In this month’s contribution to WIRED’s Innovation Insights, Blue Prism Chairman Jason Kingdon offers his perspective on software robotics and how they will impact the workforce of the future. Jason touches on what roles should be delegated to software robots, and what type of new careers they could spawn. For more, check out the post here or below.
Software Robots: Head of Robotic Automation
A recent report from Deloitte and Oxford University suggests that 35 percent of jobs are at risk of being displaced by technology, automation and robotics. The study was for the U.K., but cites similar research for the U.S. and suggests that this applies to all developed economies.
The report also suggests that anyone earning less than $60k should be the most worried, as these jobs are apparently the most vulnerable. All of this is more alarming when combined with research from Channel 4 that points out (in the U.K. at least) that people at this salary level are in the top quartile in terms of pay.
In our theme of software robots – clerical robots that mimic admin staff – what role do they have in this jobs invasion? Well, the brief answer is – a major one.
Software robots replace humans doing rules-based, routine admin work because it is vastly economic to do so. Software robots are shown what to do, like a human. There is no IT system integration phase, or build phase. The robots work like humans, so out of the box they are trained and then set-to, carrying out tasks as human machines.
While this alone seems beneficial, software robots’ real benefits are the host of collateral improvements they bring. As we have been discussing, this ranges from 24x7x365 work rates, their ability to scale (clone more workers!, and at the speed of light), and their ability to document (robots tell us exactly what they do and how they do it – I challenge anyone to get the same candor from back-office clerical staff). They also generate management information – telling us how the process worked and providing trend and system congestion analysis as they go along. They work, they document, they project and they clean. They bring unprecedented levels of audit and security. Robots are vastly more secure than humans – especially at the level of routine rules-based work. Can you imagine hiring temps to carry out emergency admin tasks when a compliance issue blows within a major bank?
At the demised Bear Stearns, they had a “sneaker brigade” – “kids” that wore sneakers so they could run between departments. They were hired and fired on short notice when a compliance gasket blew. Little was said on vetting.
Another killer advantage of the robot is, of course training – train one robot and scarily, they are all trained. This feels straight out of a sci-fi movie. In fact, taken together these are overwhelming odds in their favor – the kind of relentless pursuit of goals that the Terminator films foretold. It’s as if Arnold Schwarzenegger is recast as a job-devouring goodie-goodie. The corporate robot is a model citizen, as happy to devour our jobs as to take their own – true shareholder servants.
Software robots also instigate cultural change. Those old enough will remember a Heineken ad campaign that ran for years (presumably very successfully) in which Heineken reached the parts that other beers could not (how we remember these lines). Well about the time of the ad, clearly the brewery was not drinking enough of its own product.
Heineken International went through long periods of rapid expansion – through the 1980s, and right through the 1990s and 2000s with year-on-year 10 percent increases in volume. Brewing and bottling and distributing at these levels of sustained expansion proves tough. A management team always hedging against the future, always working from partial knowledge, always knowing most businesses fail through feast, not famine.
The directive was to improve operational equipment efficiency by 20 percent. Basically get more action out of the equipment they had invested in. Heineken also decided to focus on obtaining accurate operational statistics – management information to model business improvements. They singled out operational culture so as to engender a spirit (sorry) of fast and effective decision making. The underpinning of this was to engage workers to think about what they were doing as well as doing it. In other words, “problem solving” was to be industrialized and made a core activity. With total quality measures, empowered decision making, distributed authority – they achieved the goals with great confidence.
However, with a fascinating insight in to human psyche, they found that innovation quickly tailed off. The new methods were only being adopted in times of high stress, and in steady state people wanted to carry on as they were. In other words – when there is time to make changes no changes are made, and when there is no time, changes happen. This is a burning lesson for all operations heads – and one that we all know, it is a version of “never waste a crisis.” So Heineken found the improvements healed over time – and that the old steady state reasserted itself. This is how humans work. It also talks to the likely take-up of new robotics in the work place – new businesses will innovate, established ones will find reasons not to.
So while in theory the robotic revolution looks to be sweeping all before it, the reality will be more measured. This is also why the Head of Robotic Automation will become one of the most exciting jobs in world. Unlike Heineken, whose staff was being asked to do two jobs, the Head of Robotic Automation will be asked to do one: problem solve and continually improve the workplace. Steady state will become continual improvement. Their virtual workforce will be more than happy to oblige too, even if this involves deleting a co-worker.
Jason Kingdon is chairman of Blue Prism.