By Proxima

04 Jun 2019

A robot is either going to replace you, or help you to get better at your job, says Proxima. So what can you do?

Proxima's first article on this subject - The robots want your job - staying ahead in the age of automation - can be read here. 

The robots have already infiltrated your workplace. They work alongside you day to day, you might even have used one today, you might be using one now. It really depends upon on your definition of robot.

Technology is always transforming our workplace, enabling us to become faster, more accurate, and ultimately improve ourselves, developing our skills alongside our robotic friends. It’s just that for most of us we have seen technology as tools rather than robots. Maybe that’s the first hurdle to overcome.

The tools that you are using right now, likely Microsoft, possibly Google, are technological advances on what went before. They were the robots of their time, helping us to automate simple tasks or processes. They help us to improve our accuracy, speed up decision making, become more structured, search for and find things faster (amongst other things).

Today one in seven people in the world use Microsoft. That’s over one billion people who are now “comfortably cohabiting with Microsoft technology”. In fact, what would we do without it? We have built our workforces and skills profiles around these tools.

A robot is going to replace, or help you to get better at, your job.

Evolution vs Revolution

When it comes to technology adoption, there is a turning point and a tipping point. In procurement, on balance, we are probably at neither. However, for the selected few working in central government or large corporations, you may be closer than you think to the turning point, so it’s imperative to be prepared and ready to move.

There are enough warning signs that your world is going to change. It is best to explore, read up and start getting informed. You will be unable to defend yourself with the claim that you ‘didn’t see it coming’ if you get left on the starting line.

At the moment there are two main types of automation technologies to consider when thinking about current jobs and your next opportunity; those which automate a process, and those that focus on aggregating and making sense of data... and then using it to drive organisational improvements.

Process automation - RPA

We expect Robotic Process Automation (RPA) adoption to accelerate hard now, so if your job is about running a process, then this is the time to sit up and take notice. Think of RPA as outsourcing, except in this instance you are outsourcing to an organisation that uses (mostly) technology in place of humans.

The business case is based on a robot being more efficient and accurate than a human, as well as being cheaper and easier to manage. The robots are essentially computers performing what currently need to be standard, repeatable processes. In basic implementations the robot can do standard tasks -like coding or matching in finance - and highlight exceptions, which can be passed to a human for further exploration or action.

RPA needs a level of scale to be economical, and standardisation to be effective, but a great benefit is the speed and scale at which it can produce structured data, which can then be interrogated by our colleagues in data roles, humans, at least for now.

This is important because RPA is a “nice to have”, with an economic benefits case and cost/ pain of change, much like outsourcing. It only becomes a “must have” if it becomes imperative to what comes next; gaining advantage from data.

Aggregating and making sense of data – Intelligent Automation

It has been uttered that RPA is merely the next iteration of outsourcing, a well-trodden path, but where it really comes to life is in its ability to deliver structured data. Organisations produce lots of data – Government produces lots of data! It’s mostly “unstructured data”, as a result of unstructured inputs, processes and outputs.

'If you broadly accept the principle that it is advantageous to make faster and better decisions through understanding data, then you immediately understand the problem and the opportunity posed by Intelligent Automation'

If you broadly accept the principle that it is advantageous to make faster and better decisions through understanding data, then you immediately understand the problem and the opportunity posed by Intelligent Automation (IA). This is where the next wave of procurement innovation is focused, and where RPA focusses on replacing humans. IA (using technologies like Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence) focusses on enabling them.

The majority of IA technologies work because they are able to mine, classify and group data and then associate this data with questions, thus appearing to create memory and use “intelligence” to be able to scan vast number of variables and provide answers to questions in double-quick time. A question could be “analysing procurement and sales patterns to improve stock holding positions and agility”, or it could be as simple as asking Alexa for the weather.

There are numerous challenges to overcome when it comes to IA - not least the ability to actually attain both internal and external data points. A world in which we share data has enormous possibilities, but for now it could be that IA is mostly the playground of the large organisations, and the myriad of suppliers seeking to be first to market with innovative data offerings.

The positions of those who manually mine, transform and report data will undoubtedly come under threat in time. There is no better time to use these same resources to learn how to define how best to work with, and get the most out of, robots.

So is the robot taking your job?

In a word, yes. But they may be creating a new role for you as well. And the speed of change and opportunity is going to vary by organisation depending on business objectives.

With every new innovation comes obsolescence and opportunity. It might be easier to use history as a means of predicting the future. Take “Procure to Pay” as an example of a process that has gone from deeply unstructured to IA, (at least in a few cases over a few short decades).

As service eliminates 70% - 80% of administrative roles, new roles appear around the process to manage, measure and improve. Firstly around human service provision, and now more latterly around digital services. Thinking about where your organisation is today, will enable you to see the roles that might appear in the future, and help you to prepare for them.

P2P – how innovation creates obsolescence and opportunity

© Proxima 2019

The basic message is that we’ve been here before, at the turning and the tipping point. The chances are that in the last seven days you have interacted with several people doing roles that didn’t exist 15 years ago. But don’t get carried away with statistics, many of those jobs are evolutions on what came before; using technology as an enabler, a friendly co-worker.

Your challenge is, like those people, to learn, understand, have passion and be ready to pounce when the opportunity arises.

What comes next..?

There is a point of realism here that whilst procurement is deeply interesting for anyone who has read this far, the function is not extravagant by reputation and possibly not the first port of call for transformative technology vendors or ambitious sales people.

With this in mind many of us may have the luxury (and frustration) of seeing technology, and indeed advising on the procurement of technology to change the world around us, rather than the world we are in.  

The pace of change may not be as fast as we would like, although this is for a function that in many cases has still not managed to implement source to contract technologies despite them becoming available three decades ago.

On the plus side, we are likely to be able to understand the possibilities and practicalities of the solutions facing us.

And what beyond? Look even further into the future for cognitive automation, that’s when the robots start to think for themselves. I’d assume, though, that you are safe just for now.

When the robots develop an ability to play (office) politics… perhaps we’ll all be doomed.

Read Proxima's report 'Is workforce transformation the key to commercial capability?' here

Their other insights, including part one to this article, are available to read here

Read the most recent articles written by Proxima - Why COVID-19 doesn’t mean that developing at pace needs to grind to a halt…


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