What is the digital workforce and will it replace us?

Hydrogen's Chris Tin discusses the benefits of a digital workforce and how, by correctly embracing it, it's changing things for the better.

​It’s a common cliché in science fiction: our machines advance beyond us to a state that they no longer require us to function and begin the process of replacing us entirely. Before you know it, we’re living a genuine dystopian nightmare!

The truth, however, is a little less Terminator and a lot more Silicon Valley.

It’s only natural to be dubious of change, but the digital workforce shouldn’t be seen as an enemy; if used properly it’s an ally that can help your workers to make better decisions and work more efficiently and effectively.

Industry 4.0

We sit on the brink of a fourth industrial revolution that will bring with it the kind of changes that businesses often baulk at instinctively before eventually realising the fundamental benefits they represent. It was certainly the case with internet adoption, as it wasn’t until the 21st century was properly underway that many businesses decided to digitise their operations and move online.

The benefits of embracing new technology in business are well-known but there will always be those that lag behind. Indeed, a study from 2017 that questioned 400 senior managers, 31% admitted to a lackadaisical approach when it came to technological innovation.

There’s no doubt that this new industrial paradigm is going to be disruptive but as long as businesses can harness this disruption and the opportunities it represents by moulding their practices around it then they certainly stand to benefit and benefit big. The key lies in achieving this disruption whilst mitigating the effect on the human workforce because there are bound to be those you employ who are worried about being replaced by intelligent automatons.

Intelligent automation

Intelligent automation refers to a more advanced form of what is commonly known as RPA (robotic process automation). In essence, it represents software mimicking end-user behaviour by finding, evaluating, cutting, calculating, transforming and entering data according to set business rules: Digital workers that can work alongside human workers, taking care of what amounts to the ‘grunt work’ and allowing human workers to spend more time on the work that requires more creativity and flexibility. It has potential applications in several sectors where processes are labour-intensive and easily automated and can give businesses a serious competitive advantage thanks to its low-cost scalability.

A 30% annual growth is expected in the sector over the next five years and that means that digital workers are going to be an unavoidable part of most businesses, whether they like it or not. To get out ahead of the pack, the forward-thinkers must have a keen idea of where the human workers will fit in a digital world, how the relationship between “bots” (as they tend to be known colloquially) and humans will work and how the structure of the organisation will need to change to accommodate this new status quo.

The digital workforce

According to Microsoft founder, Bill Gates: “In the short term, people overestimate the impact of new technology and in the medium term they always underestimate it.” Such is the case with digital workers or bots. Only a few years ago, when the technology was still nascent, enterprise bots were heralded by many industry scaremongers as the great human replacement operation. Today, however, with the ‘medium term’ very much in full swing, enterprise bot adoption is soaring, with chatbots (arguably the most common members of the digital workforce) to be utilised by 80% of enterprises by 2020.

The problem is, many businesses are still unsure of what exactly to do with their digital workforce and how to make it work alongside their human workers. The ‘big boys’ are, of course, leading the charge: IBM and Accenture have both spent the last few years re-skilling and up-skilling their workforce to work alongside these new digital co-workers and Amazon recently pledged to spend $700 million to train 100,000 employees by 2025.

Still, these examples are few and far between, with only one in five organisations claiming they are prepared to handle the looming capability gap that is set to widen as the digital workforce becomes mainstream. They should really consider acting with some urgency, as we estimate that around 20% to 30% of all enterprise activities in the next five to ten years will be automated and 60% of those activities will require human to ‘robot’ interaction.

So, the key for businesses is not asking whether or not these bots will replace us, but how they can be used to augment human productivity and vice-versa; how humans can be trained to augment the work done by their digital counterparts.

Adaptation, not replacement

The digital workforce is going to profoundly change how we work, the skills required, and the operating models we deploy, but it’s not going to replace us. 90% of the FTSE 250 have instigated some form of automated programme in recent years and the vast majority of these programmes are not replacement schemes, but programmes engineered to automate the tasks that human workers would find tedious and do them that much more efficiently.

Market forecasts by Juniper Research predict strong growth in chatbot interactions from 2.6 billion in 2019 to 22 billion in 2023, with enterprises expected to cut costs at that point by up to $439 billion a year. With those kinds of figures staring you in the face, it seems ludicrous to deny the potential here and this is just chatbots, which are allowing human call centre workers to focus on the cases that genuinely need them, leading to increased productivity for the business and increased satisfaction for the end-user.

If the digital workforce is scaled and positioned as a strategic enterprise asset and operating models are able to be reorganised around it then the age of the intelligent, helpful and ‘friendly’ digital workforce might finally be upon us.

If you are about to embark on automation or are scaling up your digital workforce, we’d love to talk to you. Whatever stage in your journey, we can help. Find out more about our Robotics services and solutions here.

Posted almost 4 years ago
About the author:
Chris Tin

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