Robots: The Elephant in the Room

When most people think of robots, they think of a futuristic world in which humans have been surpassed in intelligence and capability by the very machines they created. We aren’t quite there yet, but when you take a look at what robots are doing in this day and age, I think you will agree that we are not far away from R2D2 becoming a reality. It is, however, important to understand that the most impactful work robots are doing for businesses today is actually not exciting at all…quite the opposite. In most businesses today, robots are handling the uneventful, uninvolved, and uninteresting tasks which are repetitive and which most everyone would prefer not to do. Even better, robots can do these tasks far more efficiently than we can. This can translate to significant opportunities for a company, but only if done the right way.

People tend to fear robots and automation in the business world because those words are often associated with job loss and people replacement. The fear stems from a lack of understanding of the bot’s true purpose, often mistakenly thought to be replacement rather than enhancement. While robots are taking over certain tasks which have historically been performed by people, we must recognize the opportunities being created by freeing up employees to focus their time on higher value activities. As with any other new technology, many companies will choose to watch from the sidelines. What they will most likely observe is an increase in employee satisfaction, productivity, and efficiency in the companies implementing automation technologies. Eventually, the spectators will want in, but the biggest winners will usually be those who got to the table first and played a more strategic game.

Those businesses that have already embraced robots are using robotic process automation in many ways. We see this automation across all parts of organizations, from back-office functions which are invisible to end users, to automated phone systems which are the first level of interaction end users have with a company when calling. Here is where that critical distinction I mentioned previously comes into play, and that is between replacement and enhancement.

Robots and automation are beneficial for businesses precisely because they allow for the people in those businesses to allocate their time more heavily to value-add activities. For example, at Northern Trust, we identified multiple individual processes that could be made more efficient through automation, allowing us to focus on higher-value activities and raise the bar in client service. By automating certain functions, we were able to free up more time to focus on clients and allow room for our employees to do work that sparks creativity and innovation. It is all based around people within an organization, and their ability to spend more time doing what only people can do. The human element is the most important component of a business and, because of this, robots can never fully replace us.

The question then becomes, what processes should be automated? How do we ensure that we do this the right way? We have to be strategic about what is automated. If automation is implemented simply for the efficiency gain and without consideration of the underlying weakness in the process and technology, then companies may be surprised to find themselves worse off in five years. It is almost impossible to create a business case to change the underlying technology when all of the productivity savings have been harvested by automating a bad process. Do we really want to spend money paving the cow paths when what is needed is a new three lane highway? Perhaps, but strong consideration must always be given to both the short and long term. Companies implementing automation should not sacrifice fluidity and cohesiveness for an isolated instance of an automated process.

At the end of the day, companies must practice strategic automation and recognize that the ideal automation state is enhancement and not replacement. Organizations shouldn’t think about automation as ‘replacing their workforce’. They should think about it as ‘maximizing potential’. The key is to automate the right tasks, when, and if, it makes sense for your business. Once organizations and their people understand this, it becomes an exciting topic rather than a frightening one!