Is Attended Automation the Antidote to Automation Anxiety?



The best time to start on the journey of digital transformation is twenty years ago. The second-best time is now.


In today’s increasingly digital-first economy that is concurrently being disrupted by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, automation is no longer a strategy. It is the way of work. In fact, with our work-life being punctuated by lockdowns and movement restrictions, an automation-first approach might be the only way to work.


To be sure, automation in and of itself is insufficient. True digital transformation only occurs when the technology trifecta of Automation, Analytics and Artificial Intelligence (AI) is judiciously and relentlessly applied across an enterprise’s people, processes and data to effect significant and sustainable changes.


And it is important to start with the end goal in mind.


But this is where many executives tend to get it wrong. Unlike industrial automation, the raison d'etre for embedding an automation-first mindset into the organization’s DNA is not necessarily digital labour arbitrage or cost take-outs. Rather, it is about enhancing both Customer Experience (CX) and Employee Experience (EX) – key battlegrounds that determine whether your company has a defensible moat in the next decade and beyond, but which have absolutely no bearing on your next set of quarterly results.


An Automation-First Mindset Is Badly Needed

The reality is that worker productivity and employee engagement remain persistently low worldwide. And these 2 factors reinforce each other, triggering a downward vicious cycle. The stark facts make for difficult reading:

  • The average office worker spent more than 3 hours a day on manual, repetitive computer tasks that aren't even part of their primary job;

  • Almost half find such digital administration boring and a poor use of skills;

  • The top 5 hated tasks are: general data entry, managing email traffic, filing digital documents, compiling reports from IT systems and invoice management;

  • 40% of employees say they don't look forward to going to work in the morning;

  • 67% of employees struggle to leave office on time due to time spent on manual, repetitive digital administration tasks; and

  • More than 80% indicated that they wish their employers would automate more tasks, and that they would be attracted to work at a company that embraces automation.



The Elephant in the Room: Automation Anxiety

The fear of being displaced by technology, innate resistance to change, lingering suspicions over management agenda as well as lack of support for upskilling or reskilling is generating a palpable sense of automation anxiety. And such anxieties are only exacerbated in the current economic malaise. According to an NBER report, recent recessions tended to be followed by jobless recoveries as the level of automation in enterprises rises.


And as Upton Sinclair so eloquently put it, “it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”


Attended vs Unattended Automation

This is where attended automation enters the fray. For the uninitiated, in the hypergrowth world of Robotic Process Automation (RPA), there are two main flavours – attended automation and unattended automation. The following diagram provides a quick overview of the difference between these two types of automation:



Historically, RPA has its roots in unattended automation – digital workers residing in servers and automating high-volume, transactional tasks and processes that occur mainly in the back-office. And by some analysts’ estimates, this remains the predominant mode of automation, making up approximately 75% of RPA software licensing revenues.


Unattended Automation Does Not Benefit the Average Employee

Unattended automation is not without its challenges though. Because unattended automation delivers the most value (read: cost savings) when there are large volumes of repetitive, transactional tasks that can be automated, it is not surprising that deployments tend to be driven “top-down” and focused narrowly on certain lines of businesses like shared services or global business services where there are economies of scale.


While there is nothing inherently wrong, this approach is rather tactical and not truly transformative for the entire organization. In addition, scaling unattended automation becomes unwieldy beyond a certain point; hence the observation that most organizations have less than ten bots in production.


Nor does the average employee benefit from the automation initiative - no triple win here! Indeed, what do you do with the tens and hundreds of back-office employees whose work you have now completely automated and eliminated?


A Robot for Every Person: Attended Automation at Scale

There has to be a better and more equitable approach towards managing automation within an enterprise. The solution? A people-first approach where automation is democratized throughout the entire enterprise.


Where every employee becomes a citizen developer (i.e. attended automation) and is equipped with their own digital assistant and collaboration tools. Where everyone is empowered and engaged to leverage these digital tools to accelerate innovation and value-creation “bottom-up”, without any fear of making themselves redundant in the process.


A robot for every person

This vision of “a robot for every person” is nothing but digital dexterity at scale. By putting the power of automation firmly in the hands of individuals who best understand the work they do and allowing human ingenuity to take over (within certain governance guardrails), attitudes towards automation shift from defensive and sceptical to liberating and empowering.


Cumulative Gains From Attended Automation at Scale

With citizen development and attended automation at scale, the long tail of automation becomes a viable strategy. The corollary is an innovative and dynamic enterprise where employees are continuously seeking that 1% performance improvement (e.g. time savings) and sharing those gains enterprise-wide to achieve the automation flywheel effects.


To provide some perspective, saving 20 minutes per workday for one employee might not sound like much. But for a large enterprise of 10,000 employees, this translates to savings north of 100,000 man-days per annum by compounding and cumulating these gains.


“Perhaps the most powerful benefit is that it creates a contagious enthusiasm. Everyone starts looking for ways to improve. There’s something inherently rewarding about identifying marginal gains — the bonhomie is similar to a scavenger hunt. People want to identify opportunities and share them with the group.” – Sir David Brailsford


The Rise of the Digital Assistant


According to Gartner, by 2021, 25% of the workforce will be augmented and assisted by a digital assistant, up from less than 2% in 2019. Far from competing with their human counterparts, these attended bots will become the vehicle for realizing real digital transformation for every employee.


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