Robotics, automation changing jobs forever

How the benefits are leveraged will determine the winners and also-rans of the new digital era

Ganesh Natarajan April 11, 2017 Last Updated at 22:39 IST

The three big challenges for all global business corporations today are protectionism, digital transformation and automation. How the forces of protectionism play out will be determined by the rigour and scope of visa restrictions that are already in play in the USA, Europe, Singapore and parts of the Arab world. Digital transformation is a catharsis that most companies are addressing, some with positive “winner takes all” enthusiasm and others with trepidation, wondering if they can catch up with the leaders. But what is most nerve-wracking, not just for firm-level strategists but also for industry associations and governments seeking to protect and boost jobs is the rapid advancement in artificial intelligence and automation — through robotics and shop floor automation in manufacturing and through Robotic Process Automation (RPA) in the automation of knowledge processes.

Most services organisations, ranging from government to financial services to information technology (IT) services and business process management have many functions where there are a large number of repetitive transactions. RPA has the power to save time and money and also minimise the cost of rework and inaccuracies by automating and enhancing the efficiency of these transactions on a large scale. It may not be an exaggeration to say that in the next three years, in India itself a million jobs or more might be at risk and planners will have to work at redeployment to higher value-adding work to avoid a potential jobs crisis.

The Institute for Robotic Process Automation and Artificial Intelligence has defined RPA as the application of technology that allows employees in a company to configure computer software or a “robot” to capture and interpret existing applications for processing a transaction, manipulating data, triggering responses and communicating with other digital systems. “Just as industrial robots are remaking the manufacturing industry by creating higher production rates and improved quality, RPA ‘robots’ are revolutionising the way we think about and administer business processes, IT support processes, workflow processes, remote infrastructure and back-office work” says the institute.

A classic example of RPA lies in the way robotic advisory services will work in the near future. A scenario built by a research group at McKinsey & Co compares the present cumbersome process to what it could become. The regional manager of the investment advisory firms most of us deal with typically gets investment ideas from the CIO and defines an investment opportunity that fits the client’s appetite. After trying to call, he sends a recommendation mail or in some places further obsessed with security, sends a formal letter. The letter is ignored for a few days and after some gentle prods, the client calls or mails back with some specific tax queries. After a few more days of internal consultations at the advisory firm, the client and consultant finally confer to take a “go-no go” call on the investment idea. With robotic advisory, artificial intelligence and deep learning systems will have the ability to automatically identify the investment opportunity and push it to the smartphone of the client. The client is provided a graphical representation of the impact this investment could have on his portfolio, which piques his interest enough to do a call with a robotic advisor to resolve tax queries. In an exceptional situation, the call could be routed through an Uber- like expert finding protocol for a quick chat with the nearest available expert anywhere in the world and the decision could be arrived at within 10 minutes of initiating the transaction compared to 10 days or more in the traditional case. Imagine the efficiency benefits but also spare a thought for the number of people who could be replaced.

RPA is fast beginning to find application across a variety of applications in financial services, claims processing in insurance, a whole raft of government-to-citizen interfaces and the entire area of IT support and management services. Automated management of IT infrastructure enables faster process throughput and order of magnitude improvement in the efficiency of service desk operations with self-service becoming the norm rather than the exception. Automation software at the presentation layer provides an attractive user interface that mimics and enhances the rules of erstwhile human interface processes without compromising the existing IT architecture. RPA enables all functionality to be replicated and in some cases enhanced with unlimited capacity to meet variable demand. RPA will expedite back-office tasks in finance, procurement, supply chain management, accounting, customer service and human resources, including data entry, purchase order issuance and all interfaces and better user experiences that demand simultaneous access to large data lakes and multiple contiguous information systems built by the organisation.

To take a final example from the HR and learning space, the IT sector is now engaged with the agenda to re-train two million managers and new entrants in multiple skill streams needed for the new digital world. Since the scale will be beyond the capabilities of traditional training departments, RPA solutions will have to be employed to gauge aptitude, build a learning path and crawl through the multiple content sources available on the internet to stack up learning modules chosen to fit the interest area and learning style of each individual.

RPA is here today and expanding fast. How we leverage the benefits will determine the winners and also- rans of the new digital era for corporations and governments.

Originally Published in Business Standard on April 11, 2017


The author is chairman of 5F World and the National KM & Business Transformation Committee of the CII