The robot revolution – No progress without change

RBS’ recent announcement that it was making a move to replace staff with ‘robo-advisers’ stirred up another avalanche of headlines around the impact that automation will have on the workforce.

In fact, the direct comparison between robots and humans – conjuring up images of the Cadbury’s Smash mashed potato commercials – is not all that helpful as we look to advance the debate around Robotic Process Automation (RPA).

Robots, as a concept, are nothing new. The desire to create pre-programmable machines that are capable of completing tasks on our behalf goes back centuries. Perhaps the most notable application of robotics has been in in industrial manufacturing, in the 1960s – these machines changed the face of assembly and production lines, encouraging repeatability, waste reduction, enhanced quality control, and of course – job loss.

As robots have become increasingly sophisticated, we are no longer talking about simply replacing Person A with Robot A, and Person B with Robot B. RPA refers to the automation of business processes –whether in HR, the supply chain, or the finance function – and the interdependencies between these functions. In short, it’s a move from a user-centric to a process-centric view – a holistic rather than piecemeal approach.

In today’s digital age, you’d be surprised to learn how many regular, repeatable processes are still executed manually. Papers passing over desks, team organisation dashboards, hours spent inputting data, and then double-checking spreadsheets. This is true even for processes that are absolutely business critical – the financial close, within the finance function for example.

For as long as we remain tied to the idea that robots will replace humans, organisations will continue to overlook the value, and potential of RPA. In short, the opportunity to completely re-imagine the way the entire process is executed. As companies compete for efficiencies, innovative customer service options and new product offerings, “that’s the way we’ve always done it” will no longer be a welcome protest in the boardroom. The winners will be those that can see past the constraints of the existing, to envision the possibilities.

For those still grappling with how to get value from the enormous investment they made in their ERP system, the thought of introducing robotics may feel like a headache-inducing move. All too often, this hesitancy is underpinned by the feeling that the benefits offered by RPA are “too good to be true.” Here, we’re battling the legacy of the automation industry, which has historically been guilty of over-selling, and under-delivering. Your ERP is called a ‘system of record’ for a reason – robots should re-inforce this, and interact with this system, ensuring that compliance is (as it should be) a natural and inherent by-product of any business process. Smart robots are able to track and validate entire processes ‘end to end’, to deliver a comprehensive audit trail.

Oh, and data. Businesses across all industries are extremely alert to the insight and improvement that can be driven through analysis and understanding of ‘Big Data’. By their very nature, robotics generates streams of accurate, valuable data simply as a by-product of executing the process. Once captured, this information can be analysed and exploited to review past performance and identify ways to improve.

We cannot persist with old tools and approaches in an increasingly digital world. We are awash with data and connections on a global scale and must adapt in line. Jobs will be lost, but others will be created – skill sets will change. Repetitive, manual processes will increasingly be automated, freeing workers up to focus on more value-add, strategic tasks.

Davos this year was centred on ‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution’ – surely we’re not expecting a revolution without change?

Neil Kinson, VP EMEA, Redwood Software

Photo Credit: Willyam Bradberry/Shutterstock