How robotics is challenging the workplace

SUITS THE C-SUITE By Evert De Bock

Business World (05/08/2017 – p.S1/2)

Many articles have been written on the rise of robotics, typically referred to as Robotic Process Automation (RPA), in organizations across different industries. The very topic conjures images of robots taking over the workplace and, eventually, our entire world. Is that really what the current wave of robotics is all about though?

WHAT IS ROBOTICS?

The Institute for Robotic Process Automation and Artificial Intelligence (IRPAAI) defines robotics as “the application of a technology that allows employees in a company to configure computer software or a ‘robot’ to capture and interpret existing applications for processing a transaction, manipulating data, triggering responses and communicating with other digital systems.”

This seemingly straightforward definition of robotics touches on three critical elements. First, “software” — robotics doesn’t come with Hollywood-style robots, but rather with pieces of software. Second, “existing applications” — robotics software will typically sit on top of existing applications, connecting the pieces of the puzzle that might previously have been manually connected by employees. Third, “employees” — the software will be programmed and managed by actual humans.

A simple example of robotics in an organization is the automation of low-level work in the recruitment process. Consider the initial stages of recruitment, where applicants fill out a form, interviews get scheduled and instructions are sent to them about, for example, an online test. All of those steps could be programmed into robotics software, essentially telling the software where to get what information and what to do with it (e.g. get the applicant’s name from the online application form and check whether that person has already applied before in the recruitment database, then open up the e-mail application and send the applicant an e-mail with a link to an online test).

In summary, robotics can very effectively automate highly manual, repetitive processes involving a high volume of transactions and multiple tasks. Rather than a physical mechanical device, robotics is an intelligent piece of software implemented on top of existing IT infrastructure that can help eliminate low-level, tedious work.

THE RISE OF ROBOTICS

So why is robotics only happening now? Since it is primarily just software, why has it not happened earlier? The current robotics evolution is essentially emerging as a product of three mutually re-enforcing macro-trends. This is primarily due to the fact that the technology underlying robotics software has matured significantly in recent years. Second, this trend is coupled with the global business context since the global economic crisis of 2008, which has led many industries and businesses worldwide into a state of almost constant cost reduction, combined with an increased focus on compliance and cybersecurity. Further, maturing economies are struggling with a retiring baby boomer generation — meaning they are pressed to offer a declining demographic of employees more purposeful and value-added work.

HOW WILL ROBOTICS ADD VALUE?

With robotics, organizations can achieve more than just process re-engineering, process optimization and reduced labor costs. The fact that robotics technology is not human means that it can keep operating overnight to deliver higher productivity, while making fewer mistakes along the way. Furthermore, as explained in the EY publication RPA, The Future of Administration Functions, “robotics can also enhance the audit process by automatically creating audit trails and providing process compliance.”

However, it is important to highlight that robotics does not facilitate or initiate process and system changes. It automates and executes business processes in the current state, which reduces a significant amount of time and expense for process engineering, legacy system integration and application testing. Ultimately, when robotics executes high volume, repetitive and rule-based activities, human employees can be freed up to perform more strategic and value-added work that contributes more directly to the organization’s objectives.

How would an organization determine the best areas where robotics can really unlock value? There are several rules of thumb for this. First, the specific business process should be data intensive, repetitive and rules-driven as defined in a recent EY Robotic Process Automation publication. Furthermore, the process activities need to be carried out in a complex IT landscape, consist of high error rates, and be something that can be performed after office hours.

Imagine, for instance, how the accounts payable (AP) process could be partly executed by robotics software. Activities that could be performed by robotics include:

· processing of vendor invoices, including reading of vendor information in different formats and templates;
· validating the content and sorting and categorizing electronic invoices for archiving;
· streamlining payments, such as planning and establishing parameter payment specifications, checking payment proposals, rejecting noncompliant payments and processing payments;
· payroll, recruitment, finance and accounting, IT services, and supply chain, among others.

WILL ROBOTICS MAKE AN IMPACT ON THE PHILIPPINE ECONOMY?

Considering how quickly our domestic market and enterprises adapt to new trends and technological developments, we should consider how robotics may transform existing business models.

Will we soon be seeing a scale-down of our BPO industry? Or lay-offs in finance and accounting departments around the country? These are unlikely.

As with any technological advance — which usually hits the market in bursts rather than gradually — there will be both opportunities and threats. Historically, we have seen that the most adaptable in any given industry will survive and thrive. The BPO provider or in-house center that can adopt robotics to better serve its customers will emerge as the winner. Robotics is already giving local call centers the opportunity to focus on higher-value services such as up-selling and cross-selling activities with the objective to offer customers products and services for their unique requirements.

Likewise, finance and accounting departments that can successfully integrate robotics and scale up their people into a more value-added business partner role will help the organization move more effectively forward. Despite the fears of some naysayers about how robotics may eventually take jobs away from people, it would seem that, given the proper and judicious use of technology, humans and “robots” will be able to co-exist peacefully.

This article is for general information only and is not a substitute for professional advice where the facts and circumstances warrant. The views and opinion expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of EY or SGV & Co.

Evert De Bock is an Advisory Senior Director of SGV & Co.