The industry has a duty to educate as well implement
There is an organisational approach to the implementation of robotic process automation (RPA) that has made me deeply uneasy. In my experience, some exec teams with little understanding of the power of the technology that is being implemented have not stopped to consider the broader effects it can have on the people within their organisation and beyond.
This is my call to industry to be on the right side of history.
Young workers are being displaced by automation, but they represent a resource for companies
Five years ago, everyone wanted to be the next Facebook. Recent years have seen the exposure of a series of ethically questionable decisions taken by the social media giant, which has begun to erode the share price and take the shine off of the company's once impeccable public image.
With RPA, there is a lot of focus on the tech and efficiency savings, and little consideration given to the people whose lives would be affected by the changes. In one implementation I witnessed, 15 people were set to be out of work before the year was out, at the same time as the company was advertising for 34 vacancies. That's when the idea took root: that there must be a way to have your cake and eat it, too; to achieve efficiencies with RPA and to look after the people within an organisation.
But this is a bold statement; how do we get there?
RPA and the bigger picture
Firstly, we need to stop viewing RPA as a point solution to deliver singular short-term savings, and instead look at how automation affects the entire organisation. Organisations can get so much more out of RPA if they connect the dots, focusing on the humans that are affected by RPA as well as the technology.
If these people can be redeployed to fill the open vacancies in other areas of the organisation, imagine the savings in recruitment fees and onboarding costs. In my experience, RPA displaces keen young people with a long career ahead of them. These people are often ripe for retraining and upskilling for vacant roles, particularly given the growing skills gap.
Introducing Ethical RPA
The Ethical RPA Method ensures that people are redeployed or upskilled where automation has affected their role. There are three guiding principles that summarise the Ethical RPA Method:
The first priority should be to create value through understanding a company's vision, and then on how the whole organisation can benefit from automation. Here is where you really start to prepare the organisation and its people for RPA, with a wider engagement, required education and (sometimes difficult) conversations with the entire team – including executives, IT, front line staff, procurement and sometimes unions.
It's important at this stage to discuss with the exec team how this joined-up approach and broader initiative can really open up some significant efficiency savings and take care of the people within their organisation.
You can start with a simple Proof of Value (POV), which within 40 days should leave the organisation with a roadmap of how everyone, from the top down, can benefit from automation. It's also come to be known as the ‘close the gap' model, because it can reduce the time between a proof of value and an organisation-wide project. Getting it all out the way in the first 40 days means that, by the end of the POV, the executive team is educated on what automation is, they understand what it means for them as well as for the organisation as a whole and they are excited by the prospect of what it means to them in the future.
Plan long term
Here the Ethical RPA Model ensures that people are taken care of, as well as generating more sales in the long term. This should include a business case for the next ten processes along with a plan for how they can be tackled, the costs involved and the Return on Investment. This is a crucial point. ROI means different things to different people, so it's essential to define what this means as early as possible in the introductory process, and take the responsibility of not just implementing but educating too – even if it involves having the honest and challenging conversations and having skin in the game by upskilling staff.
Thinking about how people can be redeployed and recruitment fees avoided means payback for the business. Organisations don't have to add to their existing headcount. They aren't losing anyone from their current headcount, and they now have a tool and a process for how they can repeat this across the business. This means more robots being used to automate more processes, and an ever more efficient organisation.
The next stage of the process is to take this one step further and plan how we can manage natural attrition through automation. This is the true long term and responsible view.
How RPA will go down in history
The future is bright in the world of automation. Everywhere you look the numbers are growing, and it's an exciting place to work and a wonderful thing to be a part of. However, everyone in the industry should have duty to engage with clients and create value in a way that ensures we maintain the positive image of the automation industry. We need to be remembered as innovators that improved society, rather than using technology to take advantage of those that didn't understand it.
Digital ethics are taking centre stage in the world of technology, and we need to show we are conscious of that. As you can tell, I'm a passionate believer in ethical RPA and believe it's the key to ensuring the growth of the industry continues.
Originally published in Computing.