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Will Robotic Process Automation Replace Human Workers?

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The simple answer to whether robotic process automation (RPA) will render human employees obsolete is “yes.” But the more complicated answer is that RPA, which can do many things, including activities previously considered necessary parts of the workflow, will eliminate the need for employees who carried out basic tasks and replace them with a better-trained class of workers. RPA is only as smart as the person who programmed its activities, which initially will be fundamental tasks like cutting and pasting from one system to the next. But as machine learning is incorporated into RPA, which is already starting to happen, it will be able to accomplish more advanced functions.

It is a very exciting time for technology, with many changes taking place; artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, natural learning understanding/processing and generation, and RPA are just beginning to enter the market. There’s a lot more work that needs to be done to make solutions incorporating these technologies targeted and easy to use, but expect to see massive innovation during the next three to five years.

The AI/RPA revolution will be a game changer for companies that welcome the opportunity to improve the timeliness and accuracy of their work processes. It terms of its potential to reshape the economy, it will be as significant as the Industrial Revolution. It’s going to create a whole new class of employees, a technically savvy generation of workers coming from the Millennial and Generation Z cohorts. The timing is right, as this sector of the workforce is not interested in “pushing paper” and using green screens to process their work. These two generations were born with cell phones in their parents’ hands and learned the basics of how to use them by the time they were 2. Consider Google’s newest search capability, “Lens,” where you can take a picture of anything and get information about it; it’s the kind of exciting and practical technology application these new generations embrace, and they can easily recognize the opportunities brought by the automation of many types of tasks.

This automation will benefit all sorts of companies, and the automations will have to be implemented in a variety of ways. The market is going to require AI and RPA programmers who can apply these applications properly to many different operating environments. Over time, some activities will be automated routinely and be available out of the box, but there will still be a need for integration and specialization. And while that is happening, new ways of applying these technologies will continue to be introduced to the market. The potential impact of all of this change is somewhat frightening. But AI and RPA technologies will make major contributions to the economy in general, and the opportunities will far exceed the negatives.

Here is a list of 15 relatively basic uses of RPA:

1. data propagation into multiple systems;

2. launching and closing applications;

3. e-form completion;

4. launching content-based knowledge management (KM) articles;

5. processing or task management/compliance for multi-step and/or multi-department processes;

6. automating invoicing and accounts payable;

7. automating administrative processes (attendance, vacation, payroll);

8. account maintenance (address change, billing dispute, card account activation, rewards points);

9. fraud monitoring/card suspension;

10. real-time process guidance;

11. client or employee onboarding;

12. data extraction and reporting;

13. inventory management;

14. data comparison and validation; and

15. IT processes associated with system access and termination.

This list is interesting because the tasks span most enterprises. Some of these activities can be applied to many departments in the company, and some apply to only one or two. And as machine learning is used to identify new tasks for automation, the benefits for companies and their customers will continually grow.

So to restate the answer to this article’s titular question, RPA will drive a change in the function of workers, with a new generation of employees who are not constrained by the past and “how things have always been done,” and who see a future where the possibilities for innovation are constrained only by the limits of our imagination. 

Donna Fluss is president of DMG Consulting. For more than two decades she has helped emerging and established companies develop and deliver outstanding customer experiences. A recognized visionary author and speaker, Fluss drives strategic transformation and innovation throughout the service industry. She provides strategic and practical counsel for enterprises, solution providers, and the investment community.

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