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Robot workforce evolves from mimicking tasks to taking on jobs

A personalized robot workforce is in the works, thanks to advances in RPA. How should CIOs prepare for the next trend in robotic process automation?

The success of early RPA efforts is leading to an expansion of automation beyond tasks and into job roles. This next generation of robot workforce is starting to personalize automation in a way that could be a direct replacement for humans -- for better and for worse.

On the plus side, these next-gen digital workers are easier to manage using traditional human processes around IT and HR. The personalization of bots, however, can also lead to pushback, not only from employees and management whose jobs may be threatened, but also from the political sphere, where there's been talk of levying a robot tax over job loss caused by automation. Beyond these fears, efforts to personalize automation may limit the ability to reinvent processes in ways that create more value than from simply speeding up what people have done.

Vendors are starting to introduce digital workers, which mimic human jobs in IT and HR departments, and it's making waves among CIOs. Elizabeth Hackenson, CIO at Schneider Electric, sees tremendous a upside in next-gen robotic process automation (RPA). "With RPAs, we are learning how to transform end-to-end processes as opposed to digitizing one task as a time," she said. And, by using machine learning, the bots will become better at their jobs, promising yet more value.

"The opportunity to optimize jobs is a more attractive business value proposition versus automating [discrete] tasks," she said.

Deconstructing jobs roles

"The fact that RPA has advanced so quickly beyond task automation as to replicate whole job functions is fascinating from both a positive and a negative perspective," said Pankaj Chowdhry, founder and CEO of FortressIQ. As results mature, personalization is an expectation, and a software robot workforce is no exception.

Pankaj Chowdhry, founder and CEO, FortressIQPankaj Chowdhry

One way the RPA industry approaches personalization is to give a human persona to a bot, so it can be absorbed into the newly created workforce that consists of both software bots and humans working in partnership. "The most significant effect of personalizing automation is the detailed deconstruction of job roles, which enables the human employee to focus on high-judgment activities," Chowdhry said.

Since bots work 24/7, this has also led to the restructuring of every job function -- from management and finance to HR and onboarding, as well as other technical roles.

Human-centric

Automation Anywhere Inc. was one of the first RPA vendors to personalize a robot workforce as a direct replacement for human job roles. These digital workers are human-centric, meaning they are built to augment human workers in specific business functions across a range of verticals and job roles. Prince Kohli, CTO at Automation Anywhere, believes the future will look like a seamless blend of human and digital workers that enhance each other's strengths and abilities. Ultimately, he hopes this will liberate human intellect and creativity and make businesses more efficient and productive.

In the meantime, it just might make it easier to manage. "Personalizing automation shifts our thinking from what tasks we automate to what roles can we augment and enhance," Kohli said. He believes this shift helps organizations implement a robot workforce faster, makes it easier to deploy and can be more productive.

Kohli suggested organizations include digital workers in organizing business processes to make it easier to coordinate with other departments such as HR and finance. For example, one large US technology company used Automation Anywhere's Digital Workforce to automate critical parts of the onboarding process for more than 8,000 employees last year.

New teamwork

John Cottongim, co-founder and COO, Roots AutomationJohn Cottongim

Some experts believe personalization will make it easier for workers to embrace bots as part of their team. John Cottongim, co-founder and COO of Roots Automation, an automation-as-a-service company, said, "I am a firm believer of the potential benefits of personalizing automation, particularly driving an enjoyable user experience for the operations team where the bot is considered a core member."

But this could also create new headaches for CIOs. "The most prominent challenge of personalizing automation is the propensity for teams to request personalization," Cottongim said. He recommended that processes with low to no exception rates be automated with more traditional -- non-RPA -- techniques.

Hope and fear

This fascination with personalization of a robot workforce is being driven by hope and fear, said Ahmed Datoo, co-founder and COO of Mesmer, a customer experience testing platform. Workers see hope that personalized bots will help alleviate them from overworked schedules on projects that are short staffed. His are exasperated for certain roles like software engineering jobs.

Ahmed Datoo, co-founder and COO, MesmerAhmed Datoo

"RPA gives these team members hope because it allows the bots to offload tasks that would have caused them to stay in the office late," Datoo said. The fear is that people might lose their jobs. "I suspect people want to better understand RPA because there's uncertainty as to what this means to their own job security," Datoo said. He sees a problem with tech executives and vendors suggesting that bots can replace humans.

"References to creating a digital workforce ultimately put digital transformation projects at risk," he said. "It is not uncommon to experience organizational inertia from fear of job security when presented with this messaging." He believes the best way to succeed in personalizing a robot workforce is to talk about how it's going to make workers' lives better while also enabling companies to move faster and accomplish more than ever before.

Offshoring 2.0

Ted Shelton, founder and CEO, RobodomoTed Shelton

CIOs need to find a delicate balance between empowering workers and reducing staff. "We should not underestimate the importance of automation in cost savings through staff reduction," said Ted Shelton, founder and CEO of Robodomo, an automation consultancy. "It has become popular for organizations to say that the goal is to 'release people to perform higher-value tasks,' but most organizations have no idea what those higher-value tasks might be. And, in any case, the cost to automate usually must be justified by a cost reduction, which typically means a reduction in staff."

For 20 years, organizations have used offshore resources to reduce the costs of rote and repetitive tasks. A robot workforce will accelerate this as a new kind of outsourcing by sending the work to a robot rather than offshore. This has tremendous management and HR benefits in the long run, but also substantial challenges in the short run due to the workforce disruption that these programs bring, Shelton said. This will mirror the impact of offshoring efforts over the last 20 years.

New oversight required

As these initiatives grow, Shelton expects CIOs will struggle to address a host of new oversight challenges related to a bot-powered workforce.

There are three things a CIO should be very focused on in scaling a robot workforce initiative:

  1. IT security and auditability. Robots are a new attack surface for cyberthreats coming from both inside and outside the company.
  2. Operational resilience. This includes monitoring, maintenance and emergency response capabilities to keep the bots running.
  3. Business continuity planning/disaster recovery. As this robotic workforce becomes increasingly critical to a company's operations, these are amelioration steps available when bots don't work properly.

Rethinking security policy

Chris Huff, chief strategy officer, KofaxChris Huff

A big challenge lies in rethinking standard IT security policy. Today's security policy was largely written to govern the behavior of physical employees. The new digital workforce of the future is a combination of automated digital assistants and physical employees. "In this environment, the policy that governs a physical worker may need to be tailored to enable an automated digital assistant to effectively do its job," said Chris Huff, chief strategy officer at Kofax, an automation tools vendor.

One example is where an automated digital assistant is performing customer inquiry and resolution. This typically requires access to systems to resolve the customer issue. In most organizations, employees that access sensitive customer data must undergo information security training. "Of course, an automated digital assistant isn't going to attend a physical training course, so how do we make exceptions yet still ensure the automated digital assistant is going to abide by security policy?" Huff asked. One way is rethinking policy to govern the design of automated digital assistants instead of the actual operations.

New oversight required

Bots present an interesting challenge because the work that is possible is assumed to be error-free. "Few tools exist today to govern what bots do in the workplace," FortressIQ's Chowdhry said. For instance, a bot that is responding to an inquiry could wrongly answer several hundred questions to a customer without any oversight. Additionally, since bots are expected to work 24/7, when they break or stop due to an unforeseen reason, there's usually no human available to pick up the work, thus resulting in loss of overall productivity. This problem will become more serious as bots continue to rapidly grow in the enterprise.

Keeping reinvention on track

Personalizing automation promises to deliver the fastest ROI by simply automating tasks. However, CIOs that focus on these quick wins risk losing focus on the bigger gains possible by reinventing processes, said Miguel Valdés-Faura, CEO and co-founder of Bonitasoft, a business process management tools provider. Task automation does not solve other automation challenges such as coordination of work at a higher level. "A digital transformation initiative cannot succeed without a good reinvention of existing processes and a smooth collaboration between multiple humans and systems," Valdés-Faura said.

He believes personalizing automation needs to be considered at both user/team and organizational levels. Simply layering personalized automation on existing processes without reinventing them will fail in the context of a digital transformation initiative.

In the long run, empathy and change management will be required to inspire the humans affected by these more personalized bots and reinvented processes. "Automation changes how humans work," Valdés-Faura said. "If it's done well, people will feel empowered. If it's done poorly, they will feel they are left aside."

Automation Anywhere's Kohli said, "IT leaders should communicate these initiatives to employees transparently and debunk the common fear of RPA taking away their jobs, while also not overselling employees on RPA's capabilities with AI washing." CIOs should also offer proof, concrete numbers and records demonstrating how organizations can use AI and personalized automation, including what data sets are used to maintain trust and buy-in of their employees.

Kohli believes that successful robot workforce initiatives will allow people to be more human. "Automation is taking mundane tasks out of human work and helping people hone their real expertise, which is identifying problems and focusing on how to solve them, as well as collaborating with other people," he said.

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