Robotic automation is in its early stages of adoption by service providers and may not have the impact on offshoring that some expect.
Software robots will save service providers money but they won't end offshoring, partly because outsourcers are the ones pioneering their use.
In theory, if you remove people from the equation through automation, offshoring's advantage of lower labour costs evaporates. However, it is much more likely that software robots will become just one of a number of useful tools for service companies, according to a report from analyst Ovum.
"They are really trying to automate all the things that you at the moment can't automate, where somebody in the service delivery centre has to input manually," said Ovum IT services analyst Tom Reuner, who wrote the report.
"But it's not a binary choice - will one concept supplant another? - with robotics automation supplanting offshoring. I don't think that the right approach. You should be trying to understand the use cases - how can it be deployed? For me it will be one tool in the toolbox for sourcing managers," he said.
"Don't think too much in black and white categories. It will mature into a significant offering, which will have its value as part of an orchestration of initiatives."
Self-healing systems helpdesk
Robotic automaton, such as IPsoft's self-healing systems, is the next stage in delivering complex IT or business-process services, according to Reuner.
IPsoft's self-learning software automates tasks, such as diagnostics, much faster than the scripts used in traditional tools and claims to automate at least 60 percent of level 0 and level 1 issues in a support environment.
"Think of a service delivery centre similar to a call centre. You have people sitting behind screens doing things, be it with voice, be it with data entry, and typically around process or service delivery. They might take a call and then enter it but the most important bit is there are people entering information into systems," Reuner said.
Software robots are an attempt to automate this complex picture of the way services are delivered, he said.
It is significant that the organisation that is most publicly involved in implementing this type of automation is an service company based in India, where outsourcers are grappling with skills issues and costs.
"Intriguingly, which is the first company to find a global partnership [in automation]? It's Infosys, an India-based provider that previously solely focused on labour arbitrage," Reuner said.
Infosys and IPsoft agreement
Infosys, which recently brought founder NR Narayana Murthy out of retirement to help improve its financial performance, signed an agreement with New York automation software firm IPsoft in April to set up an autonomics centre and lab at its Mysore headquarters.
"For Infosys, it's one step where they're willing to take a gamble on proving the technology. If you have it on a smaller-scale project, that's not too complex. But if you try to roll it out to your global organisation - and Infosys is planning to train 5,000 people on it - it is a significant undertaking that also costs a lot of money. So you're betting on cost savings," Reuner said.
The collaboration between Infosys with IPsoft has become a reference point for service providers, because most of them are reluctant to discuss software robotics openly.
"The industry is looking and trying to learn from it. People are being very coy about these technologies. I know where they're being deployed and they're being deployed by all the large service providers but often they don't want to talk about it," Reuner said.
"Some [of that reluctance] is probably the socio-economic implications. The notion of robots taking over people's work life is never necessarily positive, apart from the potential cost savings. So I can see that people are being quite coy from that angle," he said.
"But then again, the industry is talking about outsourcing and about cloud, which have had almost the same effect."