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Software

Software robots are here to help us, not take our jobs

Over 20 years ago, a heady mix of low-cost labour markets and new technologies ushered in the age of offshore outsourcing. Global organisations recognised the huge potential cost savings of shipping out business processes, often to countries such as India, where economies of scale made it almost a no-brainer. With outsourcing though came fear; primarily of mass job cuts, the death of the workforce and a decreased level of service. For some, however, outsourcing represented an evolution of the workforce. After all, throughout the ages, humanity has embraced new ways of thinking to work smarter, and to free us up to do more creative tasks.

Today, human nature has turned its paranoia towards machines – robots to be precise, or, in this instance, Robotic Process Automation (RPA). As if society wasn’t paranoid enough, thinking about how artificial intelligence (AI) will somehow lead to a robot rebellion and the eventual implosion of mankind, along comes software which can automate data capture, process transactions, and manipulate data, to trigger responses and communicate with other digital systems. It’s a tech Luddite’s dream, and has rekindled the ‘robots, coming over here, being assembled and taking our jobs’ debate, akin to the arrival of outsourcing. 

On a crude level, there’s some basis to the argument. The fact is that robots can be programmed to perform repeatable, rules-based tasks in business processes. That in itself can increase productivity and drive down costs – robots aren’t big on bouts of Monday morning sickness or going to sleep for eight hours, unlike their human counterparts. The prospect of a 24/7 workforce, with reduced errors and zero emotional or psychological baggage to contend with, means RPA is a very attractive proposition for businesses.

Yet to understand the bigger picture, we need to look at both RPA in context and against the backdrop of the technology industry and its seemingly perpetual skills gap. In a 2015 survey by Harvey Nash Group and KPMG, 59% of CIOs and other IT executives said they face a skills shortage within their organisation. Unsurprisingly, the survey of almost 3,700 technology leaders worldwide found that the gaps didn’t fall in IT support, business relationship management or even outsourcing, but in areas such as Big Data and analytics, testing and development, and change management. With that in mind, shouldn’t the goal of bringing RPA to the enterprise be to upskill existing tech workers and move them on from existing business processes that a robot can do?

It’s also important to understand RPA within the context of the IT industry. Sarah Burnett, vice president at research firm Everest Group, points to a deeper use of RPA at the business process level and where she believes the technology is heading.

“Firstly, I think it’s important to clarify the terminology,” she says. “When I refer to RPA, I’m talking about non-invasive presentation layer integration of software to automate processes. In my view, in IT this is most relevant to the testing of applications, websites and web interfaces. The point is that IT has system access for deeper integration of applications if needed. It is not limited to the presentation layer integration.

“There are also many purpose-built IT automation tools, for example for provisioning servers. In fact, IT automation has been going on for years. Today, it is about maturing and expanding into new areas such as automating run-time environments using artificial intelligence, catering for software-defined environments, and so on.”

Of course, there are varying extremes of RPA implementation, but both the technology and appetite for it are increasing significantly. FedEx has aspirations for a pilot-free air fleet by 2020, with aircraft controlled by software and supervised by fewer pilots on the ground. In publishing, where budgets are already tight, many organisations, including the Associated Press are exploring the possibility of using automation to write up sports reports to improve resource efficiency. And, in the US, the FDA has already approved the delivery of low-level automated anaesthesia via a system called Sedasys, which dramatically cuts the costs involved in the process. What happens to the vast majority of those pilots, trainee reporters and anaesthetists remains unclear, but this is the journey we have embarked on.

For technology giant Dell, the RPA vision doesn’t necessarily equate to FedEx and its dream of pilot-free aircraft, but at a more practical day-to-day transformation of business processes. In a recent announcement, the company talked of an “Automated Full-Time Equivalent (AFTE) software agent [which] can be programmed to perform routine tasks and processes, such as credit scoring”.

Tanvir Khan, vice president and global head of Dell Business Process Outsourcing, explains:

“We’re seeing AFTEs become an extension of the team, with employees recognising the contribution they make to productivity. For example, in claims processing, team members are able to start their day with all the information they need to process claims because the time-consuming and boring tasks have already been done by their virtual teammates. In one instance in which processing a claim took 4.5 minutes, it’s now completed in 45 seconds or less – that’s a fantastic productivity saving for the business.”

Aside from dealing with the mundane, Dell can also deploy Personal Robotic Assistants which can scrutinise cases with a higher level of risk. The final seal of approval may still need to come from a human but machine learning has transformed what robots are capable of doing, and ultimately what humans no longer need to do. Robots will work until the job is done, and unlike some personal assistants they won’t disappear skiing for two weeks every year.

Dell is also upbeat about the role robots can play alongside the current workforce, and Telidevara Narasinga Rao, executive director of BPO Business Process Services at Dell, believes the two can work in harmony.

“We call them Robotic Personal Assistants because they really are helping teams be more productive,” he says. “We’ve got to change the mind-set that they’re a threat and start to see the benefit of RPAs in helping teams become more productive. As businesses incorporate automation more and more, these Robotic Personal Assistants may even help teams earn bonuses by helping them increase their production.”

Everest Group’s Burnett agrees, and believes that rather than instigating a mass workforce cull we will see RPA slowly replace business processes with a high level of repetition. She also states there will be a wave of opportunities for today’s IT workers to shape the RPA vision of tomorrow.

“Initially there will be no job losses, but we will see organisations address issues such as high attrition of staff engaged in repetitive and dull processes. The headcount in IT has been going down and will continue to do so for traditional IT roles, but new roles are being created. For example, there are roles for people who can monitor aggregated performance of IT systems in hybrid cloud and on-site environments. IT will also need more people who understand the business and can put together a hybrid infrastructure for the specific business needs.

“In time, as the usage of robots increases and becomes more sophisticated, we will see job losses, but new jobs will also be created, for example, roles that require business people who understand how technology works and how processes can be automated.”

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Stephen Dunne

Stephen Dunne has been embedded into the enterprise technology sector for the last decade. As a writer, he is interested in the impact of emerging technologies on society and anything remotely sports-tech related. North Yorkshire born and bred, with an accent to prove it.

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