Alan Nelson: Pros and cons of a ‘digital workforce’

The impact of robotic technology and artificial intelligence is now widely felt across business and society as well on television and in film. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
The impact of robotic technology and artificial intelligence is now widely felt across business and society as well on television and in film. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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Isaac Asimov, one of the 20th century’s most famous science fiction writers, predicted at the 1964 World Trade Fair that “robots will neither be common nor very good in 50 years’ time, but they will be in existence.”

While his forecast is broadly correct in terms of the human-shaped walking/talking entities, he got it very wrong if you consider the development of robotics as a whole. Here in 2017, only a few years beyond his original predication timeline, the impact of robotic technology and artificial intelligence is now widely felt across business and society. Just look at the development of self-service check-outs in supermarkets here in the UK and its use in sectors like financial services where significant manual data processing had traditionally been required.

Alan Nelson is a Partner at CMS

Alan Nelson is a Partner at CMS

A report by PWC earlier this year suggested that robotics and artificial intelligence could affect almost a third of UK jobs by the 2030s. While jobs in the manufacturing and retail sector singled out as those most under threat from new technologies, the report also predicted that automation could create more wealth and additional jobs in other areas of the economy.

A key aspect of this growth has come via Robotic Process Automation (RPA), the software which mimics and replaces computer facing-work which was recently, or in some cases, is still currently done by humans. The easiest way to define RPA is to think of it as a digital workforce.

When you understand some of the benefits of RPA, it is easy to see why such growth is being predicted. Firstly, it can deliver significant cost savings, between 40-80 per cent savings compared to a human workforce. It is quick and easy to deploy, often taking between 8-12 weeks to implement. In most cases, RPA solutions deliver quickly and do so on a 24 hour basis and often with greater accuracy as the potential for human error is removed.

The benefits and opportunities afforded by RPA do, however, raise other issues for the companies which use it. Whether it is deployed as part of an outsourced managed service or as an in-house option, due diligence will be important.

Companies must consider what data the robots will have access to and what data security and protection measures have been implemented. For critical automated customer processes, companies must ensure they have robust business continuity plans they can put in place if the 
digital workforce is unable to operate.

Before implementing RPA, it’s important for companies to firstly consider the people impact of using the technology. While it may be essential for the long term viability of a business, it must also be looked at in terms of the risk of redundancy or potential TUPE issues it might create for those currently doing the work. Companies should also look at how they can develop any opportunities to re-profile jobs, for example creating quality assurance-related roles to replace manual processing ones.

Any company or organisation outsourcing RPA services should consider what commercial benefits they expect the technology to generate and whether these can be locked in contractually. Any RPA-related contract should look like a services arrangement with defined outputs, with clarification over who is liable for any errors that result from the technology. It’s also important to ensure that if the technology fails to deliver, it is possible to exit from it without disrupting ongoing operations.

Those who are buying RPA software to implement within their operations need to consider how it will interact with your existing processes. For example, do all employees have the necessary rights to use the RPA software? Can a third party supplier use your RPA software or does it breach licence terms? Also, for your existing software licences, are user number restrictions or locations impacted at all by the new digital workforce?

Further considerations include ownership of the RPA licence, knowledge and ability to adjust the business processes (affected by the RPA software) on an ongoing basis, availability of the RPA software, speed of processing, accuracy of processing and access to external support. Failing to take account of and agree on these points in advance of implementation carries huge risks.

When you consider the growth and ongoing potential of RPA in today’s economy, Isaac Asimov’s 1960s forecast certainly appears to be wide of the mark. The growth of robotics has been phenomenal and with it comes a series of challenging legal considerations.

Alan Nelson is a partner at CMS