Automation – getting machines to do the less desirable work – is nothing new; in fact, it’s been around since before the industrial revolution. Why spend your entire life as a 15th-century Christian monk handwriting an intricate version of the King James Bible when you can order one of those fancy new printing presses, and churn out a few every day?
As our tech got more complex and clever, so too did the work it could take on. We automated textile manufacturing, and vehicle production lines. We created the computer and found out it was pretty good at dealing with zeroes and ones, automating large chunks of everyday commerce. We then dreamed up the internet, which, in concert with ever greater computing power, saw automation spread into nooks and crannies that those 15th-century monks would never (and could never) have dreamt of.
Such is the growth, evolution and ubiquity of modern-day automation that we are heading into uncharted territory. Some see an apocalypse, others opportunity. To get a sense of where we are and where we might be heading, we spoke to Behzad Bhot, Senior Manager at EY, and Naomi Simson, Founding Director of RedBalloon – two Australian automation leaders who know the present and possible future of this technology better than most.
AI and RPA: The basics
Before getting into the nitty-gritty, let’s first get a handle on the fundamentals. When talk turns to modern automation, you’ll hear two acronyms time and time again: RPA and AI.
RPA stands for Robotic Process Automation and is seen by many business leaders as the next step in automation. Rather than automating purely computational processes like data processing and analytics, RPA sees businesses automating mundane, rules-based business processes; those that have previously been too technical or ‘human’ for machines. It’s seen as the necessary stopgap between purely computational automation and intelligent automation.
As any sci-fi fan can tell you, AI stands for artificial intelligence and is the technological field that is driving the RPA push. But what is artificial intelligence? Well, to handle the extra complexity of automating non-computational business processes, something that comes so naturally to the human brain, your automation technology needs to be able to think for itself. AI can learn, create and evolve independently of its operator – a mind made of circuitry. The possibilities that come from such intelligent tech are almost endless.
“We are seeing the first forms of AI technologies being introduced,” notes Bhot, “from chatbots to virtual assistants to voice recognition software (aka Siri). These technologies are delivering enhanced customer service, and are also being used in the corporate world as a new and seamless way for employees to interact with existing systems (e.g. procuring goods/services, resolving HR and payroll enquiries, etc.)”
The role of process automation in business transformation
But how exactly will artificial intelligence and robotic process automation drive growth and innovation in business? Inspiration can be found from local RPA and AI pioneers.
Bhot has seen the benefits of RPA first hand. “EY is the 3rd largest user of automation, having automated our own processes, transforming the roles of our people to focus on higher value activities. Automation will be an integral part of the future of jobs. It doesn’t mean fewer jobs, simply a shift in the value chain of work.
“[RPA programs allow] people to work less on time-consuming and monotonous work and more on rewarding and value-adding work, especially where social and customer interaction is a pivotal part of the job. This shift will result in an increased demand for higher skilled and digital savvy workers, as humans and virtual workers work harmoniously together.”
For Simson, using AI for RPA programs isn’t simply about transferring laborious tasks from humans to robots; she feels as though this technology has the potential to do a better job than humans ever could. And having deployed the Albert AI within the RedBalloon business, the proof is in the pudding.
“At a time when attention is the new currency, brands must offer something of value every single time they interact with a customer. AI can enable this like never before. We’re finding the customer experience has improved substantially; Albert has been able to deliver the right creative, the right message and the right offer to people when and where they want it.”
By mid-2017 – not long after EY and RedBallon began their automation offensives – 38% of Australian organisations with a headcount of over 500 had an RPA program underway. And that trend has only accelerated of late, as we’ve previously discussed (in the CX space) with Telstra, AgriDigital and hipages.
The benefits of combining RPA with traditional Business Process Management (BPM) methodologies
Robotic process automation technologies might seem, on the surface at least, to be in competition with more traditional business process management (BPM) technologies. Both RPA and BPM aim to make organisations more digitally adept and efficient. But in truth, RPA can fit comfortably within an organisation’s BPM efforts, and indeed relies upon BPM to be successful.
The reason? BPM methodologies offer a framework – a set of fundamental principles – that are able to support the rollout of such a disruptive (but ultimately beneficial) technology as RPA. As one Australian bank found out, establishing RPA technologies without first establishing BPM methodologies will mean that there’s no end-to-end view of multiple vital processes, and process documentation will be incomplete, disconnected, or both.
In short, RPA isn’t a single, simple solution. Nor is it a complete, one-size-fits-all solution. In order to be as effective as it can be, it must be deployed as just a small part of a wider BPM strategy that aims to achieve process excellence.
Will robots take my job?
When RPA is implemented correctly it is able to drive serious efficiencies, transferring laborious tasks from employees to technologies. But despite the assurances of Bhot and Simson that workers will be reassigned to higher level tasks, one question will be on the lips of employees everywhere: will robots take my job?
A famous two-year study by McKinsey Global Institute found that up to 30% of the world’s human labour could be eliminated by intelligence and automation by 2030. Other studies have found similar results, quoting doomsday redundancy figures in miniscule timeframes.
But what these studies don’t take into account is the effect that new technology has on the labour market. In 1811, the Luddites burned down textile factories across London, angry that they, the skilled textile workers, were being replaced by the unskilled operators of automated machinery. The same kickback happened when the first production lines were automated, and the first computers began to replace abacus-wielding human calculators.
But despite the fears, every single step forward in technology has created more jobs than it has destroyed. New niches. New specialisations. New careers.
Let’s take a look at one of the most common uses of RPA technology – in the field of customer service. While machines are likely to eventually take over the grunt work of dealing with customers, this will generate new jobs for trainers, who will help the machines recognise faces, voices and emotions, explainers, who will help to improve accountability and develop trust in the tech, and sustainers, who will ensure that the original goals of the tech are adhered to, without crossing ethical lines or reinforcing bias.
‘All customer service jobs will be wiped out in X years’ certainly makes for a snappy headline. But the reality is that new tech has historically been a net creator of jobs. The printing press might’ve put patient 15th-century monks out of work, but it also created the modern book publishing industry, now worth US$150 billion annually. RPA and AI in Australia are unlikely to be any different. Particularly for those who choose to upskill in these burgeoning fields.