The services sector is about to experience transformative wave of automation, according to Arvind Mehrotra president and global business head infrastructure management services at Indian outsourcing giant NIIT.
The first stage of automation is well underway, he pointed out. Autonomous machines go places where humans cannot tread, laying undersea cables, monitoring the wear on drill tips and aircraft engines and sniffing network traffic for anomalies. Others are labouring away at things that they can do more efficiently than humans - such as asswmbling vehicles on production lines.
Automation has already had a big impact in certain sectors such as manufacturing, distribution energy and telecoms but the next phase of will be felt most strongly in the services sector.
Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is moving fast, enabled by advances in machine learning and real-time analytics. The economics of the situation dictate that inevitably RPA will be adopted by more and more services companies - banks, legal, consultancies, education, health, government - Mehrotra explained.
"For many years services companies have been outsourcing repetitive tasks like data input and invoice generation to India or the Philippines, but now all companies are using that strategy so there's no competitive advantage, its still humans doing the work" he said.
"Now is the next wave. They have to protect their margins and retain their customers so they are bringing in RPA for efficiency."
Mehotra cited the case of SEI Investments Company which has implemented RPA "to lower costs but more importantly to eliminate human error, which could have financial impact on their business, client experience and the SEI brand".
The soft bots are coming
A software robot, according to Wikipedia, is a "software application that replicates the actions of a human being interacting with the user interface of a computer system". Soft bots are particularly suitable for repetitive tasks.
"If an individual has to constantly review a checklist, because the task is very monotonous he will keep saying 'yes, yes' to everything without checking the other information that's in front of him. That brings in error and leads to unpredictability in the service."
RPA also allows services companies to redefine their business processes, eliminating bottlenecks and delays caused by employees being in meetings or at lunch, Mehrotra added.
"There are not enough hands to do all the work. Someone might be responsible for initiating a workflow, but they may be in a meeting.
"Many operations and many workloads can be orchestrated in such a manner that they don't require human intervention. Instead of a human having to navigate multiple systems, multiple screens, copying information from one place to another, initiating workflows, this is where an RPA bot can come into play, making the service more efficient and more predictable and eliminating costs."
In many situations the human being is now the "limiting factor" according to Mehotra, with the automation technologies in their third or fourth generation, but most business processes stuck in the first. The next wave, characterised by AI, will start to see some decision making tasks deferred to bots too.
Out with the old, in with the new
That's all well and good from a boardroom point of view, but what about the workers? Inevitably the box-ticking-type jobs are going the way of the typing pool as are invoice generation, employee 'onboarding' and other repetitive tasks, but what about the systems experts and the back-office positions? There will still be a need for these roles (think Cobol coders in banks), but there will be fewer of them and they will be more highly paid, said Mehotra. Meanwhile information processors will need to learn new skills.
"The back office will move to the front office. There will be a need for more customer facing positions, because that's where the differentiation lies, being able to retain customers. So empathetic roles will come to the fore."
Mehrotra argues that a generational psychological shift towards public extraversion is underway as evidenced by social media.
"We are in the social era, more people are able to explain their point of view. As a society we are getting used to multitasking and dealing with diverse sets of information," he said.
"One skillset that will become more important will be the ability to express our point of view. This is natural for Generation Y, they do not have inhibitions in expressing their point of view and they don't feel ridiculed if it's not accepted - they have an alter ego on social media. But older people tend to be shy about that."
As well as new customer facing roles, jobs will be created in IT in areas such as AI, analytics and designing and scripting bots, he explained. In business people will be freed up to look at process re-engineering and cost management and innovation, and training will enjoy an increased status.
"We shouldn't fear this. It will remove the boring tasks and enable us to enjoy our life better" Mehotra, concluded.
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