Innovation

Virtual robots automate repetitive tasks, but be wary of their impact on your human staff

Robotic process automation is catching on, enabling companies to cut costs by relegating low-skill tasks to robot software. But v-robots may also make your employees anxious--and afraid for their jobs.

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Image: iStock/Madmaxer


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According to Edwin Yuen, an analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group, virtual robots can be benefit organizations in various ways. "Businesses get a unique, full-service, cloud-based RPA [robotic process automation] tool that provides quality control over their processes and systems from the end user perspective," he said. "This helps employee engagement and customer experience, which ultimately supports growth in revenue and profitability."

Ali Din is general manager and CMO of dinCloud, a virtual robot provider. His company is seeing the most aggressive adoption of virtual robots in large enterprises. "They are identifying processes such as insurance claims work, where employees often have to retype the same information into multiple systems that don't interface with each other," he said. "It can sometimes take 15 or 20 minutes to perform all of this repetitive keying into these multiple systems, but a virtual robot, which is well suited for repetitive tasks, can accomplish this work in several seconds."

The math works out. Din says that if a firm has 800 people who presently do this work, and one virtual robot can perform the work of 30 to 50 people, there is an immediate workforce savings.

SEE: How robots and automation may take on the jobs people don't want to do (Tech Pro Research)

One company I recently visited has gone as far as issuing an employee ID to a virtual robot, with the robot interfacing with customers and fellow employees in both business process and natural voice exchanges.

But corporate CEOs, CFOs, COOs, and CIOs must also consider the human side of the workforce, as virtual robots begin to appear.

A September 2017 Deloitte survey of almost 8,000 Millennials confirms this. The survey reported that 40% of Millennials felt that automation was posing a threat to their jobs; 44% thought that there would be lower demand for their skills; 51% believed they would have to retrain; and 53% saw the workplace becoming more impersonal and less human.

Din acknowledged that there are workplace fears of v-robot automation but believes that they're overstated.

"One concern is that a robot will be looking over your shoulder, so there is a trust factor involved," he said. "The other concern is losing your job.... However, especially in the short term, there is no cause for worry for skilled and professional employees. The areas where virtual robots are being used are in low skill jobs. Knowledge workers and persons with high skill levels are not affected."

Din said that virtual robots are processing uncomplicated insurance claims and doing repetitive work. They are also being used to monitor parking lots and are even flipping burgers in restaurants. In the future, they will be deployed into functions involving customer service, process improvement, and enhancing the user experience.

Companies will want to look at these applications—but this investigation should be tempered with an awareness of the human workforce worries the virtual robots could create.


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Moving forward

What steps should corporate decision makers take if they're thinking about introducing virtual robots into their workforce?

1: Identify business processes that can benefit the most from virtual robots

"You always want to get the best bang for the buck from your investment, so you should be looking at the most immediate payback in hard dollars and also to your operational efficiency," Din said.

2: Know which tools in the market can help

Virtual robots (and v-robot vendors) have different specialties. Depending on the business processes you are considering for virtual robots, you will want to match up with vendors that have offerings in those specific areas—and to visit with companies that have already implemented v-robots for those functions so that you can ask them for their recommendations.

3: Be transparent in your communications and work hand in hand with your human workforce

The worst thing a company can do is introduce a technology like virtual robots without communicating with and working with human employees beforehand. There is likely to be high anxiety and high levels of mistrust. "It is advantageous for organizations to put pilot programs in place for between 90 days and a full year," Din said. "In this way, employees working alongside these robots can see how they will interact with the technology."

4: Look at outsourcing as an area for virtual robot insertion

If you've already outsourced some of your routine work, this might be a good place to begin with virtual robots, because your in-house human employees will be unaffected.

Understanding the impact

The most important thing for executives to remember is the potential impact of a relatively new and undefined technology on their human workforce. Most organizations see their human capital as one of their most important assets. Any move to virtual robots and other forms of task and process automation should be approached with this in mind.

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About Mary Shacklett

Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President o...

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