Software Robots To Become A New Normal In The Workplace

by Sohini Bagchi    Jun 05, 2017

sunil

The Robotics revolution is already underway. Today, they are not only found in popular science fiction movies, or books and in toy stores, the new 21st century workplace will be one in which robotics are expected to play an increasing role. In an exclusive interaction with CXOToday, Sunil Aryan, Director Practice – Back office & Retail, Verint, explains how  Robotic Process Automation [RPA] or software robots are helping employees improve their productivity and other aspects of life and work.

- What is the adoption of Robotic Process Automation (RPA) in the Indian market? In which verticals is it gaining prominence?

India market has been quick to identify RPA’s potential. At present most large enterprises are either in the rollout phase or at the pilot stage. In specific industries like Shared Service Centers/ GIC the adoption is second only to America, which is currently the largest market for RPA.

RPA as a solution is capable of addressing any work segment that is Computer Systems and data driven, high volume, linear , rules driven, and repeatable.

However the predominant adoption is by medium and large enterprises, because of the critical mass and scale of benefits it brings.

Industry wise BFSI has reaped the maximum benefits as RPA is great fit for highly rules driven work that they do. All large organizations which have substantial F&A team are beginning to derive benefits.

Although we cannot classify them as domestic business; Shared Service Centers (KPOs) and BPO industry are heavily engaged in RPA projects. While market is quick to adopt, most are in initial stage of deployments. Studies are showing that current market consumption of the solution is less than 5% of the total potential.

So how is RPA different from BPM? It seems both have similar goals and similar paths.

There are some clear differences between the two.  By definition BPM is an operations management function for managing and optimizing/streamlining enterprise process. This approach generally requires deep rooted system and process level changes. This evidently requires robust systems & infrastructure and whole lot of planning.

RPA on the other hand is the automation of individual work functions. RPA essentially does what a human does and simply automates it at individual system level.  System level access is hardly ever used. Hence RPA is much quicker and cheaper way to achieve some macro objectives.

It would be wise to use them in complimentary fashion to overcome the shortcomings the other one has,

If software robots completely replace the need for manual processing, what will happen to the future of workforce?

RPA (or software robots) is not completely replacing humans…yet. In the current state RPA can be seen as team members who take up the manual, mundane, repetitive work which requires very little knowledge or high level thinking. Employees today loathe this kind of work and would love to offload this to Robotic team member.  

As workforce adjusts to new work ethos, robots would also be evolving into more cognitive function over next few years. IBM Watson, Cortana, Amazon Alex are some examples of platforms that are available today to build more cognitive process automation functions.  Many are alarmed by the possibilities! Sure these are disruptive scenarios for the short term. But future workforce would be more involved in more interesting and probably more engaging work functions. This is likely to lead to new industries, new jobs requiring new exciting skills RPA is likely to create more than it takes in the long term.

Industrial revolution too had brought on similar fear of machines with the likes of Ludittes destroying the automated weaving machines.  Today we look back and see that revolution with profoundly positive impact on our lifestyle. We hope to see such profound effect with evolving RPA with full faith that industry leaders would adopt it with vision beyond mere cost cutting due to labour arbitrage.  

What are the biggest hurdles for companies in implementing RPA in India? 

A CIO’s saying is  “There are no IT projects – these are business projects that are IT enabled”.  This is true for RPA projects which require coordinated effort from business operations and the CIO office. Like any radical (and disruptive) solution approach there are number of challenges in implementing RPA.  A few important ones that come to mind are:

Strategy: Industry is beginning to realize that the biggest challenge is strategy. Too many projects have started with focus on labour arbitrage/cost cutting. RPA has to be seen as a facilitator for Quality, Compliance and expediting low end work. Operational cost benefits would naturally follow. This wider canvas for RPA is likely to give far larger returns in the long run, while also saving on human capital cost

Change Management: This ties into the larger strategy discussion above. “Bring RPA tools and replace humans” strategy has too many basic flaws.  Changes are required on both human and work elements sides. RPA insertion will lead to change in how people work, what they work on etc. Robots too require work to be presented to them in specific manner.  Human level cognition to recognize and assimilate work is not yet ready in basic RPA

Choice of processes: Humans do multiple work types in a day with each work type requiring different level of skill and cognitive capability. Not all work that a human does can be handed over to RPA today. Specific work needs to be pushed to robots while the workforce does the higher end work. The choice of what to automate becomes important. The nature of work (think white mail, fax etc.)  too restricts the choices. Many a times wrong choices lead to major challenges. For organisations with no prior history of such projects, this choice itself is a source of project threat.

Management: Who is managing the robots? Eventually, accountability for RPA based processes will not lie with IT but with the operations. Our managers are used to managing standard workforce. They expect the robots to work with 100% efficiency and accuracy at all times. (Some managers actually expect this of humans too). RPA can falter if exceptional work item is offered or encounters a system issue. Management should build in exception handling and alternative plans.  .

These and all other challenges can be tackled with good strategy and tactical plans. There will always be Unknown-Unknowns and robust contingency plans need to be in pace.

What role is Verint playing in helping organisations implement RPA?

A number of organizations in APAC, and around the world, from multiple industries are working with Verint to define and implement a suitable RPA strategy. This not only includes the procurement and deployment of our RPA technology solution but, just as importantly, working with our consulting teams to ensure that it exists as a core component of a wider workforce engagement and customer experience environment.

What would you tell the CIOs on training their teams manage work in a robotic era?

I think senior leaders are no aware of the wider impact of the RPA kind of projects. Skilling of workforce needs to be thought of in a holistic manner. While CIOs build skills around running and managing robots, it is equally important to plan for skilling of existing human capital. Since RPA addresses the lower skill jobs, the entire recruitment and training plans for lower and newer workforce might need to change for the enterprise. Larger the organization the larger the change required. CIOs need to lead be the thought leaders for this in their organizations.

The management layer too would require change in operational style and skills. Would a manager who takes pride in managing a large workforce be comfortable with managing unseen RPA bots? “People Management” skills of manager would need change.  Industry still does not have enough managers experienced in this space. Right orientation/training would be of utmost importance.

Enterprises might also need to reskill some of the staff that has handed over their work to RPA.  This succession plan might present some unique opportunities if right skilling is arranged.

Needless to say, that the IT teams implementing the solution would need to readjust skills. But RPA solution providers like Verint can help to large extent in this by offering toolkit based solutions and best practices consulting.