadlock.

Automation of rules-based activities such as invoice processing could provide much-needed relief for organisations. Humans would be freed up from manual, repetitive work to deal with the exceptions, investigations and crisis management that is so critical at this time.

Whilst various automation solutions could be assessed for suitability, ideally an end-to-end solution that functions intelligently and intuitively across all applications and systems involved and that mimics human behaviour should be considered. Such solutions, if sourced from the right vendor, are more cost effective than any other option.

Take, for example, this unique Invoice Processing Engine, incorporated into an Automated Vendor Management Solution, provided by North Wind Digital.

Through this invoicing solution:

  • Processing time per invoice is cut down to minutes​
  • Costs associated per invoice are greatly minimised​
  • The risk of human error and fraud is reduced​
  • Validation is done automatically​
  • Three-way matching takes place automatically​
  • Audit ability and traceability improve exponentially
  • BBEEE Status of vendors is confirmed
  • VAT Status of vendors is confirmed
  • CIPC Registration of vendors is confirmed


Real-life organisation B has realised that in order to function effectively, they need to automate customer services and financial processes to alleviate their lockdown crisis. The benefits and ROI will continue way beyond the lifetime of COVID-19, but the urgency has never been greater.

Where previously, a number of employees within companies responded with anxiety to automation of tasks, for the first time we are encountering an overwhelming demand from all parties to automate the tasks they find difficult to perform at home: those manual, repetitive, mundane activities which form a part of everyone’s daily work, but which nobody has time for under the circumstances.

Intelligent automation has not only made the life of humans easier and more productive, but it has also eliminated key business risks, and dependencies on face-to-face interactions of employees. It has helped put business-as-usual activities back on the table and prevented them from being neglected whilst employees focus on value-add activities where they are needed most: managing the crisis at hand and planning for the future. No longer can organisations afford to not include intelligent automation as part of their digital transformation strategy.

As we enter week two of lockdown in SA, the long term effects of COVID-19 and social distancing will  change the face of business as we know it forever. Intelligent Robotic Process Automation (IRPA) could make a significant difference for an organisation not only now but in the future.

By: Mariel McLellan, Senior Consultant Intelligent Automation at North Wind Digital