The Future of Tedious Labour: Lean RPA

Lorenzo Del Marmol

April 24, 2019

Tedious work has been an inevitable ingredient in many types of jobs for generations, but now there may be a solution in a new format: Robotic Process Automation (RPA). This is a type of software, not a physical robot, and it is designed to take over some of the more repetitive and dull elements of a process, especially in banking, insurance and accounting where transposition errors or a missed field in a form can result in a delay or developments that have negative repercussions up and down the line.

In one sense, RPA is nothing new. We have been building robots and machines to take over tedious chores for centuries. One need only think how the photocopier sped up the process of duplicating documents, and how a home dishwasher relieves us of the chore of washing the dishes.

RPA falls into place somewhere between robotic machines (like dishwashers) on one end, and artificial intelligence/machine learning-based applications on the other. This latter group uses an ever-evolving intelligence to make judgments and infer knowledge. RPA doesn’t go that far.

I am reminded of a book and movie called Catch Me If You Can, a recounting of a true story of Frank Abagnale, an American confidence trickster. One of his most successful schemes involved modifying the transit numbers printed on the face of personal cheques. The modification sent the cheques to the wrong clearing house, and because of this, he was able to obtain the cash as the banking system stumbled over the error. This trick is no longer possible, but it reveals a tedious manual process that, even without a criminal mastermind at the helm, is rife with the potential for error. 

Many other types of tedious tasks still exist today from testing software to preparing meals or even flying planes. There is certainly room for a new breed of robot to step in and ensure these predictable tasks are taken care of in the right way. 

In a recent McKinsey & Company interview, Xavier Lhuer spoke with Leslie Willcocks from the London School of Economics department of Management, who describes RPA as dealing with “simple tasks that don’t need knowledge, understanding or insight – tasks that can be done by codifying rules and instructing the computer or software to act.” This makes it very different from cognitive computing, which strives to apply levels of artificial intelligence to a problem or a knowledge base.

Willcocks highlights impressive ROI figures, between 30 percent and 200 percent in the first year, across 16 case studies, and notes its usefulness especially in the area of compliance.

Advancing the Workforce Toward Soft Skills

So, although RPA can be seen as a midpoint between industrial automation and intelligent machines, there is another vital notion to consider: the future of work. In a previous post The Human Side of Continuous Improvement , I pointed to studies that predict an increase in the need for soft skills – as well as training in soft skills – to address precisely the types of intuitive and interactive situations that RPA software and even most IA applications cannot handle.

Willcocks highlights this transition as one of the benefits of RPA – that it frees people from drudgery and allows them to focus on higher-level, more customer-friendly activities that require emotional intelligence and situational awareness to complete. This may be welcomed by those employees who can now leave the repetitive parts of their jobs behind, but it might pose a threat to people whose skill set is more suited to repetitive tasks, and for whom interactions with other people is neither welcome nor natural. 

This, however, may be mitigated by the fact that machines still need supervisors. As I wrote in Automating Job Insecurity, in many cases, the jobs that are “taken away” by robots and machines result in a need for caretakers – people who can unjam or escalate the issues that the machines cannot handle. When employers offer these caretaker positions to the people whose jobs were just eliminated, a moderate level of balance is achieved.


What to Watch for When Implementing RPA

 At we highlights three considerations for companies considering RPA adoption:
  • Strategy: although the immediate benefit of RPA is cost savings, she states that more can be gained when using it as a strategic tool.
  • Launch: deployment of RPA requires a combination of the right champion, the right process, and full cooperation from the Executive. It must also be deployed on the right type of scenario, which involves stable, repetitive tasks.
  • Change: people need to accept the change that RPA brings to their world – not just those whose jobs are directly impacted, but others who have built a system of business operations and who see the deployment of robots as a threat rather than a solution.    

As with much of technological advancement, RPA, along with AI and ML are becoming realities. It is up to companies to decide whether they wish to occupy the leading edge of change or wait until their competitors or customers get there first.

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