Harnessing the power of your ‘co-bot’ workforce

Barry Hatfield says that, as industries move towards the fourth industrial revolution, speculation has intensified about a robot workforce of the future with little need for humans. However, Dimension Data sees a different future, where humans work alongside robots, as co-workers.

Johannesburg, 18 Sep 2019
Read time 5min 20sec

Barry Hatfield, SVP: Data and analytics at NTT, points out that modern efficiency technologies in the workplace are often the source of stress and anxiety, as they have now reached a level where they are able to take over some of the work previously done by people. And this leads to a natural fear that jobs and livelihood are at risk.

"One of the more topical of these technologies is robotic process automation (RPA). It is often positioned as the holy grail of internal optimisation and is a prime candidate for entrenching these job risk fears."

The RPA rhetoric is all about how it, and similar technologies, can improve the bottom line by reducing headcount and doing tasks faster than people. IT departments then bring these technologies in and impose them on workers, exacerbating this fear that robots will take our jobs.

Hatfield feels there is another way to approach the optimisation challenge. This same technology can be introduced to individual employees, and they can be taught how to train their own personal robot or collaborate with one; this allows them to choose what gets automated.

"This changes the rhetoric from: 'The robots are coming to take our jobs' to 'My time is so valued that the organisation has hired me a personal assistant'. I like to term this use of the technology ‘co-bots’," he adds. "Programming the co-bot is easy, as RPA robots can often be taught by a simple 'drag-and-drop' process and employees don’t have to be coders."

Fortunately, these automation processes are very good at repetitive tasks where there is a clear and predictable outcome, a type of work often dreaded by knowledge workers.

Recently, a team at Dimension Data needed to move 8 000 video files from one place to another. This mundane task required that files were individually downloaded and then uploaded elsewhere. It would have taken a human a month-and-a-half of full-time work, but it took half an hour to program a bot to carry out this process. As employers, we need to consider how much of our workforce is doing mundane repetitive work.

Travel recons, leave recons, and bonus calculations are not core to the employee’s job and not core to the business either. They are more likely to leave a knowledge worker feeling frustrated rather than fulfilled.

Outsourcing this type of work to co-bots could help alleviate this frustration, while at the same time, freeing up the individual’s time focus on strategic, creative and valuable tasks.

The increasing use of co-bots in the workplace does lead to some interesting scenarios, as they work alongside humans and become more independent.

Recently, Dimension Data rolled out a bot to assist with client contract renewals. The bot was required to run a report in our ERP solution, reformat the report, and upload it back into our sales pipeline management tool.

In order to access these platforms, the bot required a standard user account for the platforms, which meant it needed an active directory account. Our active directory account is linked to our HR system, which meant a new employee record needed to be created in our HR system – effectively creating a new employee.

As expected, the bot performed wonderfully, but it was also automatically enrolled in our induction programme, causing some consternation when it didn’t arrive on the scheduled day.

Hatfield emphasises the fact that there will be cultural challenges with RPA co-bots, in that they are not programmed to manage social nuances, but rather to carry out work efficiently. The same system ran into trouble because some of the people dealing with it via e-mail didn’t know it was a bot and found it to be quite abrupt and impersonal. For example: “How are you today?” was met with silence.

"I like to compare a co-bot in the workplace to an intern or a fresh graduate. They are enthusiastic, with endless energy, and will take on all the mundane tasks. However, you shouldn’t leave them unmonitored for too long, as they will probably break something due to inexperience.

Very often, business leaders build robotic business use cases on where they see value rather than where the individual employee could see value."

Reality is that automation take-up can suffer when too few people are involved in the roll-out and when employees sense it is being imposed on them. But by involving every business unit and function in the process, with each one able to define their own journeys, more employees will embrace it as it makes their own lives easier.

"In a recent Gartner study of companies using artificial intelligence and robotics, 16% of companies reported job decreases, while a surprising 26% reported an increase in jobs as a result of their efforts. The advent of the motor car is a good parallel to this. Henry Ford’s model T car put a lot of farriers and street cleaners out of business, but instead, now we have mechanics, panel beaters, auto electricians and car washers."

While it is true that these disruptive technologies could take over several tasks currently assigned to unskilled labour, for Hatfield, that simply highlights the responsibility of organisations to encourage the continuous personal development of its people.

"By giving employees an automation tool and encouraging them to find uses for it, we can start them on a journey to find their niche in this new digital economy."

For Hatfield, as unskilled vacancies are replaced by skilled vacancies, it is up to us as a society to ensure our people are making the same transition and are able to fill the new roles required of them. And yes, it’s a daunting future, but an exciting one, with the potential to positively impact all of us.