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Robotic Process Automation 101: (Part 3: Who and How)

In this, the last of a three-part series on Robotic Process Automation (RPA), author, engineer and futurist Christopher Surdak discusses the ‘Who and How’ of RPA as a business imperative.

As the notion of RPA gains traction, many organizations are exploring the capabilities and shortcomings of this technology.  Their incremental returns from Lean, Outsourcing and Benchmarking have plateaued meaning continued process improvements must come from another avenue. RPA promises to allow further reductions in headcount, and potentially improved business responsiveness, but at what price and with what consequences?  To make the most out of RPA, organizations may need to reconsider how they measure, value and reward the people that remain as much as they calculate the value created by their new robots.

This brings two questions to light. First, which employees should be replaced by robots, given their particular strengths and weaknesses?  Second, and perhaps more importantly, which employees should we keep, and what will be their role in the organization.

Measure Twice, Cut Once

If you’ve ever taken a shop class, or spent much time around a carpenter, you’ve probably heard the saying, “Measure twice, cut once.”  If you cut a piece of wood incorrectly, it’s often impossible to reverse your error. Carpenters know that it’s better to make sure you have the right measurements before you cut, hence it’s important to confirm your measurements before you proceed.

This same principle holds true in the rapidly-developing business of Robotic Process Automation (RPA).  For decades, companies have rationalized their workforce in their attempts to maximize cost efficiency.  After relentless culling, it would seem reasonable to think that those who remain are indispensable. This is the rationale of RPA, using software that is functionally indistinguishable from human workers. Well-crafted robots should replicate the performance of our human workforce, but do so better, faster and hopefully cheaper.

As discussed in the first two installments of this series, there are several key factors in gaining value from robot labor. Robots are best used to replace Repetitive, Redundant and Risky tasks, which they perform with absolute predictability, repeatability and reliability.  The tasks that are presently performed by humans, and require these characteristics, are those most effectively replaced by RPA. After all, repeatability and predictability are hallmarks of our Six Sigma, Lean and business process outsourcing efforts over the last thirty years.

This focus on predictability has taken root in Human Resources, too.  Employees are frequently measured and rewarded based upon how well they fit into this expectation of predictability and reliability.  Those people who provide these results have been retained and rewarded, while those who don’t produce these results may be valued less. From a strictly quantifiable perspective, our ‘best’ employees may be those who are most readily replaced by robots.

Running With Scissors

The use of digital labor is causing no shortage of discomfort in Human Resources, and for good reason.  The metrics that have been used to assess worker performance may be setting up our ‘best’ employees for rapid replacement by robots.  Conversely, the qualitative contributions from humans that have been historically hard to measure will be what we need most from our future workforce.  Things like ingenuity, creativity, synthesis and interpretation are traits that will not be easy for robots to replicate, yet they are things that have been very hard for most organizations to measure, reward and retain.

As robots become pervasive in knowledge worker settings, organizations will have to change much of how they measure and value human contributions.  Our old quantitative metrics must be replaced with qualitative metrics and evaluations, so that we can maximize the effectiveness of both machines and humans.  In either case, Human Resources must undergo a dramatic change in how it operates, and must do so quickly.

I work extensively in the world of Big Data and analytics, and I am often asked where I expect analytics to have the greatest impact on our society.  I’m fairly convinced that the measurement of human performance and value is where analytics will have its greatest impact, if only because humans are rapidly becoming the only remaining variable in our production equations.  The use of RPA will likely accelerate this trend, as we struggle to determine who to keep and who to cut from our existing workforce.

Digital Armageddon?

This notion of revaluing human contributions to our economy is disturbing to some, and downright scary to others.  If robots do all the work, what’s left for people?  Using technology to displace humans is nothing new; it has been going on for as long as we’ve been a tool-loving species.  Not so long ago, graduating from typing or stenography school guaranteed lifetime employment.  Knowledge of spreadsheets and word processing software was a key job qualification, and an undergraduate college degree gave you a leg up in your career.

Skills become obsolescent, and then obsolete.  This isn’t new.  However, what is new is the speed with which new innovations are discovered, leveraged and exploited throughout our economy.  New skills or abilities have a much shorter useful life, and flexibility, adaptability and comfort with change are becoming the new measure of human effectiveness.  Eventually, these factors will become the differentiator between human workers; and, sooner rather than later. Robots won’t spell the end of a human workforce.  But they will change what we expect of our human workforce, and how people will be measured and rewarded as a result.

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