In recent decades, there’s been growing discussion around automation and what it might mean for business going forward into the 2020s. The rise of smart technology means that many processes formerly requiring human labor to manage can now be run remotely. And often automatically. Many companies are jumping onto this technology, enthusiastically seizing the latest devices to help automate thousands of processes and tasks within their company. The hope is that use of this technology will streamline aspects of management and work that may be time consuming, fiddly, or just mind-numbing. Others will also hope it brings down running costs and improves productivity. Or is this all getting a bit overblown? Are we even ready for robotic process automation? And are we properly positioned to seize the benefits of them? Is this technology even feasible yet?


What does robotic process automation (RPA) mean for business?

Robotic process automation is largely seen as a way for companies to handle thousands of individual tasks all at once with minimal oversight, whether operated solely by machines or in tandem with a human workforce. For the most part these jobs are considered tedious, and that the manpower used to fulfil them could be better placed elsewhere. As such RPA offers a more welcome and innovative solution.

Walmart, for example, has employed some 500 bots to oversee tasks from answering employee/customer questions to assisting with auditing. These were previously held by employees who had simply gotten tired of the work.

The streamlined and cleaned up process ensures that data gathering and analysis is undertaken with greater accuracy and reliability. This ensures it’s more readily available for company use. The reliance of this data can then be used to improve customer services, as all relevant information can be easily found in a format already prepped for use.

It saves time, money, and effort that can be used elsewhere. By freeing staff up for more engaging and involved tasks, worker motivation goes up as well.

One study by the University of Oxford in 2016 estimated that by 2035, 35% of jobs may be automated.

Companies that are heavily regulated can also benefit from adopting RPA. By automating the relevant processes they’ll save further time and money that may otherwise have been spent ensuring everything is up to code. This further leads to greater accuracy and compliance.


The importance of people skills

The big danger here, though, is jumping on a bandwagon and losing our heads.

Yes, it’s always a good idea to keep ahead of the game in terms of technology and innovation. But many companies wind up throwing the baby out with the bathwater when embracing the winds of change. In this case, the danger is relying too much on automated processes and neglecting your human workforce. This may be something as minor as not investing as much to their personal and vocational development, to major mistakes such as relying on RPA to manage essential processes with no human oversight.

Another major mistake is that people will assume that RPA is some sort of magic bullet that will resolve many of their business woes overnight and implement it without ensuring they have the manpower to make it work. Make no mistake, RPA requires its own talented team of software engineers and developers to get it off the ground and keep it running.


Don’t buy into the hype

RPAs are not quite as autonomous as you may think.

Further, you’ll still need employees to make use of RPA and the data that it’s processing. The key to utilizing the technology effectively is not to see it as a replacement for a human workforce, but a means to supplement and enhance it. RPA should work in tandem with existing structures and procedures. It should only serve as a replacement if there’s clear, provable and tangible gains to do so. As such, the team should be introduced to the concept as an asset instead of a threat and encouraged to make the most of what the technology can do.


Replacement anxieties

Automation is a scary word to most employees, as there comes with it an association with “replacement”. Indeed, a poll found that as many as 40% of young people believe that their jobs will eventually be supplemented by machines. And some experts agree. Overcoming this impulse will help better integrate RPA into the business model and help employees better work with it in their day-to-day tasks.

Professor Leslie Willcocks, from the London School of Economics, suggests that robots may help “take the robot out of the human” by taking over the more monotonous, mechanized tasks and allowing human employees to focus on more personal or meaningful roles.


RPA: The ideal vs the reality

It’s always healthy for companies to seize the moment and embrace technological advances as and when they occur. Getting in on them before the competition allows companies to make crucial breakthroughs in the market. Thus potentially reaping massive benefits that can help achieve new milestones. But the leap of faith in technology always carries the risk of missing the mark and taking a sharp tumble.

The excitement in the latest craze has led many leaders into making rash decisions. Before subsequently finding that the reality of the “next big thing” is rather disappointing in comparison to the expectation.

RPA is often touted as being simple and easy to install. As something that anyone with even basic IT skills can set up and get running. The truth is that they’re nowhere near as straight-forward as some would like to claim. And they still require a skilled team trained in its implementation.

“Before you implement, you must think about the operating model design,” the chief digital officer of Genpact, Sanjay Srivastava says. “You need to map out how you expect the various bots to work together.”


Look before you jump

In addition, many companies may be implementing RPA into their workforce without really being ready to do so. The technology is only just coming into fruition. Up until recently, it’s been more of an idea than a credible product. The risk is that more and more companies are trying to set these automated processes up. But they may lack the skill and experience to do so effectively.

As a result, most companies don’t achieve the scale across the company necessary to make RPA worth the advancement. As the sudden shock of the reality of RPA hits home, it’s possible that the technology may receive a backlash from the corporate world over its underperformance.

It simply won’t be enough to just introduce RPA under standard IT procedures. If it’s truly to work as intended, companies must be willing to invest in ensuring a dedicated workforce is created and integrated into the system. A company can’t just dabble in RPA. It has to embrace it wholeheartedly and make it work. Unfortunately, that’s a lot of work in itself. And the temptation for quick fixes and just-good-enough patch jobs is difficult to resist.

As long as that’s the case, and companies continue to treat RPA as a neat little trick—rather than the revolution it could be, there’s a risk RPA may be abandoned before it’s truly had a chance to make its impact.



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