By Kerry Topp
“Over the next 10 years, the work of 110 million to 140 million knowledge workers around the globe may be handled by cognitive robotic process automation systems.” Cliff Justice, KPMG
This quote is attributed to KPMG’s Cliff Justice, who was citing research from McKinsey Global Institute earlier in September this year at the World BPO/ITO Forum’s Global Sourcing & Cloud Summit held in New York. Justice was commenting on the significant impact that Robotic Process Automation or RPA will have on our society and economy in the coming years.
It’s a chilling statement I know, but I personally believe it needs to be said and repeated over and over again – we need to wake up, sit up and take action, New Zealand!
Most people globally are asleep, blissfully unaware of the potential impact RPA will have on the economy and society we know today. New Zealand, we have an opportunity to capitalise and leap ahead of our global competition, IF we are awake and bold enough to take action, now.
“Staying economically-relevant in the digital age requires sleeping with one eye open.” Ade McCormak, Futurist
This might sound alarmist, but I personally believe from a New Zealand Inc perspective that it is incumbent on the people and organisations who are awake and ‘get it’ to lead the way in order to stave off the potential social unrest predicted by economists as a result of robotic process automation.
To do anything but provoke and stimulate open debate and awareness that there is, in our very imminent future, a significant ‘seismic shift’ in New Zealand’s global productivity and economic health if we don’t rapidly move to doing things differently, can’t be stressed enough.
So why do I believe we should be both worried by the threat, but also, excited by the opportunity of RPA?
What is RPA?
Firstly, let’s explore what RPA actually is, and why it offers significant opportunity – but also threat – for New Zealand, and why we must be vigilant, awake and prepared as a nation.
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. According to Blue Prism, leading developers of RPA software, “Robotic automation refers to a style of automation where a machine, or computer, mimics a human’s action in completing rules based tasks.”
Essentially RPA is the novel application of analytics, machine learning and rules-based software to capture and interpret existing data input streams for processing a transaction, manipulating data, triggering responses and communicating with other enterprise applications.
According to many it is not a question of “if” RPA will impact us anymore but a question of “when.”
What distinguishes RPA from traditional IT automation is RPA software’s ability to be aware and adapt to changing circumstances, exceptions and new situations. Once RPA software has been trained to capture and interpret the actions of specific processes in existing software applications, it can then manipulate data, trigger responses, initiate new actions and communicate with other systems autonomously.
Companies of all sizes can potentially benefit from RPA which has the ability to expedite back-office and middle-office tasks without the need for human intervention. This has the potential to positively impact a wide range of industries – including; finance, insurance, manufacturing, media, telecommunications and transportation as examples, but also a variety of functions performed by people within companies today – functions including; sales, marketing, contact centres, supply chain, procurement, accounting, deliveries, transport, customer relationship and human resources, to name a few.
The three classes of RPA technology each have the potential to be transformative for our work, our workplace and thereby, our companies competing on the international stage. Let’s explore RPA, In more detail;
- Class 1 – or basic process automation – includes sophisticated macros, screen scraping and business workflow technologies that are not traditionally integrated into the IT systems;
- Class 2 – or enhanced process automation – are technologies that use Natural Language Processing (NLP) and can, for instance, understand unstructured data and apply that understanding to the process automation; and finally
- Class 3 – or cognitive platforms – is the most transformative class as it provides autonomic/cognitive platforms that have the ability to parse context and understand meaning. As that technology merges with robotic task automation, you have a whole different class of digital Labour. You can see why this is so transformational and why people need to be aware of what is hear now and what is also just around the corner.
What are the benefits of Robotic Process Automation?
If your company has many different, complicated systems that need to interact together seamlessly, then RPA represents an opportunity for you to be more efficient, drive cost out and differentiate your business – not just locally, but also globally. RPA is rapidly being applied across a range of industries to improve speed, quality and consistency.
In general, the best projects for robot automation are bulk repetitive rules based procedures. Process automation can expedite back-office tasks in finance, procurement, accounting, customer service supply chain management and human resources, including purchase order issuing, creation of online access credentials, data entry, or business processes that require access to multiple existing systems.
- Automate data and rules intensive activities like HR, procurement, invoicing, billing;
- Enable workflow and process automation for efficiency;
- Learn from natural language interactions in order to solve customer problems and respond easily to a wide range of queries;
- Orchestrate other application software applications through existing APIs or user interface;
- Replace clerical Labour with software.
In the very near future we’ll see ‘Human Only’ workloads, like call centres as an example, facing significant upheaval as voice recognition software, intelligent assistants and natural language processing, retrieve information and structure basic content in ways that provide answers to self-service customers rapidly and effectively, all without human intervention.
“The real issue facing us in the job market today is not the lack of employment, but a critical skills shortage. There should be conversations about how we can help the global workforce through this digital transition period and arm it with the skills required to lead the way and seize opportunities within these new trends in employment.” Daniel Burrus, Futurist
In addition to this, other ‘Human only’ processes will reduce as machine learning and data-driven decision-making evolve. Activities like fraud and risk monitoring will also change. As will automated processes in remote management, audit, security, and other risk and compliance-related areas. With RPA these processes can consistently be monitored, flagged and exception-handled faster and more efficiently, than with human interaction.
The imminent next frontier
This is truly the next frontier of business process automation and enterprise cognitive computing.
But don’t take my word for it, according to the Everest Group, a consulting and research firm, RPA can yield incremental cost reduction in healthcare payer business process outsourcing (BPO) ranging from a low of 15 percent for offshore operations to a high of 47 percent for onshore operations.
“Cognitive robotics advancements will have a major impact on the Labour market, shifting the knowledge worker framework from one of Labour arbitrage, which reduces costs for relevant functions by anywhere from 15% to 30%, to one of Labour automation, which reduces costs by 40% to 75%,” Cliff Justice, KPMG
Hopefully, this video by Automation Anywhere, another leading developer of RPA software, conveys what that future of RPA – an imminent future – looks like.
“Cognitive technology like IBM Watson, Google Deep Mind and Microsoft Cortana and Robotic Process Automation (RPA) technology have been largely separate. After all, they’re meant to perform different jobs for different situations. But what happens when you combine the two, bringing together the cutting-edge capabilities of cognitive and the practical, powerful abilities of RPA?” Jordan McMahon, Senior Manager, Automation Anywhere
People need to be awake to the threats but also the opportunities that this class of technology represents. Process automation via automated software robots — e.g. Apple Siri, IBM Watson, Google DeepMind, Microsoft Cortana — are now mainstream. What most people are not aware of the rapidly advancing area of enterprise robots to create a “virtual FTE workforce” and transform business processes by enabling automation of manual, rules based, back-office administrative and escalation processes.
As Cliff Justice of KPMG says, “You have technology that can understand your customers [and] run queries against rules engines. [If the response] falls within parameters, [the technology] can inform the robot to carry out a transaction and actually do things that in the past required decisions.”
RPA offers enhanced scalability, greater accuracy, improved compliance and reduced cycle times to respond and act — as these improve, RPA adoption can only take off and expand within and across industries. This can only impact large employers like call centre and Labour intensive white collar jobs (e.g., compliance monitoring) in a big way over the next decade. So if you use Labour on a large-scale for general knowledge process work – where people are performing high-volume, highly transactional process functions – then there are significant benefits with implementing robotic process automation software. If you are a person employed by these type of organisations, performing these functions, then I suggest looking at retraining, quickly.
“Can – or should – businesses do anything to stave off the social unrest predicted by economists as a result of robotic process automation?” Sue Troy, TechTarget
A recent study, entitled The One Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence, stated;
“Contrary to the more fantastic predictions for AI in the popular press, the Study Panel found no cause for concern that AI is an imminent threat to humankind. No machines with self-sustaining long-term goals and intent have been developed, nor are they likely to be developed in the near future. Instead, increasingly useful applications of AI, with potentially profound positive impacts on our society and economy are likely to emerge between now and 2030, the period this report considers. At the same time, many of these developments will spur disruptions in how human labor is augmented or replaced by AI, creating new challenges for the economy and society more broadly. Application design and policy decisions made in the near term are likely to have long-lasting influences on the nature and directions of such developments, making it important for AI researchers, developers, social scientists, and policymakers to balance the imperative to innovate with mechanisms to ensure that AI’s economic and social benefits are broadly shared across society.”
The study then went on to say, “If society approaches these technologies primarily with fear and suspicion, missteps that slow AI’s development or drive it underground will result, impeding important work on ensuring the safety and reliability of AI technologies. On the other hand, if society approaches AI with a more open mind, the technologies emerging from the field could profoundly transform society for the better in the coming decades.”
At the moment, many individuals and organizations are guilty of putting their heads in the sand. Pretending this digital transformation isn’t happening and hoping it will go away are not going to help anyone. Many aspects of how we live, work and play are almost unrecognizable now when compared with how they were only 15 years ago, so we must expect the employment landscape to move with the changes in lifestyle and outlook. Daniel Burrus, Futurist
In my view it’s incumbent on the people and organisations who ‘get it’, those awake to the opportunity and the threat that RPA represents, to lead the way in order to stave off the potential social unrest predicted by economists as a result of robotic process automation.
To do anything but provoke and stimulate open debate and awareness that there is in our very imminent future a significant ‘shift backward’ in New Zealand’s global productivity and economic health if we don’t rapidly move to doing things differently, can’t be stressed enough.
The work that folks like Frances Valintine, Tech Futures Lab and the Wynyard Innovation Neighbourhood (WiN) are doing to raise awareness of this impending global exponential shift – driven by artificial intelligence, automation and quantum computing – must be amplified and supported in my view.
So, please NZ – particularly board members and company executives – it’s imperative you listen to a message that will only grow in its volume and intensity in the coming years. Act now, actively explore RPA’s potential in your business, and ensure your people and companies are in the best possible position, locally & globally, to excel. New Zealand’s future wealth and place as companies and one country in tomorrow’s world, depends on it!