Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is making waves in the mainstream and Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) press with predictions ranging from the over-blown “the end of work as we know it” or “the end of the middle class” to the prosaic “increasing efficiency by 35% in areas where RPA is adopted’.
Some notable people have even gone so far as to suggest that machines now really do represent a threat to humanity.
Behind the hype is the reality that more and more work is being done by robots – with more or less real intelligence – and that for the foreseeable future this is not a question of either machines or people doing the work, it is a fact that people and machines will work alongside one another. So the real issues we should be addressing are not about the end of work (or indeed humanity) but are about how to organise and manage these two very different capabilities together.
Systems Thinking tells us that we should consider the knock-on effects of any single change that we make in an organisation. That way we avoid the Law of Unintended Consequences. Introducing RPA into an operation could have profound effects on the people and work around it – manage these implications right and everyone wins. Get it wrong and short term gains could give way to long term cynicism and bad press.
Co-worker Robots:Back Office Cobots?
In the late 1990s, the term Cobot was coined to describe robots that physically interacted with humans. We all now accept that machines work alongside humans in the world of manufacturing and this is becoming increasingly commonplace in the world of back office operations. Perhaps in the 21st Century we need to adopt this term to help us to consider the challenges and opportunities presented by the
growth of Back Office Cobots.
We particularly like this term because it emphasises that it is the human-machine system that will have to be optimised. In some areas of the back office, robots may replace some of the jobs – maybe even a lot of the jobs – but across the whole of the back office we can expect to see humans and robots working together.
By thinking in terms of Cobotics, we can embrace the opportunities presented by RPA without falling into the trap of yet-another-magic-bullet-technology-solution. Optimising back office operations will require thinking through and managing the relationship between these two co-workers, people and robots, not merely replacing some people with some robots.