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By 12 February 2019 | Categories: feature articles

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To hear UiPath speak about Robotics Process Automation (RPA) is also to get a sense of the same level of excitement that existed in the industry when smartphones and mobility were still a promising potential yet to be realised.  

Add to that the fact that the rate of the adoption of the technology is unprecedented, and it is easy to imagine the emerging technology growing unhindered. However, as with all new technologies, there is usually a caveat, and there are almost always concerns.

Continuing from part 1, Kulpreet Singh, the MD for UiPath EMEA, for Robotics Process Automation explained that if there is one factor that could hamper RPA’s growth it is the current lack of skills.  

“You still need people who understand the tools and have the right mindset in order to create these automations. And that is not fully in place,” he elaborated. On the plus side though, this is likely an issue that will be solved by time, and it also offers an opportunity for people to become well versed in the technology.

Preparing for tomorrow

Indeed, from a South African perspective, President Cyril Ramaphosa made direct mention of this issue recently. As well, he has detailed some direct initiatives that are being put in place to insure that today’s students are prepared for a world in which automation is the norm, with automation training set to be introduced at a primary school level.

Ramaphosa has been quoted as noting that, “in line with our Framework for Skills for a Changing World, we are expanding the training of both educators and learners to respond to emerging technologies including the internet of things, robotics and artificial intelligence."

While UiPath welcomed these announcements, they aren’t resting on their laurels from a training perspective. Singh reiterated that as RPA skills are lacking, the more people who are skilled up, the better. To that end, he elaborated that UiPath offers free RPA training to all via its UiPath Academy, and also runs a UiPath Academic Alliance Program, whose mission is to provide automation training to more than one million students globally in the next three years.

But what about job losses?

The elephant in the room whenever automation comes up is always the question of job losses. UiPath head of sales for South Africa, Lenore Kerrigan addressed the issue frankly.  

Firstly, she stressed that RPA is not like having R2D2 coming in and taking over your job. Rather, she explained that RPA gives people a digital assistant that takes over your mundane, process-based work, and does it better and faster. This, she noted, “frees up people to to focus on creative problem-solving and innovation.”

That being said, UiPath conceded that growth of robotic process automation could also result in job losses.

“The advent of technologies like electricity and motorised cars also impacted jobs. But at the same time, they created opportunities for scores of new jobs,” noted Kerrigann. “There is no stopping progress. But what we are seeing in our deployments with global customers, and in South Africa too is a lot of repurposing of roles and upskilling of workers to use RPA to improve their daily work. It is our responsibility as leaders, industry and even parents to show people how to take advantage of the whole new world of opportunity that is arriving,” she continued.

Even so, at least one company has found that fears of massive job losses may not be as bad as some may be imagining. Tim Proome, head of supply chain at UiPath customer Tarsus Distribution, says his company found that harnessing RPA did not result in job losses: “We didn’t cut heads, but instead we were able to create a new, sellable service without needing new hires. Where RPA replaced repetitive tasks, our people – who have extensive experience - were able to move into new roles that were less mundane and made better use of their IP,” he added.

Cultural shift

So what impact will greater automation and RPA have on the workforce? Will it change the traditional culture of businesses at large, steering them away from a command and control approach to allow employees  far greater autonomy? Not entirely, said Singh.

"Any enterprise organization still needs some control frameworks, and those processes exist for a reason. What RPA does is release capacity for human workforce to think about what could be done better, or free them up to concentrate on tasks that make use of creativity, innovation, talent, whether that is talking to clients, or solving problems. How it will change the workforce is that it give people the flexibility to do activities that they enjoy doing and therefore adding more value to the organisation," he added.

One change to watch out for though, is that the way people are managed, and how teams are structured, will likely need to evolve in the face of automation.

Be bold - embrace the future

For IDC, RPA and automation may well be a welcome death knell for mundane  tasks.

“Mundane tasks with a high level of repetition will be overtaken by RPA,” said Mark Walker, the associate vice president at IDC, sub-Saharan Africa. “What this means is that workers will have new tools at their disposal, allowing them to do their jobs better. They will stand on the shoulders of giants, with the basic building blocks of their work already done,” he enthused.

Indeed, according to Kerrigan, RPA is set to touch every industry, with every business having its own user case scenario for adopting the technology to increase its efficiency. “We’re seeing it deployed to reduce time to process shipping documents from overnight to a matter of minutes; or to support contact centre agents in delivering enhanced customer service. So we’re starting to see a digital workforce and a human workforce collaborating side by side,” she enthused.  

In the final analysis, one can’t help feeling that all the science fiction scenarios that envisioned robots and humans living side by side, are now increasingly becoming a reality. The most tantalizing potential for RPA though, is that the growth of the technology gives us more time to be human beings, rather than ‘human doings’; to concentrate on thinking, feeling, creating and innovating; to bring to the fore those abilities that distinguish us and add more value to organisations, and society at large.

The question of course, is whether humans ultimately fear this change or embrace it, a dichotomy that science fiction movies and books have explored ad nauseum. Time will tell.

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