How can digital and human labour become colleagues?

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Posting date: 21 June 2023

Automation is such a hot topic at the moment, but how does it work alongside your current human workforce? Melanie Hayes, Chief People Officer, Nash Squared, and George Lynch, Head of Technology Advisory, NashTech discuss this in the below article which first appeared on theHRdirector.com.

Amidst continuing skills shortages, high inflation, rising salary demands and an increased need for cost efficiencies, if there was ever a time when automation would ‘have its day’, it would seem to be right now.

But while there is a clear business case for automation, the relationship between the robotic and the human has never been straightforward. Media reports love to paint the scenario of the ‘robots taking over the world’ in a kind of futuristic Armageddon where humans become redundant from a whole swathe of jobs.

The reality, however, is not quite so much like a Hollywood filmscript. It’s a more nuanced and subtle picture. It’s more about automating processes than whole jobs. And there is certainly huge scope for human and machine to work together in a positive symbiosis that maximises process efficiency and frees up people for more value-adding tasks. Achieving that balance must surely be one of the big strategic aims for any HR Director and their team.

The growth of automation

So how far have we come? We’ve been tracking automation and digital labour for several years in the Nash Squared Digital Leadership Report. In our 2022 research, we find that digital labour is very much on the agenda: amongst the digital leaders that we surveyed from countries around the world, the average expectation is that nearly one in six of the workforce will be automated in the next five years.

Almost a third of digital leaders (29%) think that automation will be critical for gaining a competitive advantage over the next 12 months. Although growing at a slower pace than in previous years, the worldwide RPA market is expected to experience double-digit growth in 2023, growing 17.5% year on year according to Gartner research.

We only have to look back at the results of our survey in 2018 to see just how pervasive digital labour has become today. Implementations have increased significantly across all departments. While in 2018 customer support was the second biggest area of automation after IT, today finance takes that position. We have also seen a big jump in HR automation.

The sweet spot remains repetitive, low value, high volume tasks – data entry, for example, or invoice matching and processing. Machines, unlike humans, don’t get tired or make mistakes. They can work 24/7 at 100% accuracy if designed and implemented effectively.

Multiple use cases for HR

Thinking about HR itself, there is enormous potential for automation to make a difference – and it’s already in widespread use to different degrees. Technology can add value across the entire HR value chain. At the recruitment end, it can be used to screen CVs against specific criteria and to schedule interviews, saving significant amounts of human time, especially in volume recruitment scenarios.

For onboarding, automated applications can help create consistent processes and flows to keep the joiner experience high – which can be a significant factor in boosting retention, given that the first six months are often where the risk of an employee leaving is highest. Intelligent tools can help HR teams analyse the employee experience and stay alert to risks.

While AI-based capabilities embedded in learning and development platforms can make ‘Netflix-style’ recommendations to individuals for further training modules, adding significant value by helping them think about career-pathing and future development.

For workforce management and planning, meanwhile, predictive analytics can be utilised to identify turnover or absence risks based on previous behaviours and external factors, and help model resourcing levels against anticipated workload demands.

Not only this, but we have started to see the development in earnest of AI-powered capabilities such as ChatGPT and equivalents that can help individuals across organisations – in HR and indeed in any function – get jobs done faster. These can be particularly effective in tasks such as gathering research information, creating templates and writing first drafts of documents.

They are not, as yet, the finished article – texts for example are likely to need editing and shaping, especially to put them into the right tone of voice – but they can make an excellent head start and significantly reduce the hours needed on specific tasks. With Microsoft due to introduce its Co-pilot application into future editions of the Office suite, these kinds of capabilities could soon step nearer to mass adoption and use.

Overcoming the barriers

All of this being the case, where do the barriers still lie? In our research, the most prevalent blocker to large-scale automation of tasks and processes cited by digital leaders  remains cultural resistance. There is still fear and suspicion amongst employees of automation and AI, worrying that it will create a displacement effect and also potentially drive down wages.

There may be a degree of trepidation amongst HR teams too, perhaps fuelled by ongoing concerns that various human biases may be baked into the code and prejudice the results. There have also been various high profile instances of AI bots picking up and replicating inappropriate language and sentiments from exposure on social media.

However, one of the absolutely key messages, for HR teams and employees more widely, is not to be afraid of automation/AI – and don’t ignore it either. There is almost certainly going to be an element of ‘natural selection’: the organisations that embrace and leverage it within their business could be the leaders of the future; those that don’t will struggle to compete.

For employees, done well it should remove the most repetitive and humdrum aspects of job roles (‘taking the robot out of the human’) and move people up the value chain to spend more time on more satisfying areas that involve human skills such as creativity, problem-solving and innovation.

There are other significant barriers too. In our research, close behind cultural resistance were a lack of expertise and the fact that automation is actually more complicated than expected. This just underlines the fact that organisations need the right support to make automation a reality. What may at first seem like a simple process to automate can quite quickly turn out to be a spaghetti of logic branches. The degree of technical complexity can be high.

Implementing an automation strategy

How then should organisations, supported by the HR function, best proceed in order to devise and implement an effective automation strategy?

The first crucial step, as we intimated earlier, is to make the realisation that what is really in scope here is processes rather than jobs. This then leads to the concept of Business Process Re-engineering (BPR).

Either independently or in conjunction with an advisory consultant, BPR is about reviewing all the processes at play within an area of the business with the process owners and asking whether they can be reconfigured to become leaner and more efficient – accelerating outputs and reducing costs. These processes should be catalogued into a central repository, reviewed and then assessed against a number of key questions, including:

  • Can this process be redesigned to make it more efficient?
  • Is this the right process to be re-engineered or is there another process behind it that should be the focus?
  • If this process needs to be re-engineered, does that involve automation?

As this last point indicates, not all re-engineering necessarily results in automation. Other possibilities should be considered first, such as integrating them into an adjacent process or area.

When processes for re-engineering and/or automation have been identified, this is where HR should come in. Resource planning is critical. In conjunction with the business process owner, consideration will need to be given to what impact changing or automating a process will have on the individuals who currently perform the task. Will the change undermine or substantially affect their job description? What consultation around this will be needed?

Consultation is certainly a keyword here. Any successful automation initiative depends on involving and consulting with the individuals who will be impacted. They’re the ones closest to the actual process – so get their input on how it could best be reconfigured. Involving them in the automation design will make them much more engaged and invested in the outcome. It will help them see that the automation is not so much a threat as a mechanism that can free up their time and help them branch into more fulfilling areas.

Finding the right partner

Once the decision has been taken to automate, it is obviously critical to find both the right RPA/automation tool and the right partner to help implement it. There are a multitude of tools available in the market, so sound advice, careful cost analysis and thorough planning are essential.

Choose a partner you can trust and who doesn’t approach the project as a simple product implementation, but rather what it actually is – a change programme with huge potential for organisational and individual benefits that needs to bring everyone along with it.

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