Digital Workforce 101: Myths, Mysteries and Expectations– January 02, 2019 by John Cavalier

The robots are coming! Actually, to be more precise, the robots are here. While some may not be sure if this is cause for concern or celebration, two things are clear about the digital workforce: 

  1. It is inevitable. Just look around. Technology is becoming more and more integrated into our organizations and our daily lives, and this trend is going to continue indefinitely.
  2. You should embrace it, not fear it! The digital workforce brings the promise of lower costs and improved productivity by automating monotonous tasks and reducing errors. It also provides organizations with the opportunity to redirect their human workforce towards more engaging, meaningful and creative efforts. In fact, the digital workforce is expected to increase employee engagement and satisfaction, both in the short- and the long-term. 

It is the integration of human and machine that will unleash the true power of the digital workforce and redefine productivity. Organizations that are strategic and intentional about how they integrate the digital workforce into their operations are setting the course to navigate unchartered waters rather than getting swept away.
Below discusses some of the myths, mysteries and expectations surrounding the digital workforce so you can approach this revolution with eyes wide open. 

What is the Digital Workforce (and Its Impact)?

We’re not talking about physical robots sitting in a cubicle in some sci-fi thriller. Nor are we talking about manufacturing robots on the assembly line of an automobile factory. When we reference the digital workforce, we’re talking about Robotics Process Automation (RPA). RPA essentially takes the robot out of the human. Most back-office processes involve varying degrees of routine, manual and repetitive tasks that are low value and generally uninteresting to employees. RPA is a software solution that mimics the activity of a human being within these routine tasks, but in a much more efficient, effective and accurate manner.
Does that mean the robots will take our jobs? Not so fast. Historically, technology creates more jobs than it replaces over time, and this is no exception. In other words, integrating the digital workforce ultimately will lead to more jobs, not less. According to the World Economic Forum, 133 million new roles may emerge that are “more adapted to the new division of labor between humans, machines, and algorithms.” This means jobs will change more than they will be eliminated.
In fact, it is highly likely the digital workforce will impact portions of all jobs to some degree. This is a good thing! It means the more we embrace the digital workforce, the more all jobs will likely become less monotonous and more engaging, creative and rewarding. 

Will the Human Element Still Add Value in the Digital Workforce?

Of course. The reality is humans are more qualified than machines for most activities. Except for some very advanced (and expensive) self-teaching Artificial Intelligence (AI) applications, machines are not yet good at putting information into context, let alone improvising and being creative. Machines lack the common sense that is the essence of human experience and emotion. Machines must be programmed to follow a specific, logical process, and anything that deviates from that will result in an error. The digital workforce cannot operate without this pre-defined methodology. And while technology improves every day, we are a long way away from affordable, reliable machine learning with natural language processing and the ability to mimic human creativity, problem solving and decision making.
Humans will still be vital to navigate ambiguous situations and interpret machine output. Think of RPA not as replacing human staff but as augmenting the workforce by automating the monotonous, repetitive tasks, freeing up employees to spend time on more engaging, higher-value efforts.
Some of those repetitive tasks from which machines can remove human errors, improving productivity and eliminating downstream costs, include back-office, transactional activities such as: 

  • Collecting and processing data
  • Compliance
  • Customer service
  • Finance and accounting
  • Internal controls 

What is the Best Way to Integrate the Digital Workforce into My Organization?

So, what does this all mean for the future workforce? Organizational design is going to be key. According to McKinsey & Company, “60 percent of occupations have at least 30 percent of constituent work activities that could be automated.”
Organizations first should evaluate most, if not all, processes to fully integrate the digital workforce. This includes considering how the digital workforce can automate tasks within jobs, not necessarily the entire job itself. This also begins the process of determining what value-added tasks will be a better use of employees’ time in the future. Your evaluation should also consider where the human ends and the machine begins. Without fail, when a task is automated, human interaction is required at some point along they way. The human element could be as complex as interpreting the outcome and using the information for the betterment of the organization, or as simple as triggering the RPA process.
The good news is you can dip your toes in the water and try RPA on one or two processes before making any large, sweeping changes. It can be relatively low-investment and often will more than pay for itself in a short time frame (often months). 

Change Management is Key

How your organization manages its workforce transition will be a key driver to realizing value. There are three main keys to healthy adoption of RPA: 

  1. Embrace automation within your organizational culture and the long-term operating model. Understand the value of RPA and actively look for tasks that are prime candidates for automation. This mindset often leads to tangential benefits as well, including process optimization, reducing bottlenecks and increasing efficiency.
  2. Be proactive by addressing and planning for the impact within the organization, including imagining how human effort can be redirected to more value-added activities once the time is freed up by automation.
  3. Invest in training and skills building, both to enable employees to interact with the technology, and to empower them to enhance their skills and make the most of their newly found time. 

How Can Current and Future Employees Adapt?

A study entitled: “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerization?” estimates that 47% of jobs in the U.S. will likely become automated in the next 20 years. While that is not a negative, it does mean employees will need a different set of skills.
Generally, the lower the education required to complete certain tasks, the higher the likelihood they can be automated. Creativity, critical thinking and navigating ambiguous situations are difficult skills to automate, and are thus valuable traits for people to learn. Seeking projects and educational and professional development opportunities that provide a chance to hone creativity and reasoning skills may bolster employees’ ability to contribute in an increasingly automated work environment.
In the long-term, we anticipate seeing employers and students placing increased importance on liberal arts education. Skills and experiences that require higher degrees of social and emotional intelligence will be particularly attractive to employers, such as team-based projects and leadership experiences.
A diversity of experiences can also make a candidate appealing, as it signals they are able to excel in a variety of pursuits, equipped with creativity and the ability to navigate new settings and requirements. Candidates with a sports background, for example, often know how to work as a team to accomplish a goal. Artists often see the possibilities in a blank piece of paper and can create something appealing and valuable out of ordinary ingredients. Similarly, people who worked in education, youth camps or similar group experience facilitation settings often have leadership abilities, social skills and well-rounded potential to lead, learn and adapt in a variety of settings. Creativity and higher cognitive capabilities, such as interpreting art and philosophy, are all difficult to automate and thus valuable differentiators from the digital workforce. Many universities, nonprofits, companies and communities provide opportunities to get involved in some of the activities mentioned above. Making a habit of being involved in a broad range of challenging activities can help people diversify their skill sets and be better able to “plug-in” to an increasingly automated workplace. 
RPA is already redefining productivity for many organizations, but it’s not the end goal itself. RPA is a tool organizations, working with HR leadership, can integrate into their workforce planning and hiring strategy. If integrated strategically, RPA can improve company culture and employee engagement by minimizing unrewarding work and freeing up time for more challenging, engaging pursuits. Ignoring RPA as a valuable tool is like setting out into unchartered waters without a compass. Take the helm and use RPA as part of a holistic strategy to steer your company in the right direction. 

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Cohen & Company is not rendering legal, accounting or other professional advice. Information contained in this post is considered accurate as of the date of publishing. Any action taken based on information in this blog should be taken only after a detailed review of the specific facts, circumstances and current law.