Why 2021 is the year your workforce will become more digital – and more human

Originally published in IOL on 31 March 2021

ByRyan Falkenberg, CLEVVA Co-CEO

THE World Economic Forum (WEF) “Future of Jobs” report released in October last year states that 84 percent of employers are set to digitalise working processes rapidly this year, including a significant expansion of remote work, or working from home (WFH).

How and where we live, earn our money and travel are set to change even more in the next few years as we test out the best hybrid models for our businesses. But WFH is not the only shift that is taking place.

Smart business leaders are getting their teams ready for the next shift: working alongside software tools (aka digital experts or digital workers) that partially or fully automate certain human activities.

Robotic process automation (RPA) is the term used for software tools that automate human activities that are manual, rule-based and repetitive, allowing humans to focus on creativity and innovation – the very areas where robots are not able to excel. The RPA market, valued at $1.4 billion in 2019 (currently about R20.7bn), is forecast to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 40.6 percent between 2020 and 2027, according to Grand View Research.

Last year, South Africa’s retail industry was forced to invest heavily in online stores, to turn online shopping into their main sales channel, rather than merely a supplementary income stream. Companies used artificial intelligence (AI) to increase the accuracy with which they targeted online consumers. Personalising shopping experiences to improve the way the company engaged with its customers, based on an individual customer’s profile and predicted choices, became the norm. AI also allowed companies to automate how products were picked, packed and dispatched with the help of smart robots.

Highly regulated industries

But what if an error in picking a product could cost your company a lot of money? Maybe your products are complicated financial solutions that are highly regulated. Maybe you have complex business rules in place to help your business comply with legal constraints in your industry. What if there is no standard answer to a question (“Which stock should I buy?”) and you need to offer your customers professional advice (“It depends on your risk appetite, budget and other factors”) before they can make a decision?

Most companies default to a human expert to offer this level of advice, yet this is precisely where the words of Eoin Treacy – the Irish analyst, business strategist and lecturer on global stock markets, government bonds, currencies and commodities – come into play: “Don’t think of robots as replacements for humans – think of them as things that will help make us better at tackling many of the problems we face.”

Companies now have at their disposal technologies that make it easy to build and maintain their own digital sales and support experts, that operate like human experts, and know exactly what questions to ask and which rules to apply.

Digital workers can be designed to perform all the system-based work that consultants and administrators used to do. They know how to guide customers through the decision-making process, in the correct context and in line with all the company’s rules. This not only liberates staff from repetitive decisions and actions, but also gives customers an efficient and effective sales and support experience, irrespective of their preferred channel.

The “future of work” is already here

Digital experts make it possible for companies in highly regulated industries to embrace digital transformation and catch up to the transactional sales of companies in other industries. As Covid-19 continues to force people to use digital – rather than physical – channels, digital experts give companies an immediate way to future-proof their businesses. After all, RPA technology is behind Amazon’s transformation into the largest global retailer and is set to expand this year.

Smart companies are making strategic decisions to free up their human workers to do things only human beings can do, and business leaders are catching on. This is one of the reasons Gartner anticipates that, by 2024, nearly 50 percent of RPA adoption will be driven by business leaders who are not in IT departments.

The research house believes that 90 percent of large organisations globally will have adopted RPA in some form by next year, while the “Future of Jobs” report found that 34 percent of companies surveyed plan to expand their workforce through technology integration.

Companies are also planning to use RPA to address pandemic-related concerns about productivity and well-being. The WEF reports that about one-third of all employers plan to use digital tools to create a sense of community, connection and belonging among employees, and to tackle the well-being challenges posed by the shift to remote work.

Literally, this year, software robots will be helping companies to better tackle the human experiences of customers and staff.

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