Rethink How Humans and Machines Will Work Together - InformationWeek
IoT
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IT Leadership
Commentary
6/13/2017
09:00 AM
Craig Nelson, partner, ISG
Craig Nelson, partner, ISG
Commentary
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Rethink How Humans and Machines Will Work Together

Productivity gains from automation are not resulting in job losses, but are enabling companies to redeploy employees to handle higher-value tasks and a greater volume of work.

Automation is creating a polar shift in how work gets done. While technology assists human intelligence today, in the digital organization of the future, intelligent technology will be assisted by humans.

Already, automation is eliminating what I call “swivel chair” work: the mundane, manual cut-paste-and-compare work people have been forced to do between disparate enterprise applications, spreadsheets and scripts.

Such tasks are now being performed by digital robots. Indeed, almost any business process that interfaces digitally and follows standardized business rules can be easily automated. The fact is, robots are better at following rules-based processes than their human counterparts. That is, until they come across a situation that does not follow the standard protocol or requires cognitive decisions beyond repetitive process rules. This is where human teammates provide the needed support to their digital partners and where higher-value decision making is required.

That polar shift

When humans come face-to-face with the polar shift, they usually have a range of responses, from elation at the prospect that unwanted activities can be eliminated, to fear and uncertainty regarding job security.

Yet concerns about job loss are usually overblown, at least at the moment, according to recent research from ISG. The ISG Automation Index found the application of Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is enabling enterprises to execute business processes five to ten times faster, with an average of 37% less labor, as measured by full-time equivalent (FTE) resources. Such productivity gains, the report said, are not resulting in job losses, but are enabling companies to redeploy employees to handle higher-value tasks and a greater volume of work.

The report noted: “Humans are working alongside software robots, be they virtual agents or engineers, to increase their abil­ity to take more customer calls, resolve more service desk tickets and process more invoices. This improved productivity is seeing important downstream effects: increasing operational speed and scalability, improving compliance and avoiding future costs.”

In one real-world example, robots were deployed to take over the task of keying broker quote request information that had been previously performed by insurance underwriters. Automating this work freed these underwriters from mundane data entry and enabled them to focus on their real jobs, including “underwriting risk” and producing quotes. In this instance, the underwriters were truly elated as the mundane and meaningless parts of their jobs were eliminated. The result was a faster turn-around of requested policy quotes, capture of a larger market share of bids, and ultimately an increase in binding revenue.

Viewing automation as a way to eliminate both work and people can be a short-sighted strategy. It is far wiser for senior executives to consider RPA as one lever within a broader transformational journey toward becoming a truly digital company. This entails understanding how RPA can support the digital backbone of the enterprise with automation and then understanding the predictive analytics capability – and growth opportunities – that automation can enable. 

Understanding the broader digital transformational journey puts RPA and considerations about what will happen with various job roles in a different light. 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 are often difficult to envision at the outset of the journey.

Automation is about taking the robot out of the human by eliminating work that is standardized, rules-based and process rich. While roles and jobs are certainly impacted by automation, there are also important benefits for those humans who can adapt themselves to becoming part of the emerging digital enterprise. These include:   

  • Freeing up time to focus on higher-value activities;
  • Timely handling of internal and external customer service requirements that robots are unable to perform (the human touch);
  • Leveraging and controlling the work of digital teammates to achieve higher levels of accuracy, service speed and auditability;
  • Creating a digital labor center of excellence with humans who assist automation rather than being assisted by automation;
  • Providing digital analytics that improve insights into the business that were previously unavailable; and
  • Reducing 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.

To take full advantage of what RPA has to offer, business leaders must begin shifting their thinking to understand how the digital company aligns to the digital economy. They also must think about how they can help employees shift toward the use and management of automation capabilities, freeing up both labor and budgets to be invested in the transformation of the organization to the new operating model.

Craig Nelson, partner, ISG
Craig Nelson, partner, ISG

The automation “polar shift” is more about an operating model change than it is about a technology change. Technology in and of itself is not transformation. True operational transformation – involving people, processes and technology – is required to take full advantage of digital automation. In the end, automation is a business enablement tool that will be supported by intelligent humans doing higher-value work. This is the future of the digital enterprise.

Craig Nelson is a partner at ISG, a global technology research and advisory firm.

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