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Mon 9 Sep 2019 10:33 AM

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Opinion: Rise of the 'bots' to take over office tasks

Both globally and within the Middle East region, organisations are rushing to introduce digital workforce in the form of software robots, or bots as they are affectionately known, to automate office tasks.

Opinion: Rise of the 'bots' to take over office tasks
Clement Chan, AI in Digital Trust, PwC Middle East

There are mixed opinions on the number of jobs that might be ‘destroyed’ by automation,with the predicted figures varying between 400 million to 2 billion by 2030, worldwide (MIT Technology Review).

This is significant, especially if we consider that the total cumulative job losses attributed to automation between 2000 and 2016 only added up to 1.7m jobs worldwide (Oxford Economics).

The Middle East is no exception, PwC’s own analysis has concluded that automation is highly likely to disrupt the MENA markets through innovative new services and business models. While it’s estimated that the GCC4, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE will accrue 2% of total global benefits of AI by 2030 (PwC),equivalent to $320 billion, it is still unclear how many jobs could be lost or permanently changed in the process.

Before we declare a progress resistance movement, like the Luddites  of the 19th century who destroyed cotton mills to halt change, it’s important to note that despite the alarming figures above, this is not a human versus machine situation.

Both PwC and the Manpower Group have separately conducted large scale global research around the impact of automation, each concluding that robotisation will not lead to widespread job displacement. The studies’ conclusions indicate   that even though some jobs will be displaced, many more will be created and the net effect will be positive to the economy as a whole.

This positive impact is estimated to be so significant that a 30% installation of bots across the globe would create $5 trillion additional GDP (Oxford Economics). Today, the question is not whether bots will play a crucial part in business, but how deeply integrated they will be in business processes and how rapidly this change will occur.

And the change is already happening. From data entry, aggregation and calculation, reconciliations, through to virtual assistants, the rush to adopt a digital workforce is fueling a booming market for software “bots”. Leading companies such as UiPath, Automation Anywhere and BluePrism are going through enormous growth.

BluePrism stocks have increased in value by 300% in the past two years alone, adding up to a market cap of $1.16bn (Bloomberg). Automation Anywhere and UiPath are valued at $2.6bn and $3bn respectively (Techcrunch) after successfully having raised money from investors in late 2018. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

The World Government Summit estimates that the market for digital workforce solutions for enterprises will keep growing by a compound annual growth rate of 56.1%, reaching $11.1bn by 2024.

It is fair to say that the age of the digital workforce is here, but why and how has this come about?

  1. People are demanding a different ‘work experience’

The current state and future of work is simply not how it was. While job stability may still be high on everyone’s agenda, there is also now much more of a focus on experience. In our research “Workforce of the future: The competing forces shaping 2030” the overall trend is obvious. Employees and companies seek out a greater meaning in what they do. They want to do work that is more creative, and more value-adding, whilst doing it flexibly. A digital workforce can enable humans to fulfil this desire by executing the most mundane, repetitive, time heavy tasks for them.

  1. Technologies are easier to use and configure

We are in the age of nimbleness where technologies can be considered as modules that can be put together to seamlessly work in unison. They are also much easier to use. The industry has built up 30+ years’ experience of what good user experience means, and based on this, many exciting UX features now allow us to communicate with bots better, including voice UI, touchless gesture interaction and other ‘invisible interfaces’ in order to free up as much mental capacity of the user as possible.

  1. The game has changed

It doesn’t matter whether you operate as a B2B or B2C business, the way we do business is much more fluid than before. In this digital age where exclusivity is rare, a company’s ability to scale up, down or sideways is crucial for differentiation. This means that business operations demand more. More in the form of capacity, capability and adaptability. Bots are a perfect addition to a company’s capability. It can augment a workforce to create capacity; it helps divert people’s spare capacity to focus on work they otherwise would not have time to do; and it can scale up and down seamlessly to meet demands.

It is not easy to keep sight of these and firms often get lost in the murky world of digital change. This is why my colleagues from all over the PwC global network have been busy helping clients to introduce bots to the workplace. Our combined experience has identified a list of “do’s” and “don’ts” when it comes to developing your own team of bots.

Do

  • Think big: Do consider automation as part of a wider Digital Transformation programme along with initiatives such as cloud, analytics, digital upskilling etc. Take advantage of the modular nature of modern technology.
  • Start small: Start with a proof of value to show your organisation how bots are a very powerful way to help the organisation move forward. A bot here and there would not transform your organisation but it would start to win hearts and minds before you scale up across the organisation.
  • Consider the impact on jobs: There is an undercurrent about bots taking over jobs. It is imperative to address this head on. There is always an option to divert the freed up capacity to tasks that do not get done today. My favourite exercise is to give an executive or department head a pack of post-it notes to write down things they wish their team would do. Tasks that simply don’t get delivered today due to capacity limitations. I have yet to experience there being nothing written down.
  • Help the team transition: We have to recognise that it can feel uncomfortable for people to change to new ways of working. It’s important that you put effort into the reskilling and upskilling of the team, so that they won’t just cognitively understand, but also feel that the introduction of bots is empowering them.
  • Collaborate with the people: Engage users in designing, building and testing the bots. They are the ones who know the processes, pain points and opportunities inside out. They are also the ones who have great ideas about how to improve things. A big part of any change programme is winning the hearts and minds of its stakeholders.
  • Name your bot: Consider bots as an extension of the team. This way not only will it humanise the capability, it will also make it feel less scary or threatening to jobs. But just so you know, Rashid, EVA, Jessie, Ross, Kensho, Ernest and Amy are already taken, and the list grows by the day!

Don’t

  • Expect magic: In the same way as bringing a new player isn’t going to make your team win a championship overnight, the equivalent can be said for the introduction of bots. One of the risks around emerging technologies is hype. The first thing we generally help our clients with is to tackle misunderstandings and over-promises around the impact of bots. It is a very risky situation if the expectation does not match reality. Introducing bots isn’t going to take away all your problems. What it will do is  create an opportunity for you to look at things differently and perhaps initiate other changes.
  • Consider it an expense: You would not consider, or at least I hope not, hiring new staff as an expense. Investing in automation is all about capacity and capability creation. Headcount is hard to get approved in the Middle East in the current climate. So a digital workforce, which can work 24/7, could be a good solution to some of your limitations.
  • Think it is IT’s responsibility: You would not leave HR to work in isolation to identify, recruit or onboard new staff without your active involvement. Whilst IT can establish a stable and secure environment for the bots to operate, the ultimate accountability lies with the business function. The business functions are responsible for defining requirements, setting the role and integrating bots into the team.
  • Automate processes as they are: Automation brings an opportunity to innovate and transform existing practices and it would be wise to take advantage of this. Bill Gates summarised it best when he said “The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.” In the 15 years I have worked in the industry of professional services, I have not seen a single process or business function that could not be improved or re-engineered. Think carefully before you start your automation.

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