These days, robots aren’t just used in manufacturing environments.
Software robots are increasingly emerging as tools to streamline repetitive, rote and rule-based activities.
Imagine a call center service representative who is forced to keep a dozen or more windows open in order to answer customer questions. Or a back-office worker who spends much of the day looking up prices on a website and then copying and pasting those prices into a spreadsheet.
These mechanical and repeatable activities detract from customer (and employee) experience and diminish the ratio of time that can be spent on value-added-focused activities.
Software robotics can help mechanize many of these tasks without a heavy impact to IT. I’ve seen robots deployed into enterprise environments in a matter of a month or two with an ROI that can only be described as jaw-dropping.
With the advent of robots into white collar arenas, we’re seeing more and more breathless, click-baity headlines like:
- “Robots will destroy our jobs – and we’re not ready for it”
- “The 5 Jobs Robots Will Take First”
- “Rise of the Machines: The Future has Lots of Robots, Few Jobs for Humans”
I have a term for these fears: Robophobia.
Is it reasonable to assume that increased automation will displace humans from a wide range of activities?
We can take a look at history to help us answer the question. Specifically, let’s examine the agriculture industry.
Since the dawn of human history, increased automation has marked the cultivation of food. From humans tilling fields and picking crops to massive farming machines and crop-dusters, mechanization of farming has improved the lives of billions of people.
We see a common pattern across industries. Each innovation — a robot is but one example — creates entirely new ecosystems for the planning, design, construction, and maintenance of the new offering.
But, more importantly, each advancement in automation yields brand new product categories that represent new levels of diversity, customization, and personalization.
The 1730 invention of the flying shuttle dramatically accelerated the process of weaving and the production of cloth. This innovation in turn led to incredible new opportunities for entrepreneurs to supply raw materials, service machinery, and create radically new families of finished products.
This seminal event is an archetype for the Industrial Revolution.
Each wave of automation has led to ominous predictions related to the demise of good-paying jobs, whether on the farm or at the loom. However, a more careful examination of history leads to a general conclusion: the process of creative destruction renders obsolete certain roles while simultaneously creating vast and unpredictable new opportunities.
Whereas the blacksmith and the elevator operator no longer appear in our society, tens of thousands of new types of jobs have more than supplanted them.
I suspect that automation in the form of ubiquitous robotics is no different than any other revolutionary improvement in the speed, quality and delivery of products and services.
I’ve been involved in a range of robotic projects and have observed that — instead of replacing humans — knowledge workers become much more efficient. That efficiency translates to more value-added activities, heightened morale, and faster cycle times, to name but a few.
A call center rep, for example, can spend less time on the mechanics of retrieving customer information and more time on retention, cross-selling or up-selling activities.
A back-office worker can devote more time to analyzing aggregated data as opposed to simply retrieving it from different sources.
In short, I believe that robotic automation represents a breakthrough for improving employee productivity and driving cost savings as well as top-line growth. The lessons of history appear to tell us clearly:
Don’t fear the robots: they’re here to make our lives better.
About Doug Ross
Doug Ross is the former CTO at Western & Southern Financial Group, a Fortune 500 diversified financial services company. While there, Ross won a ComputerWorld Premier 100 Award as well as an SMA Innovation in Action Award for innovative solutions that helped the organization open new and highly profitable distribution channels.
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