The jobs that robots could build for us

Key takeaways

  • In spite of fears that robotic process automation means less jobs for humans, it actually has the potential to bring offshored services back to developed economies.
  • From lowering costs to boosting efficiencies, re-shoring processes with RPA has several strategic benefits for organisations.
  • Cost savings from RPA could be reinvested into customer services, vastly improving the customer experience.

The arrival of robotic process automation (RPA) has met with much hand-wringing over its potential to displace human labour. Some headlines even adopt a 1950s science fiction flavour in heralding the oncoming march of automatons poised to steal our jobs.

These proclamations, while entertaining, don’t completely reflect the realities or possibilities of RPA. For one, the new generation of RPA doesn’t resemble the robots of popular culture – it mostly takes the form of software applications.

For another, large-scale adoption of the technology may have a much sunnier effect: it could bring previously outsourced services back onshore, potentially creating new jobs rather than eliminating them. In the financial services at least, PwC has flagged this revival as one of the key technology trends to emerge over the coming years.

RPA has the potential to migrate outsourced services back to developed economies. However, the jobs and roles it creates will probably not resemble those that were exported. Instead, these new roles will support the robotic process automation itself.

Meanwhile, existing roles can be refocused on human interactions, transforming customer service offerings in the process.

The job of RPA

Before taking a deep dive into the economics of RPA, it’s worth revisiting what RPA is. Essentially, RPA software applies rules-based processes to structured data such as tables or spreadsheets. It performs a range of back-office tasks that move automation beyond the manufacturing roots of robots on production lines, and into the desktop processes of enterprises.

These current capabilities of RPA are just the beginning. A 2016 PwC report noted the technology will assist organisations in preparing for a future of cognitive computing, while in the near term, the technology will be able to be paired with data analytics, machine learning and natural language processing.

Recently, RPA has been adapted to work with unstructured data, such as non-tabulated information found in scanned documents. The next generation of automation is fast becoming enterprise-ready.

Because RPA can perform these tasks with minimal downtime, few mistakes (for example an error rate of 0.05% compared to 3%) and no need for a salary, these services can be provided more efficiently and at a much lower cost. If RPA were adopted globally, it is estimated that up to 45% of work activities could be automated, potentially saving up to US$2 trillion.

Back from shore leave

Even at this early stage, RPA could begin to bring a range of outsourced services back to developed economies from traditional outposts such as India and the Philippines. However, it’s important to point out that re-shoring a service doesn’t replicate the jobs and labour that currently provide that service.

Instead, RPA performs the bulk of those services itself, with new onshore roles created to support the RPA.

For example, when an RPA application encounters an error or exception while performing a task, it notifies a human administrator. Thus, a new generation of human RPA ‘exception handlers’ will be required to keep RPA moving smoothly. Other roles may also include quality assurance, maintenance and support.

RPA will also have flow-on benefits to existing roles. Once freed from repetitive manual tasks, many service roles will be able to be more dedicated to customer interaction. This presents a golden opportunity to improve customer experiences, instilling more human interaction in processes currently hamstrung by unnecessary administration.

The RPA strategy

Another potential advantage of re-shoring services using RPA is strategic. Currently, when organisations send processes offshore, they’re losing considerable enterprise knowledge of that process – how it works and how it can be improved.

This is compounded by the fact that the outsourcing firm often has little incentive to improve on its delivery of the process. They’re being paid to provide the service as it currently exists, so it’s often in their best interests to not just maintain the status quo, but to make it difficult for any organisation to re-shore or automate their outsourced processes.

However, if a process is brought onshore to an organisation’s home soil and automated, remarkable things can happen. With full oversight, the organisation might be able to make those processes faster, more efficient and requiring fewer touchpoints. Eventually, this could result in reduced licensing costs for the robots themselves.

When a process is run using RPA, an organisation has greater control and visibility over what the process looks like – from the number of transactions the bots are processing in any given time, to the pathways they took when carrying out the task. Using this information, an organisation can identify bottlenecks all along the process, improving efficiency in a highly targeted and cost effective manner.

A customer service renaissance

Perhaps the greatest opportunity of RPA bringing services back onshore is the ability to redirect resources into customer services. If newly re-shored robots can be made to do much of the grunt work currently performed by humans, local customer service centres could be established to improve the experience for consumers, who may prefer to deal with an agent in their own territory.

If cost savings from automation are redirected in this manner, the customer journey is vastly improved. Customer agents can spend more time talking to customers, dealing with their problems rather than attempting to empathise as they repetitively click and type through multiple forms and pages.

Automatic for the people

Re-shoring services through RPA isn’t likely to replace roles that were lost abroad. Instead, a smaller number of more specialised, higher value roles are likely to be created in their place, and existing roles will be tweaked to emphasise customer interaction and wellbeing. The offshore call centres of today may become core parts of an organisation’s presence on home soil, with new levels of customer care and connection.

These are just some of the many advantages to be found in bringing these roles back home. Whether it’s improved efficiencies, streamlined costs, or a totally optimised customer experience, the potential of RPA will be in how it transforms, rather than replaces, human roles.