Successful robotics initiatives need the backing of agile staff who are open to change

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In the past, managing change has all too often been equated with (belated) project communications and training. More recently, however, experts have concurred that digital transformation, and ultimately its success, hinges on both the organisation and the people involved. Despite this, robotic process automation (RPA) and artificial intelligence (AI) initiatives in particular still tend to focus very much on the technology, paying little heed to how the organisation is going to keep pace. But if you want to harness the full potential of transformation in terms of saving costs and upgrading the work your people do, you have to make changes affecting your business model, organisation, culture and individual people early on.

Efforts to automate always involve far more than simply streamlining processes, boosting efficiency and lowering costs. They’re also bound up with new business models and modern organisational forms – and people who find themselves confronted with fundamental changes. You have to pay special attention to the new roles people will play, the skills they’ll need to do so, and how they’re going to deal with the new technical applications that have been introduced. Other things that change include, notably, the interfaces between people and machines (which go beyond mere repetitive tasks), the way the interaction between people and machines is orchestrated, and the value-adding interfaces between people. This is also confirmed in the recent 20th Annual Global CEO Survey conducted by PwC, in which 52% of CEOs polled said they are currently looking into the benefits of human/machine interaction and the impact of artificial intelligence on future skills and competences.

These findings suggest that front-to-end automation shapes an organisation in ways that go far beyond the kind of changes we’ve seen in the past, and compel decision makers to take a comprehensive view of this type of transformation.

  1. Interfaces: It’s not just the interfaces between employees and technology (software) that change in the wake of automated processes, but those between employees and customers as well. The goal has to be for both the customer and the employee (the internal customer) to perceive human/machine interaction as something that adds value and eliminates tasks that cost time and nerves.
  2. Roles: Once the process of value generation has been completely automated, the role of humans changes fundamentally, with new tasks created and old ones eliminated or taken care of by machines. With the focus shifting to new types of customer interaction, the employees involved need new skills and areas of responsibility. It’s one thing to be relieved of certain repetitive monotonous tasks, but they also need to be able to take on new work involving a level of skill, and often also a control function, for which they don’t necessarily have the digital agility, skills and competences.
  3. Orchestration: An organisation that automates its value creation needs to skilfully orchestrate the new or redesigned interaction between people and machines and employees and (internal) customers. These touchpoints are key to the sustained success of any automation solution. In particular, when tasks are passed on – for example from an avatar to a human colleague – this has to happen smoothly so that the customer perceives the whole thing as a satisfying interplay rather than receiving the impression that they’re getting second-class service.
  4. Networks: Automation often has to be tackled on a cross-divisional basis, requiring networking skills from everyone involved. Particularly challenging is the fact that networks are increasingly merging together, meaning that sooner or later there will have to be changes in hierarchies and structures as well.

Evolution required

The majority of Swiss companies embarking on automation projects still aren’t very advanced in terms of digital organisation. Most, for example, will pick individual processes that are suitable for automation and start out by testing prototypes, even though the underlying technology for purely repetitive processes has long since reached maturity. In the process they usually neglect the enterprise-wide impact on staff and customers and their potential for helping optimise value creation, and partnerships are generally relegated to Plan B.

An RPA business case will often claim staff savings of more than 50%, but rarely will it talk about the organisational and employee-related consequences if this potential is actually to be realised.

An interesting discussion then is whether it’s easier for the organisation to follow suit if you start with processes that were originally outsourced to low-wage countries. But even if you take this view there’s no way around the necessity of defining new roles and on this basis working out what skills and competences the remaining staff will have to bring or acquire.

Look beyond silos at the whole picture

As we’ve already discussed, companies undertaking automation have to flesh out the new forms of collaboration between people, and between people and machines. But they also have to define how sharing, collaboration and the generation of new business ideas and products across departmental boundaries – in fact across entire fields of business and hierarchical levels – are to take place.

For example it’s not sufficient to try to onboard customers by simply giving them an intuitive app for data capture. You have to assess the entire process front to back and automate every step that offers the customer an unparalleled experience, boosts efficiency and effectiveness, and eliminates unnecessary costs. This means taking whole steps in the process and redesigning, simplifying or replacing them, or creating new ones. This will fundamentally change the work packages involved.

It follows that the company will have to adapt its entire workflows and organisational structures in line with the automated structures, right down to the design of functions, roles, competences and working models.

Hello bot, goodbye Joe?

Things get really interesting when artificial intelligence is involved. At this point it’s not just about executing rule-based processes more efficiently and precisely; it’s about intelligent interaction with customers, whether they’re internal or external. The result is a wide range of different dialogue and advice services. Lively interaction between humans and artificial intelligence, for example in the form of avatars, ensures that the customer is always dealing with the counterpart best able to solve their problem.

Of course the spheres of application are endless. Recently a bank announced that an avatar with an episodic memory originally used in the back office is now also to be used for direct consultations with clients. Naturally avatars of this sort can also be used in less complex situations, for example when it comes to helping people find information more easily or fill out forms correctly. In other words, why not start out by trying things with a simple issue and then move on to more complex cases?

The voice from offstage

Employees involved in an RPA or AI project, who in most cases will be affected, ask questions. “Why does our company need this when things are working better than ever?” “Should I be going along with this?” “What’s it all good for?” “Where will it all end?” “What does this mean for me personally?” “What will my job be like in the future?” “Will they even need me?” Companies have to have clear answers to these questions. Management has to explain clearly and confidently the company’s vision, strategy and business model so that people can understand and grasp the efforts to automate and what they mean in concrete terms for the organisation and each individual person. Only if management demonstrably provides a clear road map of a shared journey into the digital future, allows the organisation to accommodate the changes, and gives staff the chance to change track, will automation efforts bear the desired fruit.

In a nutshell

Digitisation, RPA and IA projects free up vast financial and human resources. Companies have to make sure they not only address transformations of this sort at the technical level, but assess the organisational and human consequences and redesign accordingly. They can stand out by making sure their automation efforts revolve around the anticipated (internal and external) customer experiences, give social skills and networking high priority, and introduce intelligent machines as ‘equal’ colleagues. Last but not least, it’s important to ensure staff have support and guidance when it comes to relinquishing administrative work in favour of tasks that, thanks to their skill and judgement, they can perform better than machines.


Dr. Milena Danielsen
Director Advisory
Tel. +41 58 792 4447

Juliane Welz
Assistant Manager
Tel. +41 58 792 1913

Published by

Milena Danielsen

Milena Danielsen

Director Advisory
Birchstrasse 160
Postfach, 8050 Zürich
+41 58 792 44 47

Milena Danielsen is a financial services director with PwC and focuses on transformations, business process improvements and digital organisations and cultures. She supports clients across all sectors in financial services in assessing and improving effectiveness and efficiencies of processes and controls while ensuring that organisations are being adjusted the people involved appropriately. Having worked beside consulting as a chief of staff in Private Banking, Milena knows the challenges banks are facing by heart. She has a Ph.D. in compensation, was a former entrepreneur and local council, worked in consulting over 15 years and is mother of three teenagers and is with the firm since 2015.