The emergence of technology such as robotic process automation (RPA) doesn't necessarily lead to the loss of jobs, but to the elimination of certain tasks. What human workers do as automated programs take over some of these tasks might be largely up to them.
"Not every employee will adapt and innovate, but we believe most will," said Stanton Jones, director and principal analyst at technology research and advisory firm ISG. "Those that do adapt will go in two directions: one group will focus on becoming more productive by doing more of the same kind of work they did in the past with the assistance of digital labor. The other will move on to more value-added activities."
ISG is primarily seeing a focus on productivity improvements. But as companies get more comfortable with "digital labor," they will start to rethink their operating model.
With the assistance of digital labor that is constantly improving with each subsequent customer interaction, customer-focused employees such as those in call centers will be freed up to proactively reach out to clients when problems occur, or to prevent them in the first place, Jones said.
For example, in a telecommunications call center, an employee that typically handled incoming complaints can proactively reach out to a customer that dropped a call and offer them a discount for that month. Or, a help desk employee can proactively reach out to an executive letting him know that his hard drive is about to fail.
"In each of these cases, the human employee is improving their interaction with the customer because the virtual agent is improving as well," Jones said.
A number of organizations are starting to build automation centers of excellence, Jones said. "These are small teams that use agile approaches to identify, build, and implement automation throughout the company," he said.
Very few companies are focused on automating jobs. "Instead, they are focused on automating tasks and improving productivity," Jones said.
History shows that as automation increases, things get cheaper, and as things get cheaper, more people buy them, Jones said. "We believe the same thing will happen as automation and AI (artificial intelligence) moves into the enterprise. The products and services these companies create will, for the most part, become cheaper because the cost of the delivering them is going down."
Will some IT and business support employees lose their job due to automation? "Yes, but we believe this will be limited for now," Jones said. "The key is that over the long term, there will less routine jobs available."
A majority of IT and business leaders have indicated to ISG that avoiding long-term costs is an important outcome of automation and AI. "So while automation will reduce unit costs, and therefore create more buying opportunity for end customers, it will also mean that people that are focused on routine work will find less and less of those types of jobs available to them over time," Jones said.
IT is likely to be the corporate support function that will be most impacted by automation and AI.
"But this also creates opportunity," Jones said. "IT is in by far the best position to drive automation and AI into the firm. IT has the best experience with agile development and systems integration, and almost always has the best view into how business processes use technology. So, as long as the entry-level job is focused on agile, process design, change management, data science, or software engineering -- in support of the further automation of tasks within the firm -- it's a great place to be."