The Office Revolution: The New Augmented Workforce

A couple of years ago I visited the BMW-MINI Production Plant, at Cowley, Oxford. This was arranged as part of our theme on ‘innovation’ for Warwick Business School’s Innovation network. The bodyshell assembly hall is 90% automated. Hundreds of huge robots, clustered in protective ‘cells’ working completely autonomously, welding, pressing and riveting panels. The robots maintain themselves, with ‘slaves’ sharpening arc welders, switching tool assemblies and calling for parts refills. The few humans we spotted were driving fork-lift trucks and feeding the robots’ insatiable appetite for materials.

Manufacturing has been at the forefront of using AI and robots to improve productivity. Robots don’t get tired, they don’t need meal-breaks or holidays and can work 24 x 7 if required. They also offer more accuracy and precision than human workers, but as yet, not agility. However, recent advances are freeing robots from their cages and enabling humans to work alongside them. For example, the robot providing the strength and precision to insert the dashboard console into the car, then moving away while the human does any fiddly bits requiring agility. Welcome to the world of ‘cobots‘.

Yes, manufacturing has come a long way in the past 60 or so years from where the first picture (below was) taken.

Car production line - then and now

Can we say the same about office work? The left-hand picture below is a typical 1950’s office environment. What has changed when compared to the current office environment? Yes, we have computers on our desks now, but not much else has changed in almost 70 years.

Office work, then and now

Ah, I hear you say, what about email? Or desktop applications, such MSOffice and CRM? Harbingers of the paperless office! Have you seen one? No, nor me. Do these really represent the best office innovations of the past 70 years? Unfortunately it would appear so. The process for updating a credit & debit spreadsheet is the same now as it was 70 years ago, when accountants were manually filling in ledgers. Routine, repetitive and robotic.

There is much talk about ‘digital transformation‘, an IT term which means nothing to most office workers, and even less in terms of how this will change or optimise a business process. More recently, we hear about agile and flexible working, and the confusion about the two. At least these do offer some benefits in terms of process optimisation and the workplace environment (including working from home), but they do little in terms of changing the actual work.

So, what’s the answer? I think we’ve already seen it in the way that manufacturing has grasped and utilised AI and robotics over past 10-15 years. This doesn’t mean having a physical robot in the office, but rather looking at business processes in terms of what a machine is good at (speed, repetition, accuracy) and what a human is good at (decision making, handling exceptions, social interactions, collaboration, knowledge sharing) and intelligently combining the two.

In other words, don’t make a human do robotic tasks, and don’t expect a robot to act like a human!

I don’t want to invent a lexicon, but I call this ‘Intelligent Automation’, and is combination of Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and Artificial Intelligence (AI). I note vendors in this space refer to this as creating a ‘digital workforce’, which (IMHO) is as meaningless as ‘digital transformation’.

RPA is a software robot that mimics human actions; AI is the simulation of human intelligence by machines. Put another way, RPA is associated with doing whereas AI and machine learning (ML) are concerned with thinking and learning, respectively. According to Grand View Research, the RPA market is projected to be worth over $3 billion by 2025, and industries like health care, telecommunications and manufacturing have all invested in RPA technology.

Typically, processes that are ready for RPA/AI can be defined as:

  • Having high volume transactions or keyboard activities
  • Part of a defined workflow
  • Being error-prone due to manual entry
  • Being speed-sensitive with the possibility of causing delay to other processes
  • Needing more than one system (e.g. requiring dual data entry)
  • Requiring actions such as searching, collating, updating, matching or comparing
  • Abstracting information from unstructured data (e.g. emails)
  • Needing irregular labour resources (e.g. low and peak periods)

But what about the human? The office (knowledge) worker remains a fundamental part of the process, but is no longer doing repetitive or robotic tasks. Not everything in life is predictable, and the same goes for business processes. There will be issues and exceptions which require problem solving and interactions with customers or other employees. The difference now is humans will have more time to do these things, and to adapt and improve their skills and knowledge. Intelligent automation is the enabler for the new augmented workforce.

The office revolution is coming – it’s a shame that it’s taken almost 70 years to get here!

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