A Brief Look Into Why Automation Is Different To Any Other Efficiency Initiatives And What Impacts This Will Have On Organizations

The following is a guest blog from Danilo McGarry, Senior director of Automation (RPA/Ai) in UnitedHealth Group, member of the European Union Commission Ai Alliance, and member of the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society.


Some brief history of markets & economics

Prior to when computers became mainstream in the 1980’s - what Byte Magazine at the time called the "trinity of 1977" (the Apple II, the TRS-80 Model I, and the Commodore PET), the workplace typically used typewriters, copy scanners, and good old fashioned hand written notes on paper and boards (Note to Millennials or Generation Z: don’t worry if you have no idea what that even means – keep reading!).

Whether you work or worked in the 19th/20th/21st century, when you cut it down to brass taxes, businesses ultimately all have and need repetitive standardized tasks done day in, day out. As the economy and company size grows, those tasks increase in volume and importance.

All of that was well and good without much need for efficiency until the market started to present itself with “competition”. Public companies became generally privatized as democracy started to take over, the market started getting saturated for low hanging fruit opportunities and so, the only other option was to try and do what your competitor did, only better and with some unique USP’s in order to beat them/gain market share – this is when the race for tools and processes improvement really started to become exponential as it was quite rightly seen as a key differentiator/competitive advantage (at different times in history for different industries).

 

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Why is it different this time?

To simplify things, when computers came along we were able to do more in less time. As computers grew in processing power in the 90’s, we were able to do more further still. Computer programs got better, cheaper – further productivity still. All the while Japanese and American concepts of process improvements started to become the “norm” such as JIT, Kaizen, Kanban, Lean, Six Sigma…etc – again, further productivity was possible. But now what….? We have all the process re-engineering and improvement knowledge we could ever want, the computational power and storage we could ever need, especially with “Quantum computing” and “Cloud” progressing rapidly – the next natural step is to evolve RPA/Automation as the Utopian ultimate combination of the 2 worlds.

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BUT, this is fundamentally different to anything we have ever seen before, why? Because for the first time instead of us utilizing a tool to just augment our human capabilities, we are now entering into the art of creating a self-sufficient worker, capable of running with little to no input from humans once it has been setup properly. This changes everything because it creates a new type of workforce...Right? – Erm, not quite! Yes, some of us who have awoken from the fairy dust magic La La Land dream that RPA/Automation/Artificial Intelligence is easy. But difficult does not mean impossible, it just means that it will take time. As solutions between RPA and Ai gain synergies, algorithms and adoptability/adaptability improves with time the capabilities of the future artificial workforce we are creating will only get stronger with time. This is why the workforce dynamics will change slowly over time too instead of a drastic paradigm shift overnight that some believe will happen.

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Source: Mckinsey – Skill Shift Automation And Future Of The Workforce – May 2018 Edition

Misconceptions, at least for now…

No, we are not going to have bots walking around the office smiling (awkwardly) at us and telling us “knock, knock, who’s there” jokes anytime soon. Our typical office bots will be computer programs at least for the next 3-5 years. Yes maybe janitor and secretarial roles might start getting done by physical bots in that time frame too (they are already replacing a significant number of manufacturing jobs – and creating new ones too).

No, the “Singularity” concept of bots taking over the world is not going to happen any time soon either (sorry Elon Musk…!). For ML/Ai to become truly unassisted its going to take significant advances in how data is structured/organized as well as the algorithms needed to analyze and make executive functional decisions over the same. No promises but we are definitely safe for the next 10-15 years before “Singularity” might become a real concern (other experts agree too).

Change in skills and setup of organizations over time

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My personal prediction on organizational setup changes (highly summarized!) From year 2030 onward

Automation adoption will not only accelerate skill shifts for individual workers. It will also have profound implications for the workplace and the way companies are organized. Today by a large majority, we have human workers (late adopters of Automation especially), as companies adopt software and physical bots, the workforce will begin to manage them too. As bots learn their jobs better and get taught different scenarios they will become more reliable and management will have improved technical skills in order to manage this new dependable addition to their workforce.

As time passes day-to-day managers will need to know less about their processes and more about how to manage their bots – becoming cross product/process/functional managers rather than SME’s (Subject Matter Experts) as time goes on, such managers will become increasingly spread over different products, processes, and functional areas and will also reduce in numbers over time. SME’s will ultimately become contractors and will no longer be needed as full time employees – they will stay on standby as part of business continuity plans (in case bots fail, behave abnormally because they have been hacked). Data scientists, developers and senior management will continue to monitor, test, release algorithms in order to improve efficiency and pickup any abnormal behavior/outputs and make tweaks.

Workforce dynamics will be ultimately highly "agile" and fluid as few full time employees (who will likely work from home) and contractors dive in and out of the office as needed (less and less over time). As mental health improves (potentially), the vast majority will be concerned with quality of life and thus the environment in order to enhance our life experience.

In general working from home will become the absolute norm with flexible working as a given. Jobs we do will become dominated by the themes of (what bots are unlikely to truly learn by 2030) “Compassion, creativity and strategy” roles such as: wedding planners, beauty consultants, PR/marketing specialists, concierge, social workers, elderly companions, artists, psychologists, environmentalists…etc.

What will happen from now until 2030? (again, highly summarized!)

SME’s and Automation teams (and management of course) will continue to work together and be a crucial ingredient in order to make the 2030 prediction happen. Increasingly as businesses harness their skill of automating processes and thus, profitability (because of improved efficiency) this will increase their appetite to reinvest more and more savings back into automation – creating an exponential acceleration and growth of Automation teams.

Between now and 2030, conflicts of interest will arise (or rather continue) among SME’s and Automation teams as they are needed for Automation initiatives. This will decrease with time as continuous skill learning and shift need of workforce are truly encouraged and supported.

News/Media declaring gloom and doom will also decrease over time as it becomes “old news”. As governments start to receive more corporate tax revenues (as companies will be earning more because they are more efficient), national deficits will decrease (or recover since the financial crisis of 2008) and support in the areas of arts, creativity, human sciences and innovation will increase in accessibility to most in form of grants/scholarships (startups in areas of Innovation will continue to get an increasing amount of support).

Working hours are likely to decrease over time, but not as much as the year 2030 onward. Mental health awareness becomes mass public knowledge and an open topic of discussion around these subjects will increase over time, which will continue to drive work life balance and working from home/flexible working initiatives.

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To learn more about the author, you can visit his personal website or follow him on Twitter and Linkedin.

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