In early September, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. announced its plan to automate and remove roughly 7,000 accounting and invoicing jobs, saying workers in those roles will have an offer to work elsewhere in the company’s stores. The move was largely viewed as the first major shoe to drop in what many see as a future where robotics and artificial intelligence replace human jobs.
Robotic process automation technology follows a set of rules to accomplish tasks such as copying and pasting information from one system to another, reducing error that human workers are prone to make. “As long as you program the robot correctly, it’s going to do that piece of work the same way every time,” said Craig Seebach, vice president of back office workforce optimization at Verint Systems Inc., a software company based in Melville, New York.
But while automation is poised to replace many corporate back-office functions, resulting in the loss of human jobs, the added efficiency is ultimately a net benefit to firms, experts say.
“Over the next 10 to 15 years, only a small number of jobs, approximately 10 percent, will find all of the tasks that make up that job fully automated to the point where the job entirely disappears,” said Ben Pring, vice president of Cognizant Technology Solutions’ Center for the Future of Work, a business and technology services company based in Teaneck, New Jersey. The tasks automated now are those that require little human creativity and judgment, such as data entry and accounts payable reconciliation.
Companies could look at automation as a way to reduce the amount of work people do and to eventually cut jobs. However, many companies are looking at automation as a way to simply improve productivity, said Chris Gayner, marketing director at Genfour, an intelligent automation technologies company based in Cwmbran, Wales.
“Intelligent automation isn’t about cutting heads so that you can improve your profit,” he said. It’s about enabling you to grow beyond the capacity of your people.” When workers aren’t drudging through mindless tasks, they likely will have more time to think about strategic ones. “They can actually think about things and use our human gift, which is our brain, to do things more creative, more value-adding and rely on the robot to do some of that low-level cognition or repetitive work,” Gayner said.
The Risk of Aversion to Robots
Companies that are hesitant to automate these roles face myriad risks, according to Gayner, Pring and Seebach. Among them:
- It will be increasingly harder to integrate automation later.
- The technology learning curve will be slower.
- Due to errors and slow processes without automation, the customer experience could also suffer.
- Automation helps with lowering prices, so companies that resist this technology could lose their ability to be cost competitive.
- When cutting spending to the back office, this allows a business to allocate resources to other areas that can aid in whatever competitive battle the organization faces.
Lauren Dixon is an associate editor at Talent Economy.