RPA Has a PR Problem With Employees

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Working hard is no longer what the modern digital workforce wants. Instead, it’s about working smarter. Just ask the number of employees leaving jobs that they feel are just too hard and not worth their while, even if it meant becoming unemployed.

After the disruptions brought about by the pandemic, working smarter is fast becoming about driving automation and deploying bots. And this is where it all gets very interesting.

Mixed feelings about RPA

A study conducted by McKinsey in June 2020 noted that 67% of the 800 executives across the U.S., Asia, and Europe indicated that automation and artificial intelligence adoption increased. This is in line with general market observations that the pandemic showed how much we need automation and other AI-driven technologies.

However, the adoption rate is not homogeneous. In Asia, the acceleration of robotic process automation (RPA) investment appears less enthusiastic. For example, in Forrester’s The State of Robotic Process Automation (RPA) Maturity in Asia Pacific report, more than half (56%) of the respondents felt COVID-19 had not affected their RPA investment. Yet, the same survey found almost one-third (31%) of Asia firms increasing investment post-pandemic.

So why the mixed feelings about RPA uptake? It is not because of a lack of interest. “We are seeing a significant increase in inquiries about RPA products in 2021, as businesses are resuming to normal,” said Karen Ko, senior director, marketing Asia Pacific at Automation Anywhere. Ko added these inquiries were often backed by a good understanding of the technologies and readiness for investment.

One reason could be that companies are still not ready — or at least not ready to scale. The author of the Forrester survey and principal analyst Leslie Joseph felt that many regional companies are still stabilizing from the uncertainty, and cost pressures are preventing many from trying automation for the first time. Meanwhile, those that have invested in automation are struggling to scale.

Confusion and fear reigns

Another often overlooked reason is that the culture is not ready. The word “automation” still brings images of job losses even after the pandemic showed us the value of automation and AI.

The companies that did well with automation were those that positioned it as complementary.

“Companies that have succeeded in automation-fueled transformation are those which have found ways not to retrench, but to re-skill and up-level their employees to higher-value tasks and functions,” explained Joseph.

The idea that automation is for talent replacement is likely caused by the confusion between automating processes and people. Yet, we revert to our traditional manufacturing viewpoint, where people were seen as cogs in a machine.

Today, this is not the case. Instead, for many companies, including those in manufacturing, automating processes is simply taking the tedious and repetitive tasks or processes off talents so that they can focus on more mission-critical and value-added tasks.

The confusion is made worse when organizations focus primarily on cutting costs or cost containment, as many did at the start of the pandemic.

It is why in the Forrester report, 23% of respondents cited cost savings from improving the efficiency of the existing headcount as the number one benefit for adopting RPA. Only 12% identified higher speed, improved capacity, and business transformation as significant benefits. So, it is easy to see why many view RPA as a means to freeze headcount while improving productivity.

The findings are more alarming because only 4% felt improved employee engagement and satisfaction as significant benefits. It means that there is a disconnect between RPA and automation and employee experience.

Four ways to humanize automation

The sad truth is that RPA is essentially a humanizing technology. At the very core, it humanizes the employee experience by automating manual and repetitive tasks. Unfortunately, while the cold-hard economic benefit of RPA is undeniable, its advantage in allowing the human workforce to focus on human-driven tasks is often underplayed or not communicated well.

Experts emphasized four ways to highlight the human side of automation and RPA:

  1. Communicate, communicate, communicate: Joseph said businesses often underestimate the importance of communication during RPA adoption. “Many well-intentioned programs have stumbled midway due to a lack of stakeholder understanding or support,” he said. Ko from Automation Anywhere added that culture is crucial. The objective of automating processes is to “make lives easier for talents,” she said. It is essential to communicate this message loud and clear, backed by creating a corporate culture that values “work-life balance.”
  2. Seeded from the top; driven from the bottom: While automation could be initiated top-down, involving talents at the initial processes and critical decisions brings a humanized experience. “It’s a C-suite initiative… but everyone needs to talk about the goals and risks right from the start,” said Amit Bhatia, senior analyst at Forrester. “This creates buy-in from more employees right from the start.” Ko added that involving more business users also builds internal advocates that offer human voices into scaling automation across the organization.
  3. Set up a Center of Excellence (COE) committee: Setting up a COE provides a platform to balance domain expertise with technical know-how.  It helps organizations to build, ship, and support a steady pipeline of automation at scale. “The biggest maturity gaps between beginner, intermediate, and advanced firms lie in their approaches to program governance and process identification,” said Joseph. Ko added the COE also provides an opportunity for talents to re-skill from executing tedious business processes into managing automation development.
  4. Treat automation as part of the journey: Automation is not a collection of individual technologies, said Joseph. Instead, companies need to treat automation as part of the enterprise’s digital transformation journey, providing talent with an opportunity to transform and re-skill together with the organization. It is how Dah Chong Hong Holding, a Hong Kong-based integrated motor and consumer products distributor, viewed its automation project. "RPA is just one piece in our digital transformation journey. We look to AI and machine learning so that we can produce more innovative outcomes for our business, staff, and customers,” said Osmond Li, head of enterprise development & database administration of Group IT.

It’s time for companies to rethink how they are well-meaning yet fear-inspiring automation initiatives. With the market facing uncertainty and pockets of opportunities appearing and disappearing quickly, they’ve no time to waste.

Sheila Lam is the contributing editor of DigitalWorkforceTrends. Covering IT for 20 years as a journalist, she has witnessed the emergence, hype, and maturity of different technologies, but is always excited with what's next. You can reach her at [email protected].

Image credit: iStockphoto/rudall30