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Automation Can Serve as a Human Empowerment Opportunity

Jenna Harvey, Global Manager, Emerging Industries
June 19, 2018

Automation of what were formerly human tasks has long been a key part of the IT/business relationship. With the rise of robotic process automation and artificial intelligence technologies, the automation of repeatable business tasks is getting heightened attention. The concept of "intelligent automation" across the organization is a highly disruptive and exciting trend. To get the most value from evolving automation technologies, the conversation around automation itself must evolve. Traditionally, automation has been talked about as a way to replace humans with machines. That's a short-sighted view, and one that carries a broad range of negative macro-economic and reputation-related consequences.

Automation should be used to make humans more valuable. It should enable people to work on higher-value tasks, such as problem-solving, interacting with customers, and creating new revenue opportunities. Robots can do the low-value, repetitive tasks (and they can do them 24/7 without complaint), while people can do all of the things in business that require the special human touch. Rebalancing the business in this way can enable organizations to gradually reskill their employees and handle a move toward increased automation in a manner that empowers human workers as opposed to reducing staff.

Unpacking the Automation Situation

Automation is used across virtually every industry. From robotic assembly lines in manufacturing to back-end bookkeeping in financial services, automation handles a wide variety of "grunt work." Artificial intelligence and machine learning are creating new and more advanced use cases. With AI bots in place, for example, many customer service tasks can be completed by software. Having somebody on the help desk handle a product return can require a person to go through three or four manual workflows. When you have a bot automate those, you free that employee to spend more time building customer relationships and establishing brand loyalty.

Automation could become a boon for knowledge workers.

This type of automation use case is becoming apparent in a wide range of sectors. A report from the Forbes Technology Council explained that automation could become a boon for knowledge workers as it enables them to deal with the deluge of data they must process on a daily basis. In action, this could create a situation where the massive data processes tasks users go through are automated, letting those workers spend more time performing analysis and putting human critical thinking skills into action.

According to the news source, the key action for businesses hoping to take full advantage of automation is to move quickly to establish a culture of regular skills development and retraining. As more activities get automated, organizational leaders will need to regularly work to train employees so they can not only remain valuable, but actually become more instrumental to the business.

This may sound like a big ask: It's a lot to expect people to continually adapt and grow in their work. However, the results can actually be quite fulfilling as employees are able to continuously grow and develop, reducing the likelihood of burnout.

Such a strategic, human-focused approach to automation can have a powerful impact on businesses, and Toyota is already providing a real-world example.

How Toyota Balances Automation With Unique Human Skills

The manufacturing sector can seem like a natural fit for automation. Many of the day-to-day operations are built around repetitive tasks that are already heavily programmed into machinery. What's more, operations often involve safety risks, making a move to robotics all the more attractive. However, organizations shouldn't simply assume that automation will be better for everything. Fast Company reported that automotive manufacturer Toyota has experimented heavily with automation, performing a variety of operational tests to identify the best use cases.

Wil James, president of the Kentucky branch of Toyota Motor Manufacturing, told the news source that the company has maintained the same automation ratio over the past 15 years and for a simple reason.

"Machines are good for repetitive things, but they can't improve their own efficiency or the quality of their work. Only people can," James told Fast Company.

This insight comes from one of the manufacturers that ushered in the era of automation. The brand's efforts to use automation while revising longstanding manufacturing procedures led to significant disruption across production industries. However, Toyota was careful in how it built beneath the surface of its automation efforts, ensuring it always values the particular ways humans can improve operations. This has been made possible by a relentless focus on identifying precisely what automation can do and exactly how employees can support such systems.

Automation doesn't have to replace workers, it can empower them.

For example, the Fast Company article began by showcasing a new machine installation robot that Toyota has been using. In the past, completing the system deployment involved hauling with a crane while workers got under the device and handled all of the connections manually. Now, robots are doing all of that repetitive and potentially dangerous work, but just as many people are on the project. Those employees are now performing inspections, getting involved in quality control and making sure every component of the project is going smoothly. With the humans freed from the tedious labor, they can all spend more time on high-level tasks.

This is precisely what the Forbes Technology Council was describing when saying that knowledge workers can benefit from systems that automatically process data for them. Automation doesn't have to replace workers, it can empower them.

Using Automation to Create Human Value

An employee-focused approach to automation is what we advocate for at Appian, and our digital transformation platform is designed to help organizations in just about any sector interconnect their data and technologies so their people will be able to work at their best at all times.

Our business process management, robotic process automation and application development platform systems come together to drive digital transformation and help businesses automate the tasks that prevent users from achieving their potential. For example, take a regulatory audit. It would typically take days of work just gathering materials before people could actually use them. By automating that labor, companies can instead put all of that time into analysis. From manufacturing out through knowledge work, Appian is helping businesses use automation to get more value from people, creating new revenue opportunities. Contact us today to learn more.