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Humanising the Future of Work podcast
Episode 1: Automation: The Human + Machine connection
Advancing technologies in automation are reimagining the human and machine relationship. In this episode our experts discuss whether they foresee automation taking over everything, how automation technology is being used in the marketplace today and its impact. The discussion also explores whether jobs will be lost or replaced and how all of this will change work for humans.
Host: Daniel Hind, Manager within the Human Capital practice, Deloitte
Speakers: Will Gosling, Human Capital Consulting Leader, Dupe Witherick, Senior Manager within Monitor Deloitte’s Automation & AI Team and Dave Wright – Partner and Robotics and Intelligence Automation Lead
DH: Deloitte’s recent Automation with Intelligence Report throws light on the advancing technologies within automation and how the human machine relationship can be reimagined. I’m your host, Daniel Hind, and today I have the pleasure of exploring automation and the human machine connection with three experts from across Deloitte.
From our Robotics and Intelligent Automation Services, we have Dupe Witherick and David Wright, and from Human Capital Consulting, I’d like to welcome Will Gosling. Thanks for joining us today. So, jumping straight in, I think we can acknowledge that the machines are here. So, a big question to start, is automaton coming to take over everything in the workplace? Are those headlines correct? David, do you want to start?
DW: I think what my experience, Daniel, is that’s not reality yet. There are definitely new opportunities with automation coming from the new technology, particularly around robotic process automation in terms of linear script based if-then rules type automation and then, on the AI side, with more algorithmic-based predictive or probabilistic type automation. So, I think we’ve a lot more tools at our disposal then we had, say, ten or 20 years ago, but we’re still nowhere near getting to 100% automation even in very transactional areas.
I think it was probably 1999 when one of my colleagues wrote a report focussed on the finance function, talking about light side finance and we’re still… 20 years later, we’re still not at light side finance yet. But actually, the percentage that can be automated and therefore the percentage of capacity that organisations can focus on higher value tasks is a lot great than it was.
DH: Dupe, anything to add?
DU: Yes. It always makes me laugh, because when we talk about automation and robotic process automation, everyone expects the dancing, walking, talking robot which it really isn’t and they also think that if you think about things like The Matrix or you think about I, Robot, for example, and everyone taking over, it’s really not that at all and we’re really not there.
However, the technology is changing the way we work and fundamentally it’s shifting repetitive, dull, rules-based activities away from people, which I think is for the better.
DH: Will, from your perspective, when you’re talking to clients, is there a general… Do you think there’s an acknowledgement about what kind of technology is out there with the clients that you’re engaging with and talking to?
WG: Certainly, clients… Well, they’re on a spectrum. There’s a spectrum, I think. There’s some who are very advanced in their thinking and are really pushing boundaries and really trying to drive experimentation into their organisation and some having success, and that’s flipping into scalings.
And I’m sure we’ll talk more about the others who have just heard about it and feel they need to be doing something. In some respects that can be a little bit dangerous because there’s no real plan or strategy around doing it. It’s just… it’s unguided experimentation and, actually, can miss the opportunity.
My own personal perspective, just listening to the conversation so far, is I think it’s fair to say pretty much every job… And remember I come at this from a human job perspective, every job has the potential to be impacted by automation, but I agree with my colleagues here that we’re just there. It’s not scare stories yet.
DH: So, David, for listeners who maybe aren’t sure what RPA is and what cognitive automation solutions could be, could you give a snapshot as to breaking down what the technologies are that are out there currently?
DW: Yes. So, robotic process automation generally refers to the kind of automation in business processes that automates rules-based administrative processes. So, as Dupe said, there’s no robots walking around an office, but what they’re doing in software is effectively replicating the kind of tasks that might be taking data from one system, doing something structured with it that you can express in rules, and pumping it into another system.
And then, on the cognitive side… Again, an interesting word. It’s generally how we anthropomorphise what technology can do and so we describe it in human terms. So, we can talk about computer vision, so a computer being able to look at text and understand what it’s saying, or it can image vision, or it can be processing natural language and generating natural language, and so on.
So, all of those kinds of technologies generally are provisioned through algorithms that use a training data set and machine learning type technologies to effectively categorise things and have multiple layers of categorisation that allows you to solve a problem or get to an answer.
And typically, we would see some of the better-quality automations to combine the rules-based and the probabilistic automation that then allows you to cover a greater scope.
DU: Yes, agreed. So, I think in terms of robotic process automation, what I’ve found is that’s where a number of organisations have started and so, two and a half years ago, a couple of my clients really started on the robotic process automation, looking specifically within finance to start off with and now are, more enterprise-wide… So, looking at the front office areas such as fleet and logistics as well as moving to other back office areas such as HR and procurement.
And what we found is those organisations that have started and begun to scale… And what we mean by scaling is over 50 automations, are now looking at the intelligent automation side, so the cognitive side, and how you combine the two. And people are finding that benefits them a lot more as well because they’re able to do more than they were able to do before.
So, an example of that is intelligent invoice processing where you would think, to Dave’s point, lights out 20 years ago, finance hasn’t happened. Even things like processing invoices which you think should be quite straightforward to automate has been a challenge because it’s quite difficult to actually read the images and extract the data, etc.
And so, one of our projects that we’ve done recently is combining of robotic process automation with machine learning optical character recognition, which is effectively able to extract and classify the data, hand it over to a robot to process it within an ERP system, and that solution has been quite successful and, I think, will enable other organisations to think about how they can combine RPA with intelligent automation.
DH: So, I suppose from an RPA perspective, it’s almost imagining some code in the background is opening emails, sending emails, pulling information through…?
DW: That’s exactly right, Daniel. And sometimes what we’ve done with clients is display what the robot is doing. So, typically, these robots or software programmes will run on a virtual machine, so you can run them on a laptop if you want, but typically you’ll just give them a slice of the virtual server somewhere.
But what you can do is output and they’re screened to a physical screen and you can watch what they’re doing and that’s often… Some of our clients, when they actually see the robot working on one of their processes, it all comes alive to them. They realise actually this technology can be used in a bunch of different places and take away, as Dupe mentioned earlier, some of that boring repetitive work and then free people up to do much more value-added tasks.
DU: I like to think of it as you’re watching someone doing some work, and it’s a ghost using the mouse and you can see things happening, but actually there’s no one touching it and you just see the robot going from one system to another and doing things as a person would, and going in as a person with a user ID, etc.
One of the fun things we do with our clients is help them name the robot. So, a lot of our robots actually have specific names and it’s a bit of a game and it’s a bit of a challenge. So, the teams say, okay, what’s the competition, and the competition is, think of robot names for the next 20 robots, who can come up with it, what’s the prize, etc, and that just adds some fun around the automation experience.
DW: I think that also helps crystallise in people’s minds that these robots are effectively digital workers. They are workers and they’re performing a specific task or set of tasks, and I guess what we’ve talked about there mostly is unattended automation which is the robot doing some things by itself.
Actually, what we’re seeing a lot of as well is what we term attended automation, and that’s when you have a little script sitting on your laptop, so whenever… Particularly it’s relevant for call centre workers.
If you get a call and they’ve selected one, six and two on the interactive voice system, then you know it’s… I don’t know, maybe it’s an insurance company and they’re about to cancel insurance, maybe there’s a database that it needs to bring up, or some other recommendations, and actually rather than the user taking the 20 or 30 seconds to bring those screens up, the robot can just trigger from the fact that one, six and two were pressed, that those databases need to be opened up.
It just saves the person that 20 or 30 seconds of effort, maybe makes the call shorter, or allows the agent to focus on developing rapport with the individual rather than concentrating on opening different screens. So, that kind of automation, assisted automation, really augments what people can do and helps them to be more effective in their roles.
WG: Just this concept of thinking about robots as part of the workforce I think is really interesting. I saw a great example the other day. I think it’s the Australian Defence Department who actually have commissioning ceremonies for robots that they are introducing into the workforce, in the same way they would for new recruits who are joining the military workforce, which I think just shows an establishment like that, they’re seeing huge benefit from this and therefore thinking about this, and wanting everyone in the workforce to think about these robots as workers.
And it sparks a few other thoughts as well though I think, one of which is automation creates work as well as saves work, so someone’s got to look after the robots, someone has got to be the governance around them. Even performance, reviewing performance management, you see organisations starting to think about that to extend the concept of being part of the workforce to its extreme.
I think the other thing that this also makes us… Realises if you think about robots and automation as part of the workforce, you’ve got to think about the workforce in totality and think about how the workforce needs to develop as the organisation introduces more automation over time.
And not having that view, that vision for how the workforce is going to evolve and the mix is going to evolve, and therefore what you’re going to do with the time that free up for workers, human workers, and what you’re going to do to reskill or what you’re going to do to use existing skills better with technology, these are all questions that need to be asked if organisations are going to get the real return on the investment that they’re making in this technology.
DU: Yes, I absolutely agree with that and it’s one of the key things that we said for organisations looking to scale automation, one of the first things is really what is the vision, what is the ambition, and how do you make it enterprise-wide in order to know what to head towards? Because without that, you will fail. If you just start with a task automation somewhere, the likelihood is… And there’s no thought around it, it will just end up being sat there doing something, but you won’t be able to scale that up.
DH: So, from a perspective of seeing organisations embark on an automation strategy, do we often see that they’re considering the workforce transformation at the same time?
DW: So, from my experience, Daniel, not enough is the answer, and I think that’s borne out by our survey results. So, we as Deloitte do a survey every year, this is our fifth year running it, so this year we had over 520 organisations respond globally to the survey. We asked them the question, what is the percentage of the workforce that’s seen changes to their roles as a result of intelligent automation, and actually 44% of organisations hadn’t really calculated that.
We also explored a little bit about how much they had really started training their workforce and, again, it was surprising how many organisations really hadn’t begun that journey of retraining their people in terms of how to deal with the automations they had as well as look to the future and what they might need.
DU: So, it’s really interesting. I think organisations look at this type of automation as, in some cases, taking full roles away from people, so the whole job, which is not really the case. It tends to be arms and legs, it’s parts of roles. And so, then thinking about how to retrain, what skills are required, etc, for me I always think we’re taking things away that are the repetitive rules-based, if-then scenarios that you mentioned earlier.
However, the key skills for me, that are the skills of the future and I think, Will, you can always add to this, but it’s really the creativity, the communication, and the cognitive, so the problem-solving and how do you actually embed that into day-to-day lives?
And from young children and build that up over the years because that’s really where we know those skills are going to be automated. Or at the moment they’re not! I assume they won’t be, but it would be good to get your input on that.
WG: Yes, these are the skills that make us human. These are the skills that, as you say, at this point in time, and certainly I’m sure for the foreseeable, are the skills that machines can’t replace.
And it was interesting, there’s a lot of unhelpful headlines, scaremongering headlines, about the rise of automation, the rise of the machines taking over our roles and jobs. Actually some other research we’ve done where we spoke to workers in Europe, the voice of the European workforce, where actually we learned that most workers are very positive about the introduction of technology into their roles, see it actually as a force for good and believe that they do need retraining and they need skills to complement that technology.
But interestingly the skills that most workers think they need are technology skills. They think to make the most of technology, I need better understanding of technology, and actually what most organisations and what we are obviously proposing as well is that the emphasis should actually be on helping people make the most of their human skills and develop those human skills to get the most from technology.
Of course, there’s an element of technical training as well that’s important, but it is those human skills. And those are the skills also that are really starting to rise to the fore when you look at skills and demands surveys, so what skills are most in demand in the market are the type of skills we’ve been talking about here, the human skills.
DW: It’s really interesting actually. One of the things we asked in our automation survey, we asked executives to respond on the level of support for intelligent automation across different stakeholder groups and it was interesting, they reported over 75% of them saying their workforce is either supportive or highly supportive of intelligent automation.
And when we drove into that, actually it was interesting to see that the more mature an organisation was in its intelligent automation journey, the more supportive they felt their workforce was. And I think that’s because the more mature ones had had the time to talk about what the automations were actually doing and how it benefitted individuals, employees and roles.
DH: Where we were talking earlier about some of the games that organisations were seeing through RPA for example, and we were talking the speed that they can process certain transactions, but beyond that and tapping into these human skills that are going to become much more sought in the workplace, what are the benefits that organisations are seeing beyond just productivity gains? So, what… Is there an improved customer experience…?
WG: Yes. I think we’re seeing a variety of things and actually it comes back to the point about having a strategy, what are you trying to target. So, one of the pharmaceutical companies I worked with, their main goal was not productivity in a cost-out sense, their main goal was how do we get drugs to market faster because every day they can get a new drug to market faster globally was a million dollars benefit. And that was much more important to them than just saving a few heads or being more productive here or there.
Other organisations, it can be accuracy. So, one of the advantages when you automate a data key-in task effectively, you can be 100% sure it’s accurate because the data will move, follow the rule, and you can have that check and balance and report in the automation and you know it’s done right. Actually, with humans we have variable accuracy and you often need to have more checks and balances, and so accuracy can be another benefit.
I think you can deliver benefits in terms of customer experience, especially with cycle times, so if you’re reducing cycle times that could have a good benefit. If you’re allowing agents to focus, as I mentioned earlier, on the quality of the conversation rather than searching for particular data points in different databases so that they give it to the customer, then the customer has a better experience.
DH: I’ll ask a direct question…there’s a large proportion of the population who favour transactional work, rather than engaging with people and maybe empathy is not their strongest point. What do we see the future within this? Is there going to be a change in the way they can engage with their work in the future? Or is there a potential section of society that may struggle to find work because of this?
DW: I guess my personal perspective is that those, the very transactional repetitive roles are reducing and reducing, and maybe if you look at it over time, when 120 years ago the percentage of people involved in physical repetitive agricultural work was much, much higher, we’ve moved away from those manual jobs. There’s still some, but there’s few.
I think in the clerical and administrative side, we’re in the middle of a shift from many repetitive clerical jobs or administrative jobs to few, and I think what’s positive, I guess, is that in terms of education, we’re becoming more and more educated and typically a more and more educated workforce doesn’t like that repetitive clerical stuff. So, I think it is reducing, but I think our education is and needs to help equip the workforce of the future for the jobs of the future.
WG: I agree with that absolutely about the role of education in the future. I think, though, organisations have got a duty to step in now already, and create learning and re-learning as part of a job. We’re all living longer, there’s demographic disruption that’s happening alongside the technology disruption we’re talking about, 70 is the new 50 in the working career, and we have to embrace life longer.
And organisations, I think, have got a real responsibility alongside the increasing amount of technology that they bring into the workplace, to make sure that employees can be reskilled. Some of that’s human factors, we’ve talked about human skills, but some of it will be new technical skills as well to enable them to be relevant to the market and relevant to their organisation. I think organisations must be ready to step into that space.
DU: It’s really interesting and I think that’s a great point. I heard recently that there was a survey done, I don’t think it was one of ours, but they were looking at employees, the employee’s responsibility to reskill and retrain or is it the employer’s, and neither wanted to say it’s their responsibility.
So, again, I think it’s a mind-set shift as well, and the way people think about upskilling themselves, and retraining and lifelong learning. That needs to be something that’s part of the way we are and I think that is something that, at the moment, probably isn’t, and it’s up to people as well to help themselves and to try to upskill and constantly learn in this ever-changing society.
WG: Yes, agreed. Great point.
DW: And to add to that, where does Government fit into that moving forwards in their responsibility for society?
DW: And I think I would say, start from the beginning of thinking of this as a workforce transformation programme, not a technology or a finance or HR… It’s a workforce transformation programme and that needs input and alignment across the executive team. Of course, one area may take the lead but it requires input and alignment across the piece because it’s ultimately, as I said, is a workforce transformation.
And make sure that, as well as thinking about all of the things we’ve talked about here in terms of where to start, policy and strategy and vision and goals and value, we’re thinking about the skills and the combinations of skills that are going to be needed to make the most of the investment down the line.
DH: Is there anything that the developers of these technologies or their partners who want to implement them or the organisations themselves, is there anything that they can do to actually help people, the future workforce, bond and trust with these new technologies, these new robots?
WG: Well, I think the best technology combines arts and science and it humanises, there’s a humanising factor to technology, and what I mean by that is it’s enjoyable to interact with. It might not necessarily emulate a human, but it has a personality, there’s a personality, and I think that’s what we’re starting to see organisations try and push a little bit further to give robots a bit of a personality, to make them feel part of the workforce.
I think that’s a trend we’ll see more of and I think it’s the route to probably success with workers embracing this even more.
There is a risk that automation could beat the life out of jobs and, alongside the need for organisations to invest in reskilling and retraining, and for individuals to embrace that as we’ve talked about, I think there’s something else here, something a little deeper as well that organisations need to face into, which is their role in society and how they connect work, both automated work and human work, into purpose and the purpose of the organisation, the impact it has on society.
Because in a lot of research we’ve been doing around productivity, what we’re seeing is where individuals can draw a straight line to the work that they do, with or without machines, and the purpose of the organisation, the impact it’s having for stakeholders outside of the organisation, the better the discretionary effort the productivity and the performance that you have. I think that’s really generational important thing as well.
Millennials and other generations coming into the workforce are really looking for that purpose connection and I think that’s something that organisations really need to face into as well.
DH: The last point from me just on one of the challenges, I think, for humans in the workforce of the future will be… I was reading an article recently about by removing menial activity from people’s roles and the ability of a human to operate for eight hours a day on quite cognitively challenging work. How will that maybe start to reshape the working day, the working week. Does anyone have any views on that? Dupe…?
DU: Yes, it’s interesting. I think you’re right. I think where we’re used to doing a mix of activities, be them quite problem solving, but then also doing the transactional work, admin, expenses, things like that, you do have that break. So, I suppose if you are just doing cognitive problem-solving work, although there is the potential to say, okay, let’s have a four-day week or let’s have more holidays, I still feel though there will be downtimes.
It may be the structure, the way things are structured, and if you think about a robot, a robot can operate 24/7, it doesn’t need to go for break, it doesn’t need to have lunch, but people will still be doing those things and so they’re not going to be working throughout.
I also think what will be important is the building of relationships as well and actually that interaction with other people which I think in a sense we can see we’ll lose people. Everything’s via social media and people aren’t connecting as well as they maybe were ten, 15 years ago when we didn’t have the technology that we have today. So, I think we’ll also see an increase in, I would suggest, relationship building and just being more human, which should be positive and again draws on the purpose part that Will was talking about.
WG: What I think we’re starting to take about here is what will work be? What is work in the future? That’s probably the subject of a podcast in its own right. But I think work is going to look very different, work itself, where the worker is, as we’ve been talking about here today, and what that means for the workplace, and I think we’re already starting to see the blurring of boundaries between work and life and much more integration of those things [unclear] in both workplace and home and other third places.
I think work is going to be thought of very differently. It’s the unit, the value, and how work gets done in the years ahead is going to be… Today we’re still very routed in 20th century management disciplines around work and there are parts of industries and certain functions that are driving that forward and that’s going to sweep, I think, across organisations in the coming years.
DH: That’s a great point. Any final words for our listeners? Anything that you think we’ve missed?
DW: No. I think from my perspective it’s really an exciting time. The removal of some of that more menial side of work, opening up the possibilities with more data, a better understanding of processes for organisations starting to deliver more of their purpose, rather than the administration that sometimes goes around that, I think is really good.
DH: Well, thank you for an enlightening discussion and that’s it for this episode. Thank you.