Robotics and automation the top of the agenda for 2017

Robots will join the workforce in a big way this year though they won't replace human labor just yet.

In the 2016 Autumn Statement, Chancellor Phillip Hammond’s announced that there will be a major increase in research and development funding for universities, with backing for technologies including robotics and AI. He also promised a new National Productivity Investment Fund of £23 billion to be spent on innovation and infrastructure over the next five years. The road ahead for British businesses in the digital economy seems assured. 

Hammond exemplified the need to turn to Artificial Intelligence and Automation by highlighting that it takes a German worker 4 days to produce what the UK can produce in 5 days, resulting in the fact that far too many British workers end up working for longer hours, and for lower pay than their European counterparts. Job satisfaction is taking a back seat to decreased productivity and that can’t be good for big business or the economy.   

It was also announced at the annual CBI conference that ‘innovation, growth and prosperity in a world of disruption’ will be crucial, and this, combined with Phillip Hammond’s statement, will undoubtedly be pushing businesses to rethink their back office processes to streamline operations and help staff to take on new roles. As a result of a robotised office, costs, risks and wasted time are eliminated. The ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ of the back office was also a prime topic of conversation among industry leaders and officials. 

And this is encouraging to see, given that the approach taken by many leading headlines is often not as pragmatic. We are all too accustomed to seeing stories on how robots are replacing humans in the workplace. But it is important to make the distinction between a robotised enterprise and a robotised workforce. An increased presence of robotics in businesses will not result in a loss of human labour, rather a transferal of their skills. Humans no longer need to spend their time and efforts on menial, repetitive and routinely tasks. These will instead be carried out by machines, or ‘robots’, meaning human resource can be utilised elsewhere; music to the ears of many employees throughout business, industry and sector. Imagine the benefits to the business of employees being able to spend more time on analysing data, rather than punching it into various excel spreadsheets on a computer day in and day out. Not to mention the increased self-worth of those employees as they are recognised for finding new and innovative ways to deliver a competitive advantage to the organization. 

The traditional back-office operations are positioned as most likely to reap the benefits of increased spending in robotics and automation. A large proportion of the tasks in this part of business process has already been outsourced, since these activities and updates can be carried out without human judgement, thought or cognition. Therefore, while the tasks are of course essential to business performance, they do not need to be performed by human employees. If we can totally eliminate the back office using process robotics, we can move to create a single office where workers are empowered and encourage to be more customer focused by concentrating on marketing, product innovation and total customer satisfaction. 

Take, for example, certain aspects of transactional accounting, or Human Resources. Many of these tasks involve updating move, change and add requests for the system of an organisation. Such changes could be to reflect updated benefits or salary information, or a change of address details into multiple insurance, or for healthcare providers. For a long time now, as a result of salary arbitrage, it has been more cost-effective to ensure that such processes are carried out outside of an organisation. But doing so is no longer necessary. 

In today’s day and age, repetitive, time-consuming tasks can now be automated using process robotics, spending on staff costs can be reduced, but there is no risk of these tasks being eliminated from business cycles. Outsourcing such tasks has long resulted in business inefficiency. Large, parallel structured companies are created, as employees are assigned to monitor the quality of outsourced work. You don't need to be an expert to realise that this is an incredibly inefficient way of organising a business. 

In order to truly enhance the way in which a business can benefit from the adoption of technologies, it is important to alter the way in which we discuss automation. It would be outdated to define automation simply as an IT engineering programme. It’s more of a business case scenario where process automation can smoothly transition the business from their inefficient ‘as is’ environment to the more efficient, standardized and compliant ‘to be’ environment. You as soon as someone mentions ‘re-engineering processes’, people automatically think about money disappearing down the drain; a long and painful process lasting years and with no guarantee that the end result will ever be attained, or that the original plan will ever be progressed and completed. 

To optimise the advantages of a robotised enterprise, it is essential to slowly enable the changes, and avoiding jumping straight into the approach. In this way, employees who are involved can fully immerse themselves in the transformation and also establish their own strengths and niche within that. A successful implementation of automation into a business is therefore largely dependent on a company’s rules, which are most appropriately decided by those with an in-depth inside knowledge of the processes that are to be affected. The implementation should be staggered; brought in step by step, so that it is certain that human labour is being shifted to and from the right place in the end to end process, and also whether all of enterprise can be robotised for greater efficiency. 

When a company operates at greater speed and its enterprise is robotised, its employees immediately become more proactive than reactive. As a result, it is achievable to be the first at the market with in-demand products and solutions. This also distinctly differentiates the company from other business and competitors.  

Intelligent automation is the first step to achieving a full-functioning robotised enterprise, where all repetitive tasks are robotised, so the innovative tasks are consequently delegated to the workforce. This is an ambition that can undoubtedly be realised. 

Neil Kinson, Chief of Staff at Redwood Software   

Image Credit: Tatiana Shepeleva / Shutterstock
 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Neil Kinson, is Chief of Staff at Redwood Software. Prior to joining Redwood Neil was part of the EMEA leadership team at OpenText, holding a number of executive roles.