Empowering the workforce through RPA

Companies have the opportunity to reap the benefits of a virtual workforce, with the rise of robotic process automation. To name only a few, these benefits include saving employees’ time, improving productivity and enhancing employee and customer satisfaction. But the further development of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies has driven the automation in the workplace beyond simple RPA. AI-powered bots are already able to execute certain repetitive, complex business processes with more accuracy and speed than any human employee.

What if you didn’t have to read all the emails sitting in your inbox? Instead, you could focus on the important ones, while the rest automatically sorted themselves out. Or imagine that all common customer requests that came through your social media and communications channels could be addressed automatically, giving you time to solve the more complicated ones.

This type of applied intelligence is enabling the ‘virtual workforce’: an intelligent software workforce that can emulate and complement the human workforce, elevating human jobs and transforming business.

The evolution of intelligent automation

The pace of AI developments over the last decade has enhanced the ability and accuracy with which virtual workers mimic human capabilities. Crucially, these new levels of automation are liberating employees from mundane and repetitive tasks and allowing their jobs to be re-imagined. Payment and invoice reconciliation, response to customer service queries, and insurance claims processing are among the more familiar examples. There are three key transformations that artificial intelligence enables:

  1. Automation: There are more automated tasks today than there have ever been. The developments in new areas of AI means the list of tasks that can be automated is growing fast. Advances in natural language processing (NLP) allow organizations to analyze text documents faster than ever before.
  2. Augmentation: Applied intelligence is transforming how people do their jobs. Take caseload processing. By equipping employees with AI assistants, case workers can handle incoming cases more effectively and efficiently, improving their overall productivity. Such AI assistants can help employees make the right decision faster, drawing on collective enterprise experience and data insights.
  3. Innovation: Intelligent automation opens up a new scale—and speed—of working. The flexibility and scalability of AI-powered automation equips organizations with large numbers of virtual workers to easily scale up or down according to business needs, allowing organizations to pivot to new opportunities as they arise.

Adopting a responsible approach

For all the benefits it brings, intelligent automation can raise questions about social and ethical responsibility, making it challenging to implement. Adopting a responsible approach to implementing the virtual workforce is key to doing it successfully. So, what does responsible automation mean? In short, it means structuring projects, including pilots, with the organization’s strategic objectives in mind, while anticipating the unintended consequences that this might have on employees, customers and society as a whole.

A shift to responsible thinking also means articulating AI transformations with a people-centric approach, together with  looking beyond the immediate cost cuts that intelligent automation might allow, to the longer-term impact it will have on all parties involved. Take, for example, a contact center with a hundred employees. Replacing a quarter of employees with virtual workers to handle part of the customer interactions might help the center save costs but focusing solely on this would not be a responsible approach to intelligent automation.

Instead, the center should look at how it can apply the incremental investment capacity and the twenty-five freed up resources towards strategic initiatives, such as proactive outreach to customers. It should also communicate the benefits the transformation will have for employees and customers alike — for instance, AI bots will serve customers faster, improving customer satisfaction. In the meantime, the remaining seventy-five employees’ jobs would be elevated as they deal with more complex and interesting situations.

Overcoming resistance to change

Concerns about the capabilities of AI and the impact of virtual workers on the human workforce means organizations are bound to meet resistance to change. Fear of job loss, concern about AI bots making decisions, and questions about the reliability of AI-powered technologies are some of the most common barriers organizations face when going down this route.

To help organizations counter these concerns, there are four must-do steps:

  1. Demystify. Prominent perceptions of the virtual workforce are too-often based on creative and far-fetched movie and pop culture representations of AI. To counter these, providing in-depth information about how the virtual workforce will change jobs and the workplace is a crucial step. It will help employees understand it better and discard any unfounded concerns they might have had.
  2. Demonstrate. After providing information, businesses must show in practice through an operational, non-business-critical pilot the impact the virtual workforce will have—as well as what value it will bring employees and organizations.
  3. Advertise. Communicating the benefits of intelligent automation is key to getting employees on board. The wider the acceptance extends, the better placed for success the project will be.
  4. Demonstrate again. After the success of the first intelligent automation project, businesses need to look at the possibility of creating cross-enterprise change with a second use case. What low-hanging fruit is there across the different business units? Prioritizing these cases will be key to seizing value from this innovation and gaining the support of any remaining sceptics.

The future of intelligent automation

An AI-based virtual workforce can generate powerful outcomes for the whole organization today. Businesses need to find those ambitious use cases where they can deliver radical outcomes – think 10 x, not 10%. They should then trial them in a safe way, with a view to scaling quickly to reap the benefits early and disrupt their industries.

This is, however, just the beginning. Approached responsibly, the virtual workforce has the potential to re-imagine how the wider society works, unlocking currently undreamed-of possibilities. This transformational change should inspire organizations to accelerate and make a bold move towards the future.