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Software Robots: Humans 2.0?

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Software Robots: Humans 2.0?

In this month’s Innovation Insights piece, Blue Prism Chairman Jason Kingdon discusses the future of the workplace, and how businesses are employing robots to handle core operational processes. Jason describes such robots as “Humans 2.0” and describes multiple benefits of employing such technology.

Most notable is the issue of security and employee vetting for low skill, low creativity jobs. Due to the mundane nature of these roles, many firms rely on hiring temps to input data, or over-stretch other full time employees. However, these positions are often privy to sensitive information, creating immediate security risks due to human error or poor judgment. This is where robots can step in and greatly simplify the process. Read more about Humans 2.0 here, or find the full article below.

 

Software Robots: Humans 2.0?

Talking with Business Process Outsourcers about Software Robots, some interesting insights come to light. One thing that is not really understood is just how weak the competition is – that is humans.

We all know humans have their frailties, but looked at in detail – and especially compared to their virtual or mechanical counterparts – the differences become somewhat stark.

The first stand-out win for the machines is security. This single issue is probably enough in regulated industries to make software robots the drones of choice for all routine work. When regulatory failures occur then, like a snow storm, the massive admin deluge arrives.

Take something like Payment Protection Insurance (PPI) miss-selling in the UK. The big retail banks, on the whole, had to hire temporary staff to manage the workload of millions of claims. There was just too much admin to manage with existing staff – that is, without stopping all the day jobs. So what to do? Hire temps.

One of the biggest hiring issues is vetting. It’s a regulated industry and these temps will have access to sensitive data. Imagine if one of them decided to leak a list of customers to another regulator. Its another accident waiting to happen on top of the initial accident.

Privately you will hear that one attraction in outsourcing is precisely to off-load this risk to 3rd parties. To meet regulatory timescales and vet the temps is almost too hard to even achieve.

In this world any safe alternative to humans is a leap forward, and for the recent PPI scandal in the UK, one bank used robots for just such management. And with more recent scandals it probably says that the first question in the work triage should be, “Can the robots do it?”

Robots of course have no vetting issues and once the admin work is done, they are parked back into the virtual pool for future re-tasking. Plus, the robots bank the skills they learned within the regulation process – skills that can be cannibalized and re-used. When seeing this level of comparisons with humans you almost avert your gaze, the advantages are so overwhelming.

The reason I start with security is that it touches on something that is hard to build into traditional business cases – a banking license can be at stake. This truly concentrates the mind.

Robots, as we have discussed, of course beat humans on simple things too: they don’t take breaks, their minds don’t wander, they don’t have bad days, and they do not argue against change.

The BPO heads admit that what they do in many cases is very unsuited to being tasked to humans. Most humans also readily confess they hate endless routine work. So much so, they invent quirks to lighten it up. A business process will be designed to have some “judgment” attached, so rather than fast bulk process flows, small oasis of interest are created.

An example I was told involved insurance claims handlers designing work so that letters were read and managed by one agent. The bosses knew that it would be much faster to read all and then segment the tasks– but people didn’t like working that way. Worse. When the Lean/Six Sigma guys suggested changes, the staff resisted.

Even worse followed, the team went on to suggest a new Business Process Management Suite be created from IT so as to facilitate the idiosyncratic process people were running.

The cost of the human double down, we have possibly 1/3 errors, with a poor process design, which is then supported through traditional expensive IT.

Not only are humans not doing a very good job, but their resistance to change compounds things. Think of the genius-levels of automation in factories – this revolution needs to happen in the service industry.

Against this background of uncooperative change, another dimension emerges. Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of using software robots is the immediacy of control. To see this we ask a simple question, “How are robots trained?”

The good ones are shown by editing a business flow chart, like we all used at school in program design or in business classes, with decision triangles and action blocks. And in these actions you see things like:

  •  “open main account;”
  •  “extract balance;”
  •  “open credit score;”
  •  “attain rating;”
  •  “calculate eligibility;”;
  •  “if eligible then process application;”
  •  if NOT “process rejection form.”

This is all well and good – but several amazing aspects need to be underlined in this. Firstly, the actions above can be made by business operations users, not IT staff. The business operations guys understand their process flows, so who better to change it?
It is common to see people of non-technical backgrounds very comfortable with the high-level actioning given above. It is the way you train colleges and it is the way Hollywood has depicted instructing robots in Sci-Fi films.

But second and most compelling, outside of being simple, is that the diagram is the program. There is something almost existential about this. The documented process as written is the thing that actually does the work.

This is magical – you write something and it becomes so. You hit return to publish – and all the instructions then get followed and carried out. This is a phenomenal – it means you can reprogram the whole factory by drawing a picture and the robots make it so. You just execute.

So the flow chart is i) the instruction program for carrying-out the task, ii) the document of record of the process, iii) the audit of actions that have been used for the process, and iv) the record of actions taken against this process.

This last point is as if you asked all of your human staff to record their actions and make note of all of the outcomes. The robot of course just does it for everything automatically – all machine intelligence, all records of actions and analysis of decisions taken as a byproduct of doing the work. It is at this point we get squeamish going further. How do human compete with this?

One of the latest innovations in off-shoring in rural locations. These are places so far off the beaten track, no customer would ever visit them. They manage 30 percent staff turnover, more than 30 percent staff errors, and double to triple staff layering (three people to a machine) to manage the staff turnover. Pay is so low as to be recoded as lower than the cost of energy or the building.

Actions taken, security and qualifications scant, but of course – prices are rock bottom. Hopefully robots will put these places out of business before they get started.