How does robotic process automation really empower people?

Written by Jordan McMahon in Changing the world with automation on July 29, 2016

In a recent Future of Work Organization podcast, one question that futurist Jacob Morgan asked struck me: How is RPA empowering people?

Robotic process automation—and particularly the cognitive variety—is touted as being a way to “free” people to do higher value work. With a machine doing the repetitive, more mundane jobs, it’s clear that humans have capacity to do more. But what?

Bots can enable employee empowerment if we understand a few concepts:

Utilizing true talent

If you’re familiar with the concepts of lean manufacturing, you know that not long ago, a new source of “workplace waste” was added to the “7 Deadly Wastes” familiar to the industry: under-utilized employee talent. This concept applies more broadly to the corporate world as a whole.

Consider this scenario.

You call your phone carrier with a requirement--perhaps as simple as changing your address in their system or understanding your data plan.  As the representative communicates with you and listens for information, he or she is filling in fields, validating data between systems, putting you on hold to get approvals with a manager, waiting for their approved script to be called up on the computer, or any other number of tasks. Studies have shown that while we can rapidly shift our attention between activities, the concept of true “multi-tasking” is a myth. Therefore, as this representative does “robotic” work, he or she is missing an opportunity to create a positive customer experience, better understand your needs, or find an upsell that would benefit both customer and company. These are the types of “human” tasks that RPA providers want to re-infuse organizations with.


Taking the robot out of the human

A skill like candlemaking which was extremely important for centuries, became practically obsolete when mechanized in the 1800s. Today candlemaking is a novelty hobby, not a necessary job. And if we suddenly had to begin making candles again, it would be quite a shock. It has become natural to us that candles are no longer man made, because we collectively recognize that some jobs are better left to machines

We’ve spent recent years teaching people to do jobs a computer should be doing: checking and validating information, entering data, comparing fields in Excel spreadsheets, copying and pasting information, and more. Essentially, we’ve taught people to be more robotic. Now, with the dawn of robotic process automation, we need to re-train people to rely on the traits that can’t be automated. A smattering of those traits? Understanding human needs and responding appropriately. Employing empathy. Problem solving by thinking outside the box (something a machine that relies on rules can’t do easily). Innovating. The list goes on, but the key is that companies using RPA will be able to focus on taking the robot out of the human. Instead of “making candles” they’ll be thinking of other ways to illuminate.


Enabling the modern workforce to work the way they expect

Imagine having to use a map again to get from point A to point B. (Even theme parks have GPS navigation apps now). Or not being able to “Hey Siri” for information you want immediately. People today have expectations of working alongside technology. When worries arise about how people will respond to an evolving workplace fueled by automation, it’s important to remember that many of us, as well as college students graduating into the workforce, would question doing things the other way. We expect things to be automated.

We’ll find increasingly that people will question why we’re performing robotic functions in our jobs, when there are machines that should be working for us, automating the parts of our jobs that we’re not suited to do, and might even be hindering our true potential. Furthermore, as we progress with automation, we’ll question why other things happen: heart attacks, car accidents, and food wastage, for example, could all become a thing of the past as we invest our human talent into creating technology, and then lean on technology to take steps forward into a more predictive economy.


The overwhelming message of the podcast that spurned this question is that it’s time to do things differently. And people will embrace this change.


To listen to the entire podcast “My Co-Worker is a Bot,” click here