(Previously published at Stephendale.com)
I don’t like Monday’s by The Boomtown Rats, says it all. Released way back in 1979 before millennials had become, well millennials, the song epitomised how we all felt about the start of a new working week. The excesses and freedoms of the weekend replaced by the predictability of work. Millennials now represent more than 50% of the workforce in western economies, predicted to rise to 75% by 2030. They’ve reaped the benefit of all the workplace innovations introduced over the past 40 years by the generation x-ers and baby boomers who preceded them. Monday’s are so different now; the Boomtown Rats’ song must surely be an anachronism.
Or is it? How has the office environment changed in the past 40 years? What innovations have been introduced to the workplace? We’ve now got email, which makes it so much more efficient to send and receive memos and documents, often to and from people we’ve never met. No more having to write things out in long-hand. We’ve got spreadsheets to help us manage and track orders and inventories. We can pretty much replicate every piece of paper ever invented using our word processors, and we do, with reckless abandon. Life is so much better with all of this technology, all of it accessible from our desktop computers. Better still, we can take it home with us on our mobile ‘phones.
Ok, you’ve detected a hint of cynicism here. Has the office environment really changed that much over the past 40 years – or longer? Do people feel happier now about coming into work than they did back in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s? Are they more empowered? Do they feel more in control of their lives? Yes, there have been many technical innovations, but have these given knowledge workers more time, or have they merely increased the volume of what can be done (or expected to be done) during the working day?
The fact is, workplace technology has – until recently – been reliant on persistent, routine and predictable human activity to make it work. Processing invoices requires a human to go through a set of routine processes. There may now be a sophisticated Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system in place, but the underlying processes involved have changed very little from the pre-computer age.
Humans are still required to read, interpret and extract data from unstructured content such as emails. That’s what the daily ‘inbox’ grind is really all about.
Over the past 40 years or more, we’ve created layer upon layer of non-optimised processes, which knowledge workers have accepted because there hasn’t been any other choice. The human provides the link between systems that don’t (or can’t) talk to each other, sometimes entering the same information to multiple machine interfaces.
The fact is, we’ve got used to office systems that have been designed to function and rely on human interaction, with very little care being given to separating routine, robotic processes from higher cognitive tasks, such as exception handling and decisions making. Until now.
Welcome to the era of ‘Artificial Intelligence’ and ‘Intelligent Automation’.
What’s the difference between Artificial Intelligence and Intelligent Automation?
A main point of the difference between artificial intelligence and intelligent automation is that while artificial intelligence is about autonomous digital workers capable of mimicking human cognitive functions, intelligent automation is all about building better workers, both human and digital, by embracing and working alongside intelligent technologies.
AI is a brain-style construct that learns about why things behave a certain way, how to respond to questions, queries and comments, and how best to optimise the workflow. AI and particularly machine learning is geared towards righting the wrongs in a company, through fact checking, error checking, consistency of performance and so forth. AI technology is perceived as the equivalent of a competent employee who performs a task and thinks about the reasons why the task is being undertaken.
Intelligent automation has the potential to free up individuals from mundane tasks, scale up operations and reduce costs. But this is not just about cost reduction and efficiency. It is about the redeployment of those individuals to drive innovation through intelligent automation that will make the real difference.
Robotic Process Automation (RPA)
Robotic Process Automation (RPA) as opposed to AI – is technology used to automate routine tasks. The primary focus of RPA is to have software bots complete routine, monotonous tasks, freeing up humans to complete tasks that require emotional intelligence, reasoning, judgment, and a higher level of care and interaction with customers. It is not meant for continuous improvement and incremental optimisation, but is less costly to implement than AI.
RPA deployments will bring efficiency gains, but not transformation, unless the RPA initiative includes the optimisation of the process rather than just automating an existing process. Unlike AI, RPA doesn’t have the ability to understand past behaviour, but it is conducive to the implementation of AI technology in the future.
RPA and AI technology can work in unison if need be. However, for many businesses, RPA technology will suffice, and AI is not required. As the complexity of operations increases and real-life challenges are brought to bear, AI technology can certainly lighten the load for customer service departments, billing and invoicing, and associated systems.
AI implementation works best when a functional structure is already in place. RPA performs that function and can be infused with AI technology at a later stage. Some vendors are positioning AI as the cognitive component of RPA.
This fusion – known as Cognitive Robotic Process Automation (CRPA) is capable of performing judgement-based activities via natural language processing, speech recognition, and machine learning. This is the next step and will prove to be a quantum leap for businesses once it is fully developed.
The augmented workforce
If you take out the mundane; if you take out the boring; and if you take out the stuff that you can automate, you’re left with the things computers can’t do: being creative, being empathetic, being entrepreneurial, being sociable, handling exceptions and making decisions. All of these make life more interesting and challenging.
The more innovative organisations are moving away from whole jobs done by people to deconstruction of job roles into skills, with some skills done by humans and some skills done by software. Humans and machines working together in a symbiotic relationship to complete a task or process. An augmented workplace is one in which humans and technology come together to create something better, faster, more accurate, than can be done independently. Organisations that grasp this are using technology to extend and enhance human capabilities in ways which make knowledge workers more productive.
Having personally witnessed the many technology innovations that were meant to revolutionise the workplace, including (but not limited to) Content Management Systems (to fix data management issues), knowledge management systems (to fix knowledge capture issues) and enterprise social networks (to fix communication and collaboration issues) it’s no wonder that it’s taken the best part of 40 years to finally revolutionise the workplace.
It sounds simple, and it is. It’s recognising what machines are good at (speed, repetition, analysis, pattern matching) and what humans are good at (exception handling, decision making, innovation) and designing processes that enable machines to augment human capabilities. Taking the robot out of the human is a surely a mantra for the 21st century workplace.
Maybe in the next decade we can truly consign that Monday morning feeling to the dim and distant past. There is hope!