Opinion

Robotisation in the office: Are the bots on their way to your desk?

8 min read

22 September 2017

The idea of robots moving into the workplace is often met with a negative reaction. Hysterical predictions of Matrix-style human subjection or Terminators roaming the land are never far away from the topic.

As humans, we have long regarded the idea of robotisation with suspicion, however keen we are to develop new labour-saving technologies.

As a business owner, though, you have a responsibility to think more clearly. The pessimistic line of thought misses the key point that most robotisation is actually related to software automation.

For businesses, this kind of technology holds the key to the next level of efficiency and innovation. Entrepreneurs need to think carefully about how robotisation could be relevant to their business model, which tasks can be lifted off human shoulders and where lines should be drawn to protect company culture and maintain delivery of high quality products and services.

Physical uses

Currently, physical robots are primarily found in heavy industry, maintenance and warehousing. Robotic arms that can lift heavy objects in factories, for example, or drone bots that can service electric pylons. More widely, physical robots are currently carrying out repetitive, hard work for us, from paving streets to heavy lifting.

However, experts agree that robots will increasingly relieve us of repetitive tasks in the coming years and after that, they will carry out more skilled labour.

A prime example can be found in warehouses: bots have carried out basic order picking for quite some time, but now they are also able to take care of intelligent picking. If you’re an SME, it’s worth considering now whether there are any physical tasks in your workflow that could be delegated to robots – from last-mile delivery to order packing.

The digital world

This progression also applies to robots that essentially consist of software. There’s a clear business case for bots that can execute jobs more efficiently than people. For example, software can handle large volumes of customer information faster and more accurately than people in order to help marketers develop well-designed campaign plans.

Similarly, accountants can use software automation to get a deeper understanding of their clients’ business and transition from a functional role to an advisory one.

However, this is just the beginning. If we can teach a bot to process accounting information, it’s not such a big step to help it understand the rules that govern financial processes using machine learning software. This ensures that software bots can work with a degree of autonomy. People will only be called upon when exceptions arise that the robot cannot assess.

In turn, this allows staff in financial roles to develop their skills and focus on more strategic projects, or tasks involving creative thinking to help the business continuously innovate and grow.

Should you make the jump?

There is a great deal of speculation today regarding what jobs will or will not be taken over by bots. With a little imagination, you can see how ultimately the majority of human work could be performed by robots. However, as an entrepreneur, that knowledge doesn’t really benefit you right now. Today, it is especially interesting to look at the short and medium-term impact.

In the coming years, it is expected that tasks in which people are the main bottleneck will be taken over by robots, on a large scale. Prime candidates are anything that takes a relatively long time to complete, for which we lack the mental capacity, or which is too dangerous (or boring).

Keep in mind that the reviewing of customer data and legal files is gradually being taken over by software bots because they are so good at recognising and analysing text and can work continuously, remaining focused for hours or days at a time. They can analyse vast amounts of data in a short time and base their decisions on what they find.

The same is true of accounting, which is typically governed by extensive structures and rules, allowing tasks to be standardised and harmonised. A few years ago, it made sense to allow people to process and record invoices, but today’s software is smart enough to allow this to be easily automated.

Four key points to consider

As an entrepreneur, before you decide to invest in robot technology, it is advisable to consider the following four questions.

(1) What would you use it for?

Robotisation for the sake of technology alone is never a good idea. There must be a clear advantage to using robots: for example, because the work that needs to be done is too demanding for people, or too boring and repetitive, or because machines can perform certain tasks more efficiently or qualitatively or accurately.

(2) Where should you begin?

Review your processes and find out where large amounts of repetitive standard operations are hidden.

(3) How much will it cost?

This is where the business case comes in: how do you justify the investment? When does a robot pay back the amount it cost? How do you incorporate hidden expenses, such as unemployment and retraining, into the business case?

(4) Who’s in charge?

Properly implementing and maintaining bots is a task that should not be underestimated. Make clear arrangements regarding the responsibilities this brings – is the department using the robots responsible or will it fall to the IT department?

Where does that leave humans?

It’s also important to remember that robotisation is not just a matter of technological development. Successful implementation also has important social and corporate culture aspects.

You’ll also need to reconsider employees’ roles once some of their work has been handed over to robots, and make sure that company morale isn’t damaged by a perceived “rise of the machines”.

The manufacturing industry has historically had to deal with social upheaval every time new technology is introduced – now that the service sector is coming up against a similar transition, a more sensitive approach is needed.

If there are people who could bring more value in other parts of the business, then give them new responsibilities – the entry of robots doesn’t have to mean the loss of jobs.

In fact, the ideal scenario is that robots free up humans for more creative tasks, improving business performance, as well as boosting productivity.

In the end…

…The inescapable fact is that robotisation is coming to your industry, whether it’s you or a competitor that introduces it. Rather than waiting for the competition to work out the best ways to use robots to their advantage, you should look to incorporate automated systems before you get left behind.

Gavin Fell is GM UK of Exact