The impact of automation on people’s jobs has been both a sensitive and exciting topic going back even to the industrial revolution. Today and the future are no different. All things digital, and terms like RPA and AI have created common myths that every function and role will eventually be replaced by its digital counterpart. That is not true. The real future of the workforce will be a combination of both human and digital workers, working together as a team in a variety of ways – integrated, augmented, and collaborative. This will lead to newer and better opportunities for the human worker as the digital worker becomes more prevalent.
Automation cannot and will not replace every skill. Sure, automation will decrease the need for physical/manual skills and basic cognitive skills by about 15% in 2030. This is dramatically offset by the projected increase in higher cognitive, social/emotional, and technical skills. Demand for these skills will increase by as much as 55% over the same time period.1 Businesses realize this and are actively applying these inputs into their automation journey.
So, what does the path look like? First, you need to re-imagine work, not just your workforce. What does the right combination of human and digital workers look like for your business? How will you leverage the full range of automation technologies – BPM, Low-code, RPA, AI – so the work can get done more effectively? It all starts with a new mindset. You need to think about human and digital workers as a combined team working together.
To re-imagine the work, you can start by segmenting the work into types or characteristics. For instance, robots or digital workers are more effective at handling high-volume, repetitive, and routine work. Examples of these are invoice processing, purchase order matching, data entry into legacy systems or copy-pasting information across systems, maintaining files on SharePoint, reconciling data across multiple sources, etc. These types of activities are right in the sweet spot for digital workers. It removes the human element out of these processes reducing errors and fatigue caused by mundane and repetitive tasks. It also frees up human work capacity to be directed at higher value-added work. Digital workers also have advantages in executing these types of tasks over human counterparts. They can work around the clock, and are super-fast. By deploying the robots in the right work areas, you will automatically increase capacity in your combined workforce with a nominal cost increase. The robots can also ramp up and down to address seasonal spikes in work depending upon the industry. Click here to see RPA in action.
The human component of your workforce will have more time to address work that requires deeper knowledge, judgement and experience. Humans can focus on more customer interaction, cognitive thinking, creativity, design and new technical skills. Customer interaction is critical in today’s customer-centric digital world. Customers demand a highly personalized experience. So even if a robot provides recommendations to them based upon prior visits on a website, when a customer engages with you usually it is to resolve an issue. You want the empathy, and experienced human to interact in a way that keeps the customer happy and promotes your overall brand.
Other examples of work types demonstrate how the human and digital workers collaborate hand-in-hand to produce results. Take new product production planning as an example. Global supply chains and external forces such as tariffs, or political stability make this an incredibly complex task. We rely upon robots and machines to crunch numerous scenarios with varying outcomes. Ultimately, the human will make the final decision on what to make and where based upon their experience and their ability to correctly interpret the information the digital worker has provided. The humans involved will also have the social pulse on market trends and need to make a judgement call on how much of a new product to produce versus keeping the current product in the value chain.
Ready, set, go. New-collar jobs, training and re-training are vital. This is not just about learning new technologies. It is learning how to work alongside new technologies and get them to advance as well. An example might be training robots on how to handle exceptions. Like a good mentor, a human worker needs to have the right technical skills to teach the digital worker how to perform a task, and be around when it encounters an exception it cannot handle. A simple scenario might be to train a robot how to read invoice data from a variety of formats so that it can process large volumes of invoices at a far greater speed than a human worker. However, if an invoice is not scanned correctly, the human worker can intervene and apply judgement to read the missing data or follow up offline with the vendor to get a better-quality Invoice. This strengthens the case for moving as much of the repetitive work to the digital worker as possible – even routine exceptions. This further frees up the human worker to provide better customer engagement at every point in their journey with your organization.
The future workforce will indeed look very different. Yes, some work will shift to the digital worker and some work may completely go away for the human worker. However, for any company to succeed in the future they will need to figure out how to make the combined human and digital worker come together to generate effective business outcomes. This will require both portions of your workforce (human and digital) to be on a continuous improvement path to the point of being almost self-tuning. The only way that can happen is if the combined workforce is truly working side by side learning from and teaching each other. Workforce automation is not optional anymore. It is necessary to meet the needs of the consumer and attract and retain the right talent. Doing this correctly is a win-win. It will deliver a better customer experience, improved operational productivity, and a more satisfied human workforce.
1McKinsey Global Institute – Automation and the Future of the Workforce, May 2018