TED Talks are great for a lot of reasons. They’re educational and entertaining, and the best TED Talks cut through the clutter and transform complex subject matter into easy-to-digest information. The TEDx Talk “White Collar Robots: The Virtual Workforce” is no different. In it, Blue Prism CTO and Co-founder David Moss argues that many organizations today are wasting human talent by relying on their human workforce to perform tasks that are better suited for a virtual workforce.
From the outset, Moss makes clear that he’s doing more than simply explaining how Robotic Process Automation (RPA) works – he’s identifying the inherent inefficiencies of some organizations and detailing how RPA can help address them. He specifically points to service-based industries and compares their productivity rates with those from product-based businesses like manufacturing and retail.
“What’s really interesting is that, if you look at the figures for productivity and look at a sector like the manufacturing of car vehicles, they’ve increased productivity since 2009 by 58%, a massive increase,” says Moss. “But if we look at financial services and insurance since 2009, productivity has fallen by 10%. In banking, financial services and insurance, we’re actually going backwards. Things are getting more expensive. They’re taking longer to produce or provide. And we’re actually getting a worse service as a result.”
Among the reasons for these inefficiencies, Moss cites complex, multi-step processes that typically depend on humans. He uses the activation of his smartphone as one example, pointing out that what you would think would be a simple and straightforward process is actually highly complex and involves a number of critical steps along the way. Most of these steps are taken by humans who are located all over the world, and many of the steps – especially the ones that are mundane and highly repetitive – could easily be performed by robots and could actually deliver better results.
RPA: The Player-less Piano
For some people, it’s difficult to imagine how a software robot works exactly. But before you start conjuring images of a mechanical robot sitting alongside a human, consider Moss’s metaphor:
“Think of something a bit more like a player-less piano. You’ve got the same instrument. You’ve got the same piece of music. But you’ve trained the piano to play that piece of music, and then you can take the player away from the keyboard. The same principle applies…[RPA] takes the mundane, the repetitive, the robot-like activities away from the person and allows them to focus on the skills that they have – the management, the decisioning, the empathy, etc. If we can apply that same technique and that same technology in the office, we could take a lot of those mundane activities, automate them, increase our productivity and scale up what we do.”
If I were going to carry Moss’s musical metaphor one step further, I’d ask:
“Why settle for a soloist when you can have a symphony?” In other words, it’s important to think beyond a single robot or a single process that needs to be automated. Instead, think in terms of your virtual workforce working hand in glove with your human workforce. Moss says it this way: “Think about humans working alongside their virtualized, automated counterparts.”
“Taking the Robot Out of the Human”
What does it look like to have humans and robots working together? For starters, we need to be honest about the current state of our workforce. The common perception is that people are used only for skill-based tasks that require interaction, judgment and interpretation and that technology is used for the repetitive tasks that follow business rules, demand consistency and involve repeatability. The reality, however, is that these two worlds often overlap.
In fact, for many organizations, it’s common to have humans doing the most repetitive and monotonous work, so we need to shift our thinking and start identifying ways of “taking the robot out of the human” – to borrow a phrase from a book that Moss cites in his talk.
The big idea here is that we need to start differentiating between the tasks that are best suited for robots (data entry, system updates, etc.) and the tasks that are best suited for humans (critical thinking, problem solving, customer service, etc.) and then automate accordingly. The goal: to use people for the very skills they were hired for in the first place.
Automation Is Everywhere
It used to be that only the most forward-thinking organizations and companies were automating their processes. However, now we’re seeing automation everywhere.
“We’re even using automation in the home,” Moss says, showing a picture of an iRobot vacuum cleaner. “Why are we interested in embracing automation in the home? None of us want to do mundane, repetitive, manual activities.”
The same is true for enterprises. Ultimately, it will be the organizations that implement a virtual workforce, while leveraging their human workforce more effectively, who will be successful and gain a competitive edge in the age of automation.
Moss concludes by saying, “I think we’re wasting human talent…And I think that, if we’re smart about the way we learn lessons from other organizations and other sectors like manufacturing and retail and if we can get automation working in partnership with humans, we can grow our skills. We can grow our organization. We can become more productive. And we can harness those talents as opposed to wasting them.”
To hear more, here’s a link to the entire video.