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“The robots are coming – and we’ll see no growth without change”

Neil Kinson is chief of staff at enterprise automation firm Redwood Software

It may seem like a phrase from sci-fi films of old, but the robots are coming.

The headlines are peppered with stories reporting how the rise of robotics is poised to shake up the traditional labour market as we know it.

Indeed, recent research from Professor Moshe Vardi forecast that robots will take over most jobs within 30 years, which could lead to unemployment rates greater than 50 per cent.

This makes for concerning reading on paper – but does it really need to be doom and gloom?

What many business leaders don’t realise is that the robotics revolution needn’t mean the end of a human workforce.

Rather, smart robotics can in fact free up employee time and effort to concentrate on activities that add greater value to the business.

This point is summarised neatly by LSE’s Professor Leslie Willcocks, who said: “the possibilities for automation and robotics are set by human will and imagination”.

In other words, there is a ripe opportunity for humans and efficient robots to work together to create business value. Humans can indeed maintain control.

AT&T employees are leading the charge in realising the capabilities of smart robotics, with the firm recently disclosing that some workers have begun to automate repetitive, mundane tasks with software bots – which are part of the booming robotic process automation (RPA) industry.

Employees here have been enthusiastic about the technology as it allows them to focus on the tasks that they truly want to do rather than being constrained by what they always have done. No doom and gloom to report.

Repeatable tasks in the digital age

Robots are certainly nothing new. There has always been a fascinating relationship between human and machine which dates back to the Industrial Revolution.

In more recent history, industrial manufacturing in the 1960s was characterised by machines that changed the face of production and assembly lines, facilitating enhanced quality control and waste reduction.

There were also, of course, job losses.

Fast forward to today and it’s no longer as simple as replacing a human with a robot. Enterprise Process Robotics is a holistic process, with the potential to automate entire business processes across areas including HR, the finance function, or the supply chain.

This process-centric approach is critical for businesses looking to achieve true value from robotics. The alternative and more basic user-centric model, of asking ‘Robot A’ to do John’s job and ‘Robot B’ to do Paul’s simply won’t hold sway in today’s work environment.

Even in our digital era, or ‘Industry 4.0’ as it’s increasingly becoming known, there is still an abundance of repeatable tasks which are being executed manually – putting a strain on employee time and maintaining the margins for human error.

Tasks such as inputting data into spreadsheets, managing paper documents and updating team organisation dashboards all underpin critical functions for business success and growth. And it’s looking increasingly like those jobs can be tackled by our ever-smarter machines.

The risk of digital incompetence

According to Gartner, 25 per cent of businesses will lose their competitive ranking due to digital incompetence by 2017.

There is therefore a ripe opportunity and a need for business decision-makers to understand the true value of Enterprise Process Robotics. The “but we have always done it that way” mentality is simply no longer fit for purpose.

An investment into RPA and robotics needn’t be a headache. RPA can interact and integrate with existing business management systems, ensuring that entire processes are tracked and validated end-to-end to deliver a consolidated audit trail.

Moreover, smart robotics can help to ensure that compliance is an inherent and natural by-product of any business process.

Let’s also not forget the rise of big data and how many organisations are already harnessing the power of analytics to gain new insights for business growth and customer satisfaction.

Robotics generates a whole host of valuable and accurate data simply as a secondary function of executing a process in the first place. Once captured and processed, this information can then be analysed and interpreted to uncover past trends and new insights for overall improvement.

No growth without change

Make no mistake that the evolution of robotics is not to be dismissed. The robotics market is big business today with IDC estimating that the robot marketplace will be worth $135bn by 2019.

Those businesses that flourish will be those that invest now. With productivity stagnant in many key industries, technology, and robots particularly, could be the thing that helps the UK level up against its global competitors.

Jobs may be lost, but new ones that we haven’t even considered will be created. We cannot expect a Fourth Industrial Revolution without change.