By now, even the least tech-savvy among us have heard of artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotic process automation (RPA).
These types of tools drive a certain amount of fear and uncertainty among employees who worry their jobs may someday be replaced by robots. But that technology, specifically RPA, can hold great promise for the workforce.
Pandemic Drives a Move Toward Increased Automation
RPA has increased in popularity as the COVID-19 pandemic stressed the need for efficiency and process optimization, said Emily Rose McRae, senior director of the Gartner HR practice. She pointed to results of a 2020 Gartner COVID-19 Quick Poll, in which 24 percent of senior finance leaders reported that they planned to increase their investments in RPA, workflow automation and optimization technologies as a result of the pandemic. Another 68 percent said they were planning to maintain their current investment levels.
"As organizations begin to enter post-pandemic recovery and seek to reopen worksites, emerging technologies will continue to play a vital role in supporting new ways of working," McRae said.
But like any tech solution, RPA isn't a silver bullet and may not be right for every organization. The flip side of this is also true: Every organization may not be right, or ready, for RPA.
Here we use a simple SWOT—strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats—analysis to determine how RPA might have the potential to hold a perfect place within your HR operations.
The obvious big benefit of RPA is that it completes administrative tasks so people can focus on more high-level areas of impact.
"Technology, such as robotic process automation, works best when it enhances human ability, freeing up time for people to focus on tasks that require critical thinking, judgment and empathy—as opposed to simple, transactional work," said Manish Sharma, group CEO of Accenture Operations, where he leads a team of more than 145,000 professionals worldwide.
Sharma notes that Accenture research has found that "HR leaders from the most digitally mature organizations recognize that automation is about maximizing talent in an era when people are most crucial to its success."
However, RPA may not always provide the benefits hoped for.
Sharma points to "lack of leadership sponsorship, siloed behavior and talent gaps" as reasons automation may falter. Importantly, RPA—in truth, any technology solution—is not something that just "automatically" works. Just because you have a tool in place doesn't mean it will be used or used effectively.
The HR leaders Accenture surveyed indicated that more reskilling needs to be done to ensure tools are being used most appropriately and effectively. And not just reskilling related to the tech tools.
"The end value of an automated operation typically touches multiple processes, so you need inter-functionality across departments," Sharma noted. For example, he says, "a CFO and a CHRO cannot change their function if the CIO is not on board." Overcoming potential weaknesses with RPA, he said, "is all about collaboration of people, process and technology—all coming together."
There are other inherent weaknesses in some organizations that could impact the ability to effectively institute RPA.
For instance, McRae pointed to "increasing demand for digital dexterity and social-creative skills." This is important as employees begin "working alongside automation tools and managing the output of RPA-enabled processes." HR leaders, she said, should be considering "the most effective ways to enhance digital dexterity and build social-creative skills where RPA is used."
Another potential weakness could be managers unprepared to manage the transition to RPA. Managers "will face new challenges in measuring employee productivity, maintaining a positive culture and communicating with teams regarding the benefits and challenges that may come with continued automation," McRae said. It's important, she added, for HR to support managers, not just employees, through these changes.
The pandemic has pointed to one critical opportunity of RPA for HR organizations: the ability to remain productive despite staffing shortages and a dispersed workforce.
"Automation is especially valuable in times of crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic we are still facing today," Sharma said. "In fact, 70 percent of the HR leaders we surveyed say automation is broadly being used today."
As we emerge from the pandemic, Sharma said, HR leaders are becoming architects of a "new, blended, human-plus-machine workforce." This requires HR to "match the best human talent with the technology they need to excel," he said.
"Future-ready HR executives have learned quickly that automation will be an enabler of unparalleled advances in employee productivity and engagement," Sharma said.
Fred Hencke, senior vice president at Segal, an HR and employee benefits consulting firm in New York City, said RPA can have a positive impact on cost, quality and scalability when it is focused properly, operates error-free and does not produce a large number of exceptions to be handled manually. To best leverage these potential opportunities, he recommended first piloting RPA use before instituting it broadly.
"Looking ahead, Gartner research reveals 82 percent of organizations will involve heads of HR in return-to-work decisions, so it is crucial that HR leaders are familiar with the technologies that will enable the post-pandemic world of work and lead the organization in planning for the impact they will have on the workforce," McRae said.
That's certainly an opportunity. It can also prove to be a threat, though, if other foundational business practices aren't in place.
Be prepared for negative backlash from employees concerned about being "replaced by robots." There is growing evidence that automation won't steal jobs but instead will make them better.
"The term 'robot' strikes fear into the hearts of many people in the operating and functional areas of HR who are scared of being replaced by robots," Hencke said. Business leaders and HR, though, he added, "can ease concerns by consistently communicating that RPA, AI and machine learning are designed to replace repetitive tasks and provide real-time actionable insights, to free up people to focus on higher value-added tasks like interpretation, trend analysis and getting out ahead of the customer."
Perhaps a more likely threat is failing to adequately prepare employees to effectively leverage technologies like RPA. In many cases, that will require upskilling; it may require bringing new talent on board. It may require new types of partnerships and collaborations internally and externally.
HR leaders need to understand how important it is to equip people with the skills they need to effectively leverage RPA, Sharma said. They need to ensure that the talent profile evolves to meet changing organizational needs, he added. "After all, technology shines the brightest when it augments human ability."
Lin Grensing-Pophal is a freelance writer in Chippewa Falls, Wis.