There’s currently a lot of debate swirling around automation, AI and their future within the workplace. Broadly speaking, there are two prevailing schools of thought on the issue. On the one hand there are fears that increasing levels of automation will render a growing number of job roles unnecessary, leaving human workers redundant and sparking a worldwide employment crisis. The popular “robots stole my job” argument.
On the other is a more hopeful vision, and one that’s less likely to gain the same kind of traction in national media. This centres around automation enabling humans to focus on the human tasks that they’re best at. The kind of skills that no automation can replace, and shifting, rather than removing, job roles.
Given I am in the employ of a company that specialises in the automation of financial processes, you’ll be unsurprised which side of the fence I fall on. However, I do to some extent take umbrage with both of these viewpoints. They are, in my opinion, and to different extents, based on an unrealistic vision of not only what exactly automation entails, but how far along the technological journey we currently are.
Robotic process automation (RPA) is neither robo-apocalypse nor automated utopia, and I’d like to separate fact from fiction and lay out what it really has to offer for modern business.
The hype, both positive and negative, as I’ve alluded to above, stems primarily from a level of confusion around what actually constitutes RPA. This isn’t surprising, as even within the industry itself a number of different definitions persist.
Take Deloitte, for instance. In its report, The Robots are Coming, it defines RPA as such:
“RPA is a way to automate repetitive and often rules-based processes…Software, commonly known as a ‘robot’, is used to capture and interpret existing IT applications to enable transaction processing, data manipulation and communication across multiple IT systems…Multiple robots can be seen as a virtual workforce – a back-office processing centre but without the human resources”
TechTarget, however, has a markedly different view of RPA:
“Robotic process automation (RPA) is the use of software with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning capabilities to handle high-volume, repeatable tasks that previously required a human to perform”
These definitions may appear very similar at first glance, but there are some key differences which feed into the unrealistic expectations around RPA that currently exist.
Hype vs. Reality
Let’s start with the good news. Both the Deloitte and TechTarget definitions rightly identify that RPA is capable of performing repetitive tasks at high-volume. This is at the core of BlackLine’s offering, as our solutions automate fiddly and repetitive financial close processes which would normally be performed by finance staff.
What appears in the Deloitte definition, but is lacking from TechTarget’s, is another key tenet of RPA – its rules-based nature. In other words, and to use an IT truism: “garbage in, garbage out”. Humans set the rules and the automation software performs them. If the rules are wrong, the automation processes are too. The software has no capacity to make a judgment call. It follows orders unquestionably.
It’s the omission of this key tenet of RPA which, in my mind, opens the floodgates for hype. TechTarget’s definition is perhaps here the greatest offender. AI and machine learning are separate technologies to RPA and, although not entirely unrelated, are comparatively in their infancy. AI and machine learning’s ultimate goal is to augment human intelligence and, one day, make judgements based on previous experiences that could look like human interaction. However, we’re a long way off this.
You might think Deloitte’s definition has come out of this analysis relatively clean. However, despite correctly noting the rules-based design of automation, it then goes on to describe “a virtual workforce”. Given what I’ve laid out above, is the idea of a workforce that is unable to adapt to unforeseen circumstances, and will follow incorrect orders unquestionably, an attractive one for businesses? I’d wager that it isn’t.
The Business Challenge of Automation
It’s important then for business leaders not to fall into the trap of believing automation’s a panacea to cure all their ailments, as this hype often obfuscates the very real challenges that companies will face when embarking on their automation journey. If companies are not aware of these issues, it can leave them unable to scale their automation programs to the degree they require, resulting in abandonment of implementations and wasted resources.
As with any digital transformation project, unless you know what you want to achieve going in, all you’ll achieve is added complexity. Automation is not a one-click fix, and requires changes to processes and the training of staff in how to manage and interact these new ways of working.
Business leaders need to recognise that automation is a slow build that needs to be driven by the unique needs of each business and its users. It’s a step-by-step iterative process. Businesses need to take an end-to-end view of the desired outcomes if any project is to prove successful. It’s not as attractive a prospect as a one-click fix, but it’s the reality of the situation.
If business leaders do go into an automation implementation with their eyes open, projects can provide huge benefits. Pepsico saw a 67% reduction in time spent on reviews using our financial controls and automation platform, whilst Cox Communications reallocated 52,000 man hours away from reconciliations and towards analysis.
Results like these stem from realistic goals for projects, and a recognition that not all processes are ripe for automation, even if they might appear to be. As with the two examples above, these projects focus on rules-based automation of routine, low-risk activities.
The ultimate goal for any business considering automation should be to empower their employees to work better, and focus on other tasks requiring human strengths such as emotional intelligence, reasoning and judgment. To quote Leslie Wilcocks, Professor of Technology, Work, and Globalisation, London School of Economics: “RPA takes the robot out of the human”.