Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: AI and the Future of Business

Automation for the people: Getting ready for a workplace full of robots

Tech chiefs have a vital role to play in explaining the potential benefits of automation to the rest of the company.

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Image: iStock

Automation is expected to be one of the big trends hitting the workplace in the next few years, with analyst Gartner suggesting the smart machine era -- including deep analytics, advanced robotics and virtual assistants - will be the most disruptive in the history of IT.

Many roles, including some of the most established white-collar positions, are expected to be under threat from the move towards automation.

How will this trend become manifest within the business, what will the CIO's role be in the move towards automation, and how can IT leaders help their organisations benefit from a wave of robotics?

Establish how the business can generate value through automation

Unlike other hyped technology trends that sometimes fail to make a considerable mark on business, Richard Norris, head of IT and business change at Reliance Mutual Insurance Society, says automation will definitely have an impact. In fact, the change is already becoming manifest -- and CIOs will play a crucial role.

"Automation is definitely coming," he says. Norris remembers thinking about the potential role of automation and talking with insurance underwriters five years ago and suggesting to some of these workers that the power of automated systems could affect the long-term career prospects of underwriters.

The executives, at the time, questioned his beliefs. Yet Norris suggests we are now already reaching the stage where the processes associated to certain white-collar positions can be reduced to an algorithm.

"Big data, and the move towards real-time processing, is just increasing that trend," he says. "Now it is not only possible to process information automatically but also to adjust the calculation in real time. All you need is one senior manager overseeing the logic and the variables, and making sure the approach is right."

The impact of robotic trends does not have to be confined to individual sectors, either. Norris says automation could also affect tasks within internal IT, from testing and development to quality assurance. It is, of course, crucial to place developments around automation within some form of context.

Different organisations will be at different stages of development. Norris, for example, says his firm is not at a stage where it is working on automation. Right now, Norris and his colleagues have other priorities, particularly around web enablement and digital transformation.

"We need to stabilise our approach first," he says, suggesting that CIOs must work hard to establish how their business will make the highest possible value from leading-edge IT. "But once we're stable, we can start deploying more advanced techniques, such as robotics."

Help the rest of the business to embrace the benefits

Alastair Behenna, an experienced IT leader and consultant at The CIO Partnership, says automation is another stopping point on the evolutionary journey that enterprise IT has taken since the introduction of the computer. The knowledge that CIOs have gained on this expedition will be significant.

"The expertise gained by IT leaders means they are the perfect individuals to guide and mentor the organisation into the enormously exciting and innovative maturation of corporate automation," he says. "It was why IT came into being and is its inexorable pioneering destiny".

Behenna says automated systems and robotics already play a key role in certain sectors and processes, such as manufacturing and vehicle production lines. He suggests the challenge will be to find key niches within other businesses and functions, particularly in regards to customer service positions. Behenna believes people are getting used to digital IT and the benefits it can be bring.

He believes society is already on a quest to self-serve the goods and services it consumes and contracts. It does not take a giant leap of imagination to see self-service deepening to include fully robotic interactions, and the personalised delivery and development of products and services.

There are, however, potential barriers to success. Behenna refers to inflexible legacy architecture, both in terms of IT systems and leadership approaches. He says too many organisations are still anchored to the past, and wedded to out-dated structures and controls.

"Digital business models turned that approach on its head and robotics will amp that up still further, affecting all areas of corporate and personal life -- insidiously at first in the minds of those initially confronted by it, but that's the way of all evolution. It's a perspective that IT has already encountered and dealt with remarkably successfully. It will do so again," says Behenna.

Pay attention to cultural elements and keep employees onside

Rob Threadgold, global head of IT infrastructure and operations at ICBC Standard Bank, is another executive who believes the rise of the robots is a given. "Automation is undoubtedly where the industry is going," he says.

As an IT leader in the finance sector, Threadgold has seen first-hand how the power of automation can lead to big changes in the way people work. Super-powerful computers, high-speed networks and specially created algorithms have led to step changes in the way money is made in markets around the globe.

"Technology can give you a huge advantage in a tremendously competitive industry like finance," he says. "The actual algorithmic code might not be hugely different between individual financial institutions. But automated systems, utilising low-latency infrastructure, can help you to be first to market."

Threadgold says evidence from the finance sector suggests CIOs who want to take advantage of automation will have to pay attention to cultural elements. Some individuals will be reticent about how new systems might affect their roles. But, in many cases, robotics is leading to huge performance increases that businesses and their employees cannot afford to ignore.

"People can be averse to change -- traders, for example, might still want to do voice trading, where they call and speak with their contacts and broker deals. Technology removes some of those elements and people on the floor can be concerned that technology will replace their jobs," he says.

"But finance is actually a flow business now: margins are smaller in many cases and volumes have to increase for organisations to make the same kinds of revenues. And the performance of automated systems in digital markets, in terms of the deals completed, can be very high."

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