CIOs vs robots: What's the best way to use automation in business?

Automation will lead to big changes to the world of work, so how are tech chiefs getting ready?
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

Will a robot steal your job or help make you a better one?

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The evidence points to the increased role of automation in the workplace: as many as 70 per cent of executives plan to significantly increase their investments in AI-related technologies, according to consultant Accenture.

What's the best way to take advantage of robotics, automation, and AI? And how can CIOs help the business to evaluate these opportunities and create a boost in productivity and performance? Read on for advice from a range of IT leaders.

How can executives best understand the role of the robots?

Alastair Behenna, an experienced IT leader and consultant at The CIO Partnership, says the rise of automation must be seen within the context of a broader digital transformation. The past decade has seen huge advances in both the ability of individuals to use and create data, and to access this information on the move. Automation is the latest stage in a digital evolution.

"Consumer-driven expectations are overwhelming, and will continue to grow exponentially as disruptive technologies mature and become the norm," he says. "These digital interactions will highlight use cases for other leading edge technologies. Smart businesses will create innovative responses through the use of artificial intelligence, robotics, and automation."

It is a trend noted by Leslie Willcocks, professor of work, technology, and globalisation at the London School of Economics, who says most organisations would be "fundamentally digital cloud corporations" by 2025. He points to the increased use of on-demand IT, mobile, and analytics, plus the use of advanced robotics and the Internet of Things.

"C-suite executives must think seriously about what new technologies can do," he says. However, Willcocks also issues a word of warning, suggesting mass diffusion of robotics is likely to be more arduous than many experts portray.

"Scare stories focus on job losses caused by automation and robotics, and the tsunami effect of these technologies," he says. "Their impact is positioned as sudden, transformative, overwhelming, and irreversible."

Take recently research from Centrum Banking, which suggests India's top five IT firms trimmed their hiring numbers by 25 per cent to 77,365 people in 2015 as the result of aggressive automation strategies. Such numbers are substantial, yet Willcocks advises CIOs and their staff to be cautious.

LSE research suggests that for every 20 jobs lost under automation, another 13 are created, and that every job role will be changed by at least 25 per cent within five to seven years.

Willcocks points to robotic process automation (RPA) -- which uses robots to carry out standardised tasks -- and which will have a huge impact during the next 18 months. RPA is now mature enough to be easily and cheaply adopted. The technology also requires only limited configuration and management.

LSE studied one company that already runs 35 per cent of its back office processes with robots. RPA can produce many benefits, including significant cost savings, faster processing, and -- most importantly, perhaps -- more satisfied customers and employees.

"By introducing RPA, people can be placed into new mixes of tasks that play to their human strengths," says Willcocks. "This, of course, is a management choice -- whether to use technology to augment and amplify human skills and abilities, or to attempt to replace human labour with machines. Our research suggests plenty of examples of people moving into more stimulating and rewarding jobs."

How can CIOs help businesses to take advantage of automation?

Andy Wilton, CIO at Claranet, is one such IT leader who recognises that cost and time efficiencies are the aim of any automated system. He says CIOs should always be on the lookout for ways to pare back the use of expensive resources -- and that automation is already having an impact.

Wilton points to cloud-hosted AI answering machines that can recognise and respond to free-form speech. Such technology, he says, provides a great way for CIOs to supplant the voice recognition register used by many customer service advisors currently. Wilton also refers to the automated provision of scalable cloud storage, which has helped fuel new, agile business process and the rise of DevOps methodologies.

"Earlier in my career, when I worked as a system administrator, my mantra was 'once, twice, then automate', and this holds true today," he says. "Any CIO's time is precious and manually repeating operations is simply a waste of time. The development of a scheme to automate and improve repetitive tasks is a huge value proposition, and is a key ambition of any CIO."

Chris Hewertson, CTO at hotel group glh, is always on the look out for new technology that can help his business grow. He is already trialling IoT services on hotel door locks. The firm's IoT cards are NFC-enabled and connect to the network, producing information to help analyse customer flow.

Related developments in other areas of connectivity are expected. Hewertson recently returned from a trip to San Francisco where he visited a robotics company. "We're certainly investigating that area and we think it's got considerable potential," he says.

Finding time to look to the future is crucial, agrees Doug May, regional IS manager at manufacturing specialist Messier-Dowty Limited. May believes a common problem for CIOs is that they are so focused on day-to-day operational concerns that they sometimes forget to do a bit of crystal ball gazing.

"I think we need to get involved in discussions as early as possible," he says, referring to the role of CIOs in innovation. "Creative ideas should come from all areas of the business. It's great when the rest of the business comes to the IT department for its input in areas of innovation, like automation and robotics."

May says Messier-Dowty Limited is already looking to make the most of advanced technology. The firm uses a robot to add chrome to landing gear systems during aeroplane manufacture. "That process is very complicated and used to be done by hand, which was very time consuming," says May.

The firm is keen to use automation in other areas of the production line process. Robots, says May, can help improve the way skilled employees work and can boost efficiency. "Some of the work we complete is highly skilled and requires a great level of precision," he says. "Just like any CIO, I love to think about how new technology can help the business work better."

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