Overcoming the skeptics: Why organisations need to prepare for a digital workforce

2017 has not been the year that robots take over, but it should be the year during which CEOs and CIOs take a closer look at their organisation’s digital labour strategy, argues ServiceNow’s David Oakley

2017 has not been the year that robots take over, but it should be the year during which CEOs and CIOs take a closer look at their organisation’s digital labour strategy.  

Each week employees spend around 2 out of 5 business days on routine tasks that are not core to their jobs. In fact, as much time is wasted on the manual completion of unnecessary ‘busy work’ - email, spreadsheets, personal visits—that is spent on doing work central to their jobs.  

This needs to change. Now.  

Advances in automated bots, machine learning, cognitive computing, and the availability of data of all kinds will start having a real, meaningful impact on the workplace, enabling organisations and individuals to reach previously unseen levels of productivity and drive growth through new capabilities.  

This transformation will not happen overnight. Digital labor can be a game changer, but, so far, wide scale adoption has been slow to take off. The transition from a largely human workforce to one where digital labor plays a major role is met by many skeptics. The truth is that over the years, we have seen too many technologies that promise great things but under-deliver. The difference now? Maturity of technology and necessity.

We’ve arrived at a point where to lead the next wave of productivity across the workplace, digital labour technologies simply must be considered. It would be ignorant to claim this transition does not impact the shape of the human workforce, however, in very few cases will whole jobs disappear. Instead, greater value will be achieved by shifting the delivery of routine tasks that don’t create business value, and thus jobs will be redefined and future skill sets will evolve.   

Already in the first half of 2017, progressive CEOs and CIOs have moved beyond discussions and starting to experiment with digital labor solutions. A number of blue-chip Australian organisations commenced these initiatives in the second half of 2016 and real implementations at scale will begin taking off in the later part of this year. Like other disruptive technologies—cloud, mobile and social—it will take time for enterprise business leaders and workers to get past the FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) and understand how digital labor can better their business. But these early adopters will gain advantage over their rivals.  

Redefining the Delivery of Busy Work

What is the scale of opportunity and change we are looking at here? A McKinsey multi-year study found about 60 percent of occupations could have 30 percent or more of their constituent activities automated. And IDC believes that by 2020, 60 percent of the Global 2000 will double their productivity by digitally transforming many processes from human-based to software-based delivery. This is a critical period to either lead, maintain, or fall behind the pack.  

Automation can clearly help where there are a lot of manual or semi-manual repetitive processes. CEOs and CIOs can assure IT and line of business staff that the robots won’t take over. But repetitive, rule-driven business tasks will increasingly become codified. Not every task is ideal for automation, but processes that are high volume, span multiple systems, collate data from various sources or involve data entry are good candidates for software robots.  

It’s the CIO’s role to help business lines identify those capabilities that truly add value and spend less effort on those that don’t. Automating processes can allow workers to focus on value adding, not busy work, and enable companies to reduce costs and improve quality and scalability.    

Using Machine Learning to Reach Our Potential

Because bots can access applications through the user interface, just as humans do, as well as back end systems, which humans can’t, they can be a very powerful method for integrating disparate systems. And of course these bots can do it faster, better, and never have to take a break. But Digital labor is not all about labor cost savings through repetitive automations. These bots also open the door to a new level of intelligence.  

As bot landscapes expand in organisations and continue to improve through machine learning, they will be able to move beyond basic tasks. Chatbots will provide individual contextual recommendations that can be used to positively alter employee behaviour, serving as digital virtual assistants to help human workers reach their highest productivity.

Based on ever-increasing data inputs, bots will evaluate how workers’ time is spent, make recommendations to improve productivity and quality, and suggest best practices through the use of algorithms and bot-driven benchmarking. Essentially, all of our data will be synthesised by a machine, and the machine will tell us what to do next—the data will drive our day.  

The highest levels of intelligence will be achieved when machines understand activities, context and motivation, and can make the appropriate decisions for humans so that we can focus on the issues that only humans can solve. Is it possible we’ll all be taking orders from a bot one day? Maybe. But today, humans are far from ready to move to a purely robotic world.

We are decades away from robots taking over, if ever. At the same time though, we are quantifying information like never before—we create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every day. It is impossible for humans to manage all of this data and analyse all of the relationships between people, information and things. Bots provide a way for us to cope with ever increasing complexity in our work environments.  

2017 has marked a tipping point, and with current technology the opportunity is there for CIOs to lead the digital labor revolution by starting in their own backyards. By enhancing their own service delivery models through automation, machine learning and artificial intelligence, CIOs and their IT teams can gain the experience needed to deliver, manage and optimise an enterprise-wide rollout of digital labor solutions in the future.  

Ultimately, the organisations that strike the right balance between digital labor and human labor will come out on top. And the time to start the journey is right now.  

David Oakley is managing director – ANZ at ServiceNow.

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