Let’s start with a definition. A digital workforce comprises a variety of technologies for automation working alongside the human workforce. These technologies include, e.g. driverless vehicles and AI, but the term is currently mostly used to describe software robots or robotic process automation (RPA). We have seen the digital workforce evolve from car manufacturing robots and CNC machines to more integrated supply chains, through IoT to its current incarnation where RPA, chatbots, digital assistants (e.g. Siri) and the like are almost becoming separate entities. Hence the term workforce.
The benefits and challenges of a digital workforce for SMEs
The most obvious benefit of a digital workforce is that it does not require rest, holidays or even a desk. Arguably the most critical factor in favour of ’employing’ a digital workforce is that robots can perform routine tasks much faster and more accurately than humans can. And they do not get bored in the process. In other words, the human workforce no longer needs to work on a routine, tedious and often time-consuming tasks that, mostly, provide little satisfaction. In a way, that is its most significant challenge; the human workforce can easily perceive robotics as threatening their jobs so SMEs should consider this.
The previous automation and internet revolution created more jobs than were lost; however, an adjustment took place in the type of work we, the humans, do. In the coming 10 to 20 years a much larger shift than we have seen before will likely occur, but there is no reason to believe that the emerging new technologies will not create many new jobs. They will, however, require a different skillset. Not only that but the pace of business will increase. As robots can work between 4 to 10 times faster than humans, productivity can improve immensely. Think of the time you now need to produce a report on, let’s say, process efficiency; collecting data, structuring and interpreting it. A robot can deliver data and analyses much faster than we can. What will be left for us humans is to translate such reports into actions and creative innovations.
The critical technologies for a digital workforce
All of the technologies mentioned above will impact all businesses. The first technologies that will be widely adopted are RPA, ‘smart’ chatbots and mobile robots like self-driving forklifts, drones and probably trucks. Gaining experience with these will enable the adoption of the more advanced technologies like AI and quantum computing faster, once those are commercially available and affordable. Key to operating a successful digital workforce will also be the speed at which we can adapt and learn new skills. In this, AI combined with AR/VR will probably have an important role to play.
The best strategy for SMEs to build a digital workforce and invest in change management
At this point, it’s important to stress that a digital workforce is about augmenting what your staff do — and freeing up their time for better things — not replacing them. Your goal is to solve business issues with the right solutions. That requires business acumen as the starting point.
Building and implementing a digital workforce will require thought, preparation, and communication with your human workforce. A good strategy that I see employed by many companies is to think big but start small.
First, thinking big. It means that you need to start thinking in terms of certainty. Businesses that do not get on this train soon will fall behind rapidly. Set a goal, have a vision for a future where your human workforce works together with the digital workforce and start communicating that vision. Be sure as well to have a human strategy. Jobs for humans will change. Skills and competencies that will be most in-demand are in the creative, the complex problem solving and communication categories, so what does that mean for your employees?
The second element of this strategy is starting small. Rather than taking a ‘big bang’ approach, split your challenge into bite-sized chunks. Solve little bottlenecks first or to glean specific insights that inform your decision-making.
Start with one or two business processes to learn and gain experience with RPA for a relatively low cost. As soon as you are ready to scale up, spend time implementing a governance structure for the digital workforce. I see a recurring issue with companies starting this kind of transformation: it is either left up to IT or operational units to manage. The consequence is that central coordination is lacking, resulting in situations where two departments may spend time and money building a very similar solution or using different software to build robots.
Establishing clear goals will help protect you later against being dazzled into buying flashy technology for its own sake. Technology is a means to an end.
Once you have framed it the right way, it will be much easier to write requirements or compare and contrasts solutions and providers.
Most importantly, it will be easier to involve your people, bring them onboard your vision and strategy, and ultimately transform your business organically and sustainably.
Eggcelerate is the B2B growth experts for British SMEs supporting the growth of medium and small B2B tech British and Italian companies with international aspirations, helping them manage growth and change while streamlining their operations and improving their bottom line and cash flow position. Eggcelerate has worked, among others, with British start-ups in the field of FinTech (equity crowdfunding, supply chain finance), IoT (immersive events, drones) and more mature Italian SMEs (software house, manufacturer of electronic components).