OPINION: How automation can help people add value
JOHANNESBURG - Mention automation in any conversation these days and the first thing that springs to mind is job losses.
In much the same way that AI is inextricably associated with the rise of the machines and the fall of humans, so automation is inevitably linked to job losses.
For a country like South Africa, which just released its highest unemployment figures since 2003, this is potentially devastating. Or is it?
Automation - and specifically robotic process automation (RPA) - is indeed seeing back office processes and procedures handed over to machines (or bots). The front office of many companies, however, is often still very manual and very human.
The trick to creating jobs, improving operational efficiencies and unlocking staff value lies in freeing up people in the front office so they can focus on the customer. It means unshackling them from all the policy and procedural constraints that take up so much of their time, and allowing them to truly flourish where they can make a positive difference.
How do you do that? Well, you give them each a digital team to work with. The first member of this team is an administrative bot that ‘sits’ in the back office and takes care of all their system based processing. This means any action they currently need to perform on their operational systems can now be done for them, as long as their back office bot receives all the right information and instructions. And this is where the second member of the digital team comes in. This front office bot specialises in guiding people in real time through all their sales, service and support processes so they get them right without having to even know the details. Think of these bots like GPS Navigators, guiding staff through live customer conversations, helping them ask the right questions, offer the right answers, gather the right information and trigger the right actions, without them having to worry about anything.
As a result, your staff can tackle more because they are not being asked to first learn the process or system before they can do it. They have their digital team to handle that for them.
While this doesn’t sound particularly earth-shattering, it’s a competitive game changer for South Africa. What this tag team of front office and back office bots can do is allow traditional companies with manual front-office processes, and siloed operational systems to achieve end-to-end automation without having to redo their IT systems or shed jobs. Instead, jobs can shift out of the back office and into the front office where the human touch is still a competitive advantage.
This combination of front office and back office bots is not new, but what is new is the change in what front office bots can now do. Initially, all they could offer a person was help performing mundane system actions. The person still needed to be an expert in all their front office processes. The latest front office bots are not concerned about system work - this can be done in the back office for them. They are specialised in guiding staff through the complex world of their customers. This requires a completely different logic approach, one that can cope with the huge range of customer situations and contexts and not get stuck. These modern day navigational bots can do this, and this allows people to stop worrying about making a mistake and rather focus on making a difference.
This means traditional companies can take advantage of the operational efficiencies automation can bring, plus they don’t have to spend on re-architecting systems or redesigning processes. All they need to do is give every staff member a bot to help navigate them through all their front office processes, and a bot to perform all their back office system processes. They can then do the rest.
South Africans in particular are excellent at high-EQ customer engagements. Where we struggle is in learning and applying complex product, policy and procedure rules, largely due to the fact that our poor education system did not help develop these memory skills for us. Ironically with RPA, this is less of an issue. Now digital workers can perform all these rule-based decisions and actions for us. We can rather focus on where we are stronger than many of the more developed economies - our natural resilience and can do attitude, our ability to think out of the box, have warm, genuine conversations, and to come up with a plan when there is no obvious answer (n boer maak 'n plan nogal).
Implemented widely enough, automation technology could allow South Africa to be globally competitive by turning our disadvantage into an advantage. This is particularly relevant in service areas such as business process outsourcing.
Ultimately, digital workers are going to out-perform humans at repetitive rule-bound process work. So why not accept this, and look at ways to take advantage of their competitive edge so we can take advantage of ours. The fourth industrial revolution is no longer a concept, it is already here. And it is time that we stop fighting the inevitable and rather look at how we can use our human advantages in partnership with those of our digital counterparts to compete and win. Which we really can.
Ryan Falkenberg is co-founder and co-CEO of CLEVVA.
BUSINESS REPORT ONLINE