Robotics conjures up images of auto making or any assembly line function reliant on monotonous, repeatable, routine functions. It’s so common now that we tend to forget the millions of workers displaced over the years. Robots have invaded a number of industries; manufacturing, medicine, and space exploration to name a few. This technology has now invaded the everyday office space through robotic process automation or RPA.
RPA is an emerging technology that automates routine business process functions. Much like robots could be programmed to perform the repeatable steps it took to secure rivets and bolts on an assembly line, RPA automates repetitive steps that drive a lot of the business processes. It’s a natural progression since we are no longer pushing paper. We are now pushing information from one system to the next. Although paper is still the by-product de jour, it is much like the old passbook that your parents (depending on your age), grand and great grandparents used to carry to the bank to record deposits and withdrawals. They held on to those passbooks til the end even though the actual transactions had long been electronically processed.
There is a sense of comfort around the paper that makes people feel productive. Much like switchboard operators gave way to electronic switching, tellers to ATMs, and brick and mortar to online purchasing, the clock is ticking on a workforce centered around keying in information or running routine business processes. RPA is based on another emerging technology that countries are vying for leadership in; artificial intelligence (AI).
AI, also known as machine learning, teaches applications how to perform these tasks by mimicking the steps the worker takes. This can be done in the background or upfront. Once learned these tasks can be taking over by RPA. The evidence lies a 2016 article by Economist author, Maximiliano Dvorkin. He points out in his article Jobs Involving Routine Tasks Aren’t Growing that “Employment in nonroutine occupations—both cognitive and manual—has been increasing steadily for several decades. Employment in routine occupations, however, has been mostly stagnant”. Tools like RPA threaten to hasten the decline.
RPA and a youthening workforce (Bureau of Labor Statistics) highlights the changing demographics of the workforce through 2024. As the workforce gets younger, the inclination to want to push paper decreases exponentially. A younger workforce, born with electronics native to them, will embrace this change in search of a higher meaning to work. That higher meaning to work comes at a cost because not everyone is born to be a knowledge worker.
We haven’t learned to create a balanced workforce of knowledge workers and “unskilled” labor. So, how much of the workforce will be left behind as robotics takes over daily routine office functions? It’s that science fiction movie we saw years ago staring us in the face. The workforce is at another critical point where technology is less about serving us as it is serving itself. The office environment has come a long way since secretarial pools and switchboards as it’s been replaced with computers and internet protocol telephony (IPT). We are now barrelling towards the next workforce shift, and it’s being led by RPA.