2017 saw widespread recognition and implementation of RPA (robotic process automation). RPA is also referred to as “digital labor,” because it is capable of replacing humans in some aspects of work. But how do we utilize RPA? We asked Hideaki Fukuhara of Nomura Research Institute (NRI), who has assisted many companies with operational reform, including the implementation of various technologies, about what makes RPA different from other technologies, and what we should consider as we move towards implementation.
RPA is everywhere, in every industry
I’m often asked, “how is RPA different from the IT systems of the past?” In the past, IT systems were hidden away in the “back” of our computer screens, and we would control these systems from the “front,” using things like a mouse and keyboard. What’s different about the RPA is that it does the “front” side, it works like a human for us. For example, let’s say part of your job was to log onto a system, extract specific bits of information, and write them into a separate system. With RPA, you would just press a button and the robot would handle all of this for you.
The financial and service industries were one of the first to recognize the convenience of RPA, and implement it in their workflows. By automating things like opening a new bank account, requesting insurance money, and managing rental car reservations, they have saved several hundred people’s worth of work, which has allowed them to save considerably on costs. Companies in other industries have been paying attention to RPA, and RPA is now found in many companies, particularly in management and internal affairs departments like for general affairs, human resources, and accounting.
What is digital labor?
In the term “digital labor” is an expectation that this technology will serve a more human function or role than the IT systems of the past, or that this technology will serve as a new labor force of sorts, to combat current issues like excessive overtime and labor shortage. But when we actually move to implement RPA in work settings, we have to understand digital labor from a slightly different perspective. This is that the success (or not) of RPA depends on the roles and abilities of uswho use it as a new labor force.
So what kind of labor force is RPA? I believe it is better to see RPA as less of a star employee, who is prepared and work-ready, and more of a new employee with a lot of potential. The various success stories are introduced but in fact, each form of RPA has its own distinctive qualities and limitations. They may be suited to one job but not another, they may be unable to work unless taught, or they may stop working completely if not properly cared for.
These three things are very similar to what managers must consider when bringing new employees into their company. They must work to understand what these new employees want to do and what they can do, and towards the beginning, teach them everything step by step. If the employee is unable to perform well, for whatever reason, it is also the manager’s job to stick with them to organize the issues and help them overcome their struggle. New employees who are mismanaged are prevented from achieving their potential, and are not able to contribute as much as they otherwise could to the organization.
This is the same for RPA. Results are based on the management skills of the human beings who manage the system after its implementation. Without the mentality and system necessary to be able to handle the implementation process, digital labor will only be a nuisance, and will be quickly abandoned by the people around it.
Disappointment in RPA stems from us
Indeed, many of the companies that have actually implemented RPA into their workflows have found it to be disappointing—it is not as useful as they imagined, the effects are smaller than they imagined, it is more tedious than they imagined. The reason for this is often in the employees’ lack of understanding regarding digital labor, as well as their lack of preparation for its implementation—the very things I discussed here.
It is inevitable that people would find RPA less useful than they imagined, if they do not have a proper understanding of the scope of RPA, and if they expect it to be able to do work which cannot be achieved without coordination with AI (artificial intelligence). Another element of this issue is the fact that often, the tasks that are to be taken over by RPA are separated into many small, discrete parts. To increase the effects of RPA on the workflow, there have to be as many robots as there are parts in this task. Companies that are dependent on their IT department for implementation, and whose employees do not have the skills necessary to control (educate) robots on-site, will find that the number of tasks completed by robots remains fairly stagnant, and will be disappointed by the effects of RPA.
Finally, there is also the fact that RPA is surprisingly delicate. The system can suddenly stop working if anything in the environment around it changes from when it was first implemented. Common examples of environmental changes include changes in screen transitions for the in-house system, changes in the structure of the folder housing the work file, system slowdowns at the end of the month, etc. If employees are unable to prevent and handle this issue, every change in the environment will lead to a system malfunction that will severely impact the workflow. They may, for instance, have to gather people at short notice to manually do the work that would normally be handled through RPA—a huge waste of time and effort. This often gets RPA the unfair reputation for being “tedious.”
RPA as the touchstone of the digital age
That so many companies are finding RPA to be a “disappointing” form of technology is a huge blow to the future of work digitalization. RPA is currently limited in what it can do, but in the future, coordination with IoT (Internet of Things) and AI, etc., will give it a higher functionality. There is a chance that RPA will replace traditional IT systems as the new platform for digital reform, in a rapidly diversifying white-collar workplace. The key, however, is whether we can achieve the kind of technological literacy needed for the implementation and operation of digital technologies. RPA in some ways can be considered a touchstone for this endeavor. This is the main reason why we must focus on the human side of digital labor implementation, the roles and abilities of human beings, in the advancement and implementation of RPA technologies.
If an exquisitely crafted instrument is given to someone who cannot play it, no beautiful music will be played. Whether we could extract the value from some or not depends on the tools itself but our ability. This applies, of course, to the realm of digital technologies as well. We at NRI are aware that in this age of innovative digital tools, there are great issues and potential in the people and organizations that are to implement these tools. Our job is to provide full support for these people and companies as they set out on this endeavor.
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Sep. 13, 2018