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A few years ago, speculation that we could be replaced by robots at work seemed rife. But it subsided among other pressing concerns and real-world events such as the Covid-19 pandemic.
Now, however, with spiralling inflation leading to unsustainable salary demands, talent shortages that are only getting worse, and increased operational costs for businesses across sectors, the business case for digital labour may getting stronger.
Automation increasing its penetration
Digital labour is still very much on the agenda, Nash Squared’s Digital Leadership Report reveals. Among the digital leaders that we surveyed from countries around the world, the average expectation is that nearly one in six (16%) of the workforce will be automated in the next five years – a similar percentage to the pre-pandemic results in 2019.
More broadly, almost a third of digital leaders (29%) believe automation will be critical for gaining a competitive advantage over the next 12 months. Although growing at a slower pace than in previous years, the worldwide market for robotic process automation (RPA) is expected to experience double-digit growth in 2023, growing 17.5% year on year, according to Gartner research.
Automation has become more widely used by enterprises, with the most common areas being IT (40% of digital leaders report some usage here), finance (31%), customer support (29%) and human resources (28%). This marks quite a progression from just a few years ago when the figures for IT and finance were only 28% and 18% respectively.
Moving up the spectrum
But how far and how deep will it reach? The sweet spot for automation remains repetitive, low-value, high-volume tasks – data entry, for example, or invoice matching and processing. Machines, unlike humans, don’t get tired or make mistakes. They can work 24/7 at 100% accuracy if designed and implemented effectively.
However, it’s an area that’s developing fast. On the spectrum of simple-medium-complex tasks, RPA used to be heavily concentrated at the simple end. But it’s moving up the scale and we’re now beginning to see it used in more complex scenarios. Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) are being built in too.
Getting past the barriers
Although no one knows quite how fast technology will develop, we’re a long way from the machines taking over. Nash Squared research underlines that there remain some significant barriers to large-scale automation of tasks and processes. The top blockers cited by digital leaders were cultural resistance (48%), a lack of expertise (46%) and the fact that automation is more complicated than expected (44%).
All of these factors can be expected to ease over time. Cultural resistance may be the longest-lived, but nevertheless we’re all getting more used to the concept of automated processes, digital assistants and the general power (and convenience) of technology.
Done well, automation will allow people to take on roles that are insight-based and add more value. For every role taken away, a new (human) one will be added somewhere else. And there are certain attributes that machine intelligence will never match humans for: creativity, emotional intelligence, empathy, intuition, innovation. These are things you can’t code.
The line between what technology can do and what people can do is constantly shifting. As technology becomes increasingly sophisticated, humans need to rise up the value chain. What really differentiates organisations is people and ideas, and increasingly human jobs are being expected to focus on creativity and innovation. The key for successful organisations is to have the right balance between humans and computers. Robotics may make the work humans do much more human.
Key consideration for digital leaders
Where does this leave CIOs and business process owners when considering automation?
First, don’t be scared of automation – and don’t ignore it either. There is almost certainly going to be an element of “natural selection” here – the organisations that embrace and leverage it within their business could be the leaders of the future, whereas those that don’t will struggle to compete.
Second, focus on automation as a way of increasing efficiency and speed – but keep looking to human talent for new ideas, strategic vision and leadership qualities. Smart technology should be about making people’s lives easier, freeing them up for judgement-based tasks, and giving them the data and information they need for smart decision-making.
Third, things won’t stand still. As leaders, make sure you are investing in your people and supporting them through upskilling, training and continuous development. Encourage individuals also to take responsibility for themselves, through study, reading and learning of their own. Businesses and individuals alike need to future-proof themselves.
RPA decision map
More immediately, while many businesses are a way along the automation journey, some are still at first base. Our advice here is:
- In conjunction with business process owners, identify the high-volume, repetitive processes in the business that may be candidates for automation.
- Catalogue these in a central repository.
- Assess whether these processes could be solved using anything other than automation – for example, by integrating them into an adjacent process or area.
- If not, look for an RPA/automation tool suited to your business – there is a multitude of options available in the market.
- Carry out a careful cost analysis to ensure the investment will be worthwhile.
- Choose a partner you can rely on and trust.
Finding the line
Automation is one tool within a complex matrix of technology and people. The key is to find where the line sits between them, and being clear about where people – whether permanent staff, contractors or outsourced talent – can add most value, and where that’s best left to the power of smart technology.
George Lynch is head of technology advisory at NashTech. Jason Pyle is managing director of Harvey Nash USA.