A Virtual, Verticalized Workforce By 2020 – If We Can Get Out Of Our Own Way

The Hermitage… where modern automation started?

Phil reminded me recently of my piece on the Automation Crystal Ball and then challenged challenged me to take a longer (and bolder) view as to where Intelligent Automation (IA) will be in 5 years’ time.

Here’s the interesting piece: to do that, we have to know where we are now. IA isn’t well defined today and stakeholders struggle to find any common ground. So in the midst of that confusion it might be difficult to see a clear path forward. But I’ve already accepted Phil’s challenge so I’ll start first by offering my views on where we are today so to have better clarity on where I think IA will go.

Blurred Perceptions Rule Right Now: Today’s Game Is To Create Shared Understanding and Definition

First, it’s NOT about tools, technology, and hollow promises to solve the most pressing issues of mankind (although who doesn’t want to save mankind?). Instead, at HfS we believe the relevant context for discussing IA is service delivery. Most approaches to IA involve decoupling routine work from labor arbitrage. At it’s core, it means IA is about automating mind-numbing, repetitive pieces of everyone’s jobs – giving companies two benefits:

  1. Lower costs by reducing the number of people needed for “grunt work.” This savings goes way beyond what could be achieved simply by swapping out higher paid workers with lower paid ones (even if the lower-paid workers were equally or more talented.)
  2. Increasing opportunities for workers to do creative work, develop new avenues for revenue creation and skill growth, and improving the job satisfaction of workers who no longer have to suffer through boring, routing tasks.

Our research shows that the IA is still a nascent market amidst the confusion we discussed earlier. But as the market begins to firm up around this service delivery perspective on IA, we see exponential growth coming. The seeds of that growth have been planted by suppliers and buyers. The supply side has built out strong capabilities by setting up IA centers of excellence and by continuously integrating the plethora of IA tools. The picture of the demand is much more difficult to assess as IA clients tend to shy away from discussing their projects in public. They often don’t want to give away perceived competitive advantages or are concerned about the socio-economic implication of the topic. However, in private buyers tell us they’re piloting, testing, building and otherwise beginning to engage in IA.

Suppliers And Buyers Must Co-Create A Consolidated Understanding

Against this background of an extremely blurred perception of IA, what are the issues that need to be addressed in order to see an acceleration in the market development? The following points provide a high level call to action:

Buyers need to:

  • Work with service providers and other third parties to educate the market on use cases and implications of IA.
  • Address the issue of governance. How do these highly automated environments need to be managed?
  • Create scenarios to understand the implications on talent and affected workers so they don’t cause unintended consequences in their automation efforts.

Service providers need to:

  • Better understand the impact of IA on their revenue models so they can make better decisions about what to offer the market and how to change their businesses to be successful in the automated environment.
  • Discover the right testing methodologies to guarantee the quality of service delivery in an environment of self-learning and self-remediating engines.
  • Look at their own talent, not just the talent of clients. Are robots taking over the workplace and how is the way services firms work going to change?

Suffice it to say, much of the future development is dependent on how stakeholders are going to address the issues that we have raised. Therefore, in this context we will focus on two top level issues that encapsulate the future of IA. First, what is the direction of travel for the build out of IA? And second, how is IA impacting knowledge work?

IA’s Growth Will Come From Vertical Evolution

HfS believes in 2020 we won’t talk about RPA anymore as it will be just a reality in the back-office. But we will continue to talk about the broader notion of IA. Yet, in the context of how of industrialized, highly automated service delivery will interact with Deep Learning, Neural Networks and Artificial Intelligence to generate highly verticalized insights. That is where both value will be created as well as differentiation be provided. We see early examples in Watson Health or UK startup RAVN which offers enterprise search and machine learning in legal environments. At the back of my head I keep thinking about the comparison to high frequency trading. In a market where standardized platform don’t offer differentiation anymore, value will be disseminated through new business model on top of those platforms (as well as the continuing informal practices).

Bottom Line: IA Will, Yes, Bring About A Virtual Workforce. Eventually.

In 2020 we will be in the midst of a disruptive transformation of knowledge work. Already now we see the emergence of virtual agents that are underpinned by broad scale automation capabilities. Those agents range from the big beasts Watson and Amelia to OpenSource avatar and Amazon’s Alexa voice integration. Those approaches will make a broad range of activities superfluous. Take RBS in the UK who has announced to introduce robo advisors with the sole purpose of taking out FTEs. Thus, we will see a mix of mainstream human augmentation through the use of IA but equally cold hearted job elimination. The impact will be most prevalent on the supply side. As we are working in the sourcing industry we have to stop dressing up the issue and start an open and honest debate on the discussion of knowledge work. Just like offshoring, automation will severely disrupt the industry – and clients need help in addressing those issue. Therefore, these projects should be paid for work and not pre-sales engagements.

IA will be a blended but mainstream reality in the various service delivery strategies. The focus will have changed to connecting front and back-office through the rise of virtual agents that will integrate the requirements and capabilities for what HfS has termed the Intelligent One Office. Those virtual agents will be tangible part of the transformation of knowledge work. However, unless the industry is addressing the implications head on, we wouldn’t be surprised to see widespread demonstrations against some industry practices on IA as the fervent discussion on the ethics of Artificial Intelligence that is already raging through the developer community and more customer facing businesses such as Google and Facebook will disrupt the B2B space. Thus, Virtual Workforce could be both a euphemism as well as a broad placeholder for a blend of human and automated work.

Posted in : Cognitive Computing, HR Strategy, Robotic Process Automation


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