Robots Are No Longer Just Machines On The Factory Floor

How digital workforces are transforming business processes

Back in 1965, companies stayed in the S&P 500 Index for an average of 33 years. These days, they are only in the club for around 18 years and even this is expected to decrease to 14 years by mid 2020. Schumpeterian ‘creative destruction’ is continuously driving the turnover of those businesses too slow to align their change programmes with the pace of market change.

This acceleration has, to some degree, been driven by a much greater transparency into the supply chain and as such, customer tolerance has been replaced by customer expectation. Companies not able to adapt are replaced, purchased or put of business by those nimble enough to take advantage of technological advancements and new ways of working.

Today’s expectations are met through speed, flexibility and customer service. The creaking model of siloed business process is being replaced by collaboration and outcome ownership that allows businesses to deliver products and services when they are needed by the customer, not simply when they are available. While there are now numerous tools to help companies reorganise, a key component in this evolving landscape has been the emergence of the digital workforce and robotic process automation (RPA).

There are few more polarising terms than RPA and artificial intelligence. On one side are the naysayers espousing the downfall of humankind, on the other, there are those who believe that automation is freeing the workforce of monotony so that they can become purely philosophical beings focused on making the world a better place.

Hype aside, early indications seem to have delivered more positive than negative outcomes. We have seen large scale deployments in the back office, increased customer retention through front office ‘attended’ automation. Rather than job losses, we have seen the creation of more customer focused roles, allowing companies to differentiate themselves from their competitors through better equipped staff aided by the speed, efficiency and productivity that the digital workforce delivers. At a point in time when the future of work is emerging, it might be worth revisiting how we got here and what is driving this seemingly unstoppable force.

The perfect storm

The various disciplines of business service delivery have been adopting technological solutions consistently ever since the personal computer was introduced as a client side integration with the mainframe. As the tech industry has grown, so too has the expanding layers of complexity associated with getting programs, systems, applications and computer languages to talk to one and other.

Predominantly delivered from low cost, distant locations, outsourcing filled the gap while the systems integrators grew their own ‘never ending’ revenue streams (smart people those consultants), promising to solve the problem of ‘inconsistent information’ by providing a single source of truth. Outsourcing works for cost reduction but not from a value perspective, since attrition, loss of knowledge, loss of control and wage inflation have all presented growing problems for the user organisations. At the same time, we have internal shared services organisations constantly under pressure from procurement and the finance department to match outsourcing’s lower cost of delivery.

While we have all become better at creating information and moving it around, we have not done a great job of enabling the use of that information to make better business decisions. With outsourcing’s diminishing lack of value creation and shared services struggling to match short term cost advantages, we are also faced with an increasingly intense, ‘battle for talent’, an aging global workforce and extended life expectancy.

This is a recipe for an approaching ‘perfect storm’ at exactly the same moment that the digital worker is ready to step in, delivering faster, more accurate and more productive output than human workers, at a fraction of the cost. Schumpeter wins again. . . or is it Darwin? In any case, since the digital workforce is emerging as the next evolutionary step in business service delivery, we need to understand how to leverage its potential or be left behind.

Working with the new ‘staff’

The term, ‘digital workforce’, is commonly understood to be part of a wider toolset that helps organisations to ll the gaps in their operations. There is a train of thought that robotic process automation is currently the most important lever to pull in the effort to digitise businesses. The digital workforce comprises of these main components.

  • Cognitive bots address the initial inputs where information and format
    is often unstructured. They do this by identifying common fields, drawing out the associated values and reformatting the layout into a standardised template.
  • RPA picks up on all standardised input formats then processes the inputs right up to the point of reconciliation.
  • Real time analytics offer a level of insight not previously available. As software bots run through their operations, they record and report on everything they touch, as they touch it. This means that information previously available at weekly or monthly reporting cycles is now available as it happens.

While each of them provide value in their own right, the combination of them all is where things get really interesting.

Robotic Process Automation

This delivers speed and service, with the entire organisation becoming a highly functional, joined up operation rather than a series of individual operational silos.

Digital business is no longer the sole domain of cutting edge tech companies. Just as Amazon can deliver your products on the same day through its Prime service and Google is able to align its advertisers interests with yours as you surf the internet, the combination of cognitive, RPA and real time analytics allows all organisations to react immediately to opportunities and changing market conditions. The digital workforce is effectively raising the bar and collapsing operational business lines into a single outward facing organisation that’s able to move quickly and accurately, removing the current process inefficiencies endured by businesses and customers.

The future is better than it used to be

The digital workforce extends across existing systems and infrastructure, connecting disparate operational silos at a fraction of the cost of systems integration or human workers. If speed is the currency of the modern enterprise, then the flexibility to adopt the most suitable applications to delight our customers will no longer held back by IT departments not communicating. The bots can do that on their own.

So, why would you not leverage the power of electricity when living in a world powered by steam? Most organisations are only starting this journey, employing RPA in the functions that best align to it. Highly repetitive processes are normally of low value, comparatively minimal risk, transactional and rely on standardised information inputs to operate in the factory model of service delivery. This is traditional back office operations in its purest format. It’s also a perfect for RPA.

That path towards further integration requires three steps. First is the reliance on IT to be the sole deployment agent of the digital workforce. IT departments are complex, trying to manage the influx of new application led tech as well as the growing appetite of businesses for such developments. Prioritisation is normally driven by spend and as such, the digital workforce is not an IT priority, given its low cost of entry. The good folk in IT have enough on their plates, so bots need to be, in part, developed and driven by the business users themselves.

The design philosophy around software has moved away from the IT departments custom coding each task towards self enablement and reusability, so why should bot creation be any different? If a business user can design the bot to take on some of their work, this will take the strain off the IT department as they no longer have to do all the heavy lifting. A business user building out the skeleton of the bot with no coding experience can then hand the ‘muscle’ development and governance to a digital workforce centre of excellence, sharing the workload and accelerating the deployment schedule. This model is proving to be very efficient but is still often hamstrung by the second component – change management.

The potential impacts of the digital workforce make us reconsider what an optimal enterprise model looks like, where the priorities lie and why we do the things we are doing. Change is never easy but is always essential. The digital workforce holds the potential to build a level of flexibility previously unheard of and to dynamically scale our businesses. However, moving away from our towers of process command demands a new level of change management, driven by strategic thinkers and supported by connected IT and business collaboration.

Third is the lack of a strategic drive to adopt a digital workforce. We have seen bots clear four year backlogs in three weeks, deal with high volume churn problems and generate millions in savings, yet these are all tactical fixes to specific operational problems. The most successful implementations all have one thing in common, ‘top down’ support and clearly defined goals by senior management.

The digital workforce is no longer an idea but a proven and fast growing component in the world’s leading organisations. If the new norm is ‘next day delivery’ and ‘on demand’ services the only companies that will retain or even grow their position in the S&P Index will be those flexible enough to disrupt themselves.

The future is here, are you ready?

Rob Hughes is SeniorDirector, EMEA Marketing at Automation Anywhere, a global leader in RPA