Michael Fullwood, Director
Boosters of Robotic Process Automation (RPA) assure us that increasingly intelligent software tools will free people from days of drudgery and repetitive tasks and allow us to focus on creative and value-added activities.
While automating routine functions certainly has economic benefits, and while people undoubtedly prefer to do engaging rather than mind-numbing work, the growth of smart machines may also have some unintended consequences.
We are conditioned to think of “technology as an enabler” – people use technology tools to solve problems and do their jobs. But as RPA, cognitive computing and artificial intelligence capabilities continue to evolve, at some point the tools will be doing the bulk of (some) jobs, and it will be people who assume the role of “enabler.”
Consider: today smart tools in a service desk environment can take care of simple and straightforward incidents like password resets. But when a user sends an email or calls with a specific problem, the smart tool very quickly runs out of if/then scenarios or logical sequences. So, unable to solve the problem, the machine kicks it over to the human agent. Enhanced reasoning and problem-solving capabilities of technology will rapidly change that dynamic in the near future; human agents will shrink in number, and their role will be largely limited to handling increasingly rare exceptions, checking code and monitoring systems.
In other words, at least some of us will become baby-sitters for well-behaved machines.
Leaving aside the macro-implications of this trend in terms of employability, job satisfaction and economic impact, this trend presents an immediate and practical challenge to enterprises and service providers; namely, how to structure the service delivery chain to optimize the role of both the human agent and the smart machines that require increasingly minimal supervision.
Addressing that challenge will require process expertise and new ways of structuring human/technology interaction, as well as effective training and staffing to ensure the right skill sets are in place. (For example, you don’t want a software engineer with 15 years of experience watching a machine all day.)
RPA and intelligent machines are clearly reshaping the outsourcing world and changing the nature of the discussion around not just service delivery and business processes, but around the nature of work itself. Some of the changes underway may not be to our liking, but the reality is they are happening and we have to deal with them.