by Stephanie Overby

Don’t fear the robots, embrace the potential

May 05, 2017
Artificial IntelligenceCareersEmerging Technology

Robotic process automation is not necessarily replacing human workers, but creating more capacity and the potential for employees to focus on higher-value activities.

robots humans working together ts
Credit: Thinkstock

A new study suggests that business and IT automation is taking over tasks, not jobs.

The implementation of robotic process automation (RPA) is enabling enterprises to execute business processes 5-10 times faster with an average of 37 percent fewer resources, according to a report released this week by Information Services Group (ISG). However, the productivity gains are not necessarily leading to mass layoffs, but rather the redeployment of employees to handle higher-value tasks and a greater volume of work, according to ISG

[ Related: Building a business case for offshore robotic process automation ]

Automation is creating a polar shift in how work gets done,” says ISG partner Craig Nelson. “While in the past humans have been supported by technology, we are now seeing a shift to technology being supported by humans to manage and operate business processes.  This shift is eliminating much of the mundane cut-paste-and-compare work that humans manage in the cracks between enterprise systems.”

The initial response to automation improvements is typically positive, says Nelson, as the technology takes over some of the dirty work employees are eager to offload. But then the anxiety can set in. The elimination of tasks can lead to the elimination of low-level roles, says Nelson. After all, the initial business case for automation was based on eliminating work and full-time employees. “However, as leaders have gained more experience, it is clear that robots are good at automating specific discrete tasks, not a person’s entire job,” Nelson says. “The extra capacity generated by automating tasks is being focused on executing more work or higher-value work.”

Rethinking RPA’s value

As CIOs and other leaders gain more experience with RPA, they are now looking at the automation technology within the broader digital transformation of the enterprise. “This entails understanding how RPA can support the digital backbone of the enterprise with automation and then moving to understanding the predictive analytics available with automation, which gives the enterprise greater insights into its business, customers and products,” says Nelson.

[ Related: RPA proving its transformational value at Deutsche Bank ]

Automation can also lead to the creation of new roles. “Longer term, the answer for workers is to embrace the polar shift toward skills required for humans to support technology,” says Nelson. New roles might include working in a robotics center of excellence, supporting automation configurations, process redesign and business digitization. IT tasks like writing scripts, monitoring infrastructure and applications, or providing desktop support are ripe for automation but there will be increased work involving business relationship management, configuring and maintaining automation, change control, and monitoring service strategy, as examples.

“Understanding the broader digital transformational journey and thinking about the human interactions that are required when an enterprise begins to engage its customer digitally puts RPA and job disposition considerations in a different light,” says Nelson. “The opportunity for job creation in this space is yet to be fully understood, but it is certain to create new roles and new jobs that we have not yet envisioned.”

Taking the long view

To date, most corporate leaders have focused on the cost reduction that the application of RPA can enable by reducing reliance on labor and outsourcing. Therefore, some leaders have been eager to eliminate processes and roles as soon as possible. But that’s a shortsighted approach, says Nelson. “The longer-term implications regarding talent retention and employee development are not being adequately addressed as the mad scramble for the cost savings tends to take priority over the impact of automation on the culture of the organization and considerations regarding the journey toward becoming a digital enterprise.”

[ Related: 11 ways to address RPA and AI in IT outsourcing contracts ]

RPA is typically deployed by line-of-business leaders rather than IT who see it as an easy way to eliminate costs while improving speed, accuracy and auditability. And since there’s no need to program these robots, IT often times is only involved in provisioning the infrastructure and making sure the solution is deployed using the right architecture.

IT leaders that want to remain relevant during this period of automation will build automation skillsets within their organizations, says Nelson “with a focus on agile deployment of automation working alongside business unit executives rather than positioning IT as a technology control center for what gets deployed.”

Of course, IT itself is being increasingly automated. According to an ISG survey cited in the report, 43 percent of IT leaders indicated that automation of operations will have the biggest impact on their IT spending through 2019. And roughly 7 out of 10 IT and business leaders feel IT will be the support function most impacted by automation by 2019.

Paving the way for new roles

IT and business leaders can do a much better job explaining the benefits of automation to employees, addressing their natural concerns, and clearing up misconceptions. “Automation is about taking the robot out of the employee by eliminating work that is standardized, rules-based, and process-heavy,” says Nelson. RPA can create more time for employees to handle customer-facing tasks that only humans can handle. It can increase accuracy and speed in the areas in which it is deployed. Automation will pave the way for new jobs focused on digital transformation, analysis, and delivering increased insight. RPA can also “reduce the use of outsourcing and offshoring as a labor arbitrage strategy by bringing work back onshore to be managed by humans interfacing with digital workforces,” says Nelson.

Organizations that want to retain key talent during this shift to automation can consider the following:

  • Identifying those inside the organization willing and able to take on new roles.
  • Creating training opportunities to help employees embrace and support digital operating models and technologies.
  • Collaborating with high schools, colleges and universities to define future talent and skill requirements.
  • Creating innovation pods (small cross-functional groups) where employees can brainstorm and create the new roles that will deliver higher value to the company. 

“Business and IT leaders must begin helping workers shift toward the use and management of automation capabilities, thus freeing up both labor and current IT spending to be invested in the transformation of the organization to the new operating model,” says Nelson.