Disruptive technologies, such as Robotic Process Automation (RPA), are making huge inroads into many industries, driven in part by the wider trend for digital transformation. The process of streamlining and digitising processes has created new areas where automation improves efficiency and overall productivity, as well as supporting existing employees in responding to increased customer demands whilst maintaining a quality offering. Automation is here to stay and it has the potential to transform the way we work in the UK and Ireland. The future involves humans working alongside machines and employees must work to accommodate this despite ongoing concerns about technology ‘taking over’ or replacing jobs.

The rise of the machines

Machines should not be viewed as the enemy or a threat. Pop culture references and real-life horror stories of how robotics and automation have gone wrong will damage confidence in successful implementation. Instead, it should be viewed by both employees and business leaders as an opportunity to change the way things are done and think critically about where employees can make the most impact. Certain tasks, which historically have been completed manually (for example highly repetitive data entry), can be off handed to a robot. By assigning these roles to machines, employees can focus on tasks that add more value, and there will be a shift towards the need for softer skills from employees. Machines will complete a task that it is programmed to do repeatedly and efficiently, with outputs being scaled up in times of high demand. This creates an agile digital workforce that never gets sick or takes a holiday, so can maintain a high-level, steady output.

Reasserting the need for emotional intelligence and critical thinking

However, machines lack the nuance and creative thinking that needs to be applied to problem solving. For example, robots currently can only do what they are programmed to do. This is where the human workforce can dedicate their time to revolutionise the offering provided by the business, by applying creative, analytical and critical thinking to existing problems or barriers. This presents opportunities to apply emotional intelligence, instinctive response and critical thinking that only humans are capable of, which at present is impossible to replicate with robots.

Utilising machines to address tasks that consume employee time and effort may have an unexpected effect of revealing skills gaps within organisations. This is important and forces businesses to look strategically at where these gaps lie and where investments in training and education would yield the greatest reward. This has a direct effect on improving working lives, as employees can be upskilled and develop further in areas that are more fulfilling and beneficial to the business as a whole.

What about the threat of job loss?

Although, not everyone is overjoyed by the prospect of working alongside a digital workforce. Fears of unfair competition and replacement of jobs resonate with those worried about their own job security. There is also a potential resistance amongst team members to gaining the relevant skills to manage and use the robots effectively. This can be due to a lack of understanding and context around how robotic implementation will benefit the team’s productivity and can be viewed as another task to add to a long to-do list. Before the robot is introduced, it is important that the benefits are made clear to achieve employee buy-in. This requires a careful, considered approach from management that explains how the digital workforce will work and highlights the value employees will continue to bring to the business.

What’s the best practice?

Once business leaders have identified the areas in their organisation where automation and robotics could make the most impact, there are factors that must be considered to ensure a successful integration and employee adoption:

  • Secure support from the C-suite – A successful programme first needs  buy-in from the top of the organisation. Appointing a head of robotic process automation (RPA) can prove valuable interms of spearheading the rollout and the cultural transition that is needed to ensure success.
  • Model and optimise your processes – Before a robot can be built, you should ask yourself ‘does this process need to be optimised and modelled  to ensure that the robot delivers the best results efficiently’. If the original process is not efficient, then this will affect the robot’s output and downstream processes as well. Also, you must ensure that automated processes are robust and sustainable when underlying applications or processes change.
  • Don’t forget the human element –Change is often likely to be met with fear or suspicion and gaining the trust of your employees is crucial. Consider appointing “Robot Champions” throughout your organisation who understand the benefits that the robots bring, as well as the dynamics in a team. This can help assuage fears and smooth the transition.
  • Education is key –From the start, education must be prioritised. Employees must know how to work with the digital workforce, where their skills fit into the business model going forward and the steps they need to intervene with if an automated process sends an exception.

Implementing RPA from the ground up

A large telecommunications provider recognised how robotic automation could help improve efficiencies and customer services, while also driving down costs. Support was needed to resource a trained team to build process automatons, a governance structure and help with education across the organisation. In addition to this, cultural elements had to be handled sensitively.

The first step was choosing the correct tool that was appropriate for the requirements of the business and concurrently building skills among key staff members. This involved running a variety of workshops to build engagement and excitement around the initiative, which was critical to ensure employee adoption. As the proof-of-concept was successful, a pilot phase quickly followed which included automating a business-critical process, engaging fully with IT and Security and building a secure and scalable delivery model that would allow for sustained and quick growth. This was supplemented by analysis of existing infrastructure which informed recommendations of best practice approaches for an RPA infrastructure design and build. The pilot process was analysed against defined criteria to ensure efficiency rates increased, while reducing cost.

The pilot process, when deployed to production, provided immediate benefits to the business. The robotic solution reduced end-to-end execution times by 200% on average. As a result, a team that was over capacity was able to devote more time to delivering a superior service to customers without having to hire additional staff. Amongst these efficiency and cost savings, building a centre of excellence for RPA ensured best practice was standardised and implemented throughout the organisation at every stage of delivery. In addition, it also allowed problems around the technology and culture to be anticipated and mitigated, meaning that there were less interruptions to workflows.

Humans working with, not against machines

It is important to set clear objectives and a strategy that puts quality at the centre of the programme at the start, whilst also considering the human implications and resulting shift in the workforce. This will ensure the best chance of success from concept development to organisation-wide implementation.

Robotic Automation has the potential to disrupt the way we approach work and define the skills humans need to drive organisations forward in a crowded and competitive market. The workplace will inevitably change as machines are integrated into team structures, but this should be viewed as an opportunity rather than a threat. It is up to forward-thinking IT and business decision makers to approach this in such a way that instils confidence from the start and focuses on delivering a quality outcome, not just in terms of the tangible business benefits, but also in improving job satisfaction of employees.