Rob and April might appear on the organisational chart and get promotions like other employees, but they bear one big difference to their colleagues: they’re digital workers.
Assistants like Siri, Cortana and Alexa are changing the way we work.
As artificial intelligence (AI) is increasingly integrated into our workplaces and daily lives, it’s about to derail our way of living and working.
Companies use AI to increase employee productivity, gain insights from mountains of raw data and improve decision-making.
The reality is that AI is now more commonly being introduced in the workplace to help existing employees do their jobs, but not to replace them.
In spite of this, the fear of digital workers replacing human employees is well founded in some instances, particularly considering that everything up until these final two sentences was written by an AI machine (albeit with some light human editing) in a matter of seconds.
Does that make you feel uneasy?
If so, you’re not alone. Research suggests people are nervous about the introduction of AI into our lives, and often don’t trust AI. A global 2020 study conducted by the University of Queensland’s Business School in partnership with KPMG found that 61 per cent of Australians think that AI will eliminate more jobs than it creates.
Given this widespread distrust of AI, it’s unsurprising that Australian Army Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Bellas, remembers his employees being “a little skeptical and unsure” when he first introduced the idea of digital workers about 12 months ago.
“For an area in Defence that has been highly transactional, this was a big first step towards intelligent automation and creating capacity,” says Bellas.
“There was apprehension as to how we could create a robotic process and automate different tasks. It sounds daunting until you walk through each step and actually do it.”
Developed by Deloitte, the technology arrived in the form of two digital workers, Rob and April, who work in the Directorate of Force Structure Army (DFS-A) team – the area responsible for determining how to best organise and equip the Australian Army to meet Defence’s needs.
With the ability to process an average of 150 requests a day, Rob and April have streamlined the transaction-based process.
This has allowed the DFS-A team to win back the equivalent of three full-time workers, releasing employees from the drudgery of performing routine-based tasks.
“Digital workers add to my team’s capacity by reducing the burden of mundane, repetitive tasks on our human team, which enables them to do more meaningful work such as analysis, problem-solving and engaging with our internal and external stakeholders.
“[My team] became excited about the possibilities and the fact that they could redirect their focus onto greater value work.”
Embracing the opportunity to upskill his workforce, Bellas has trained many of his team to become data analysts as a result of the time that Rob and April freed up, which is a critical function for the future workforce.
Steve Elliott, Partner at Deloitte, who has been instrumental in rolling out this technology in various workplaces, says that “the team is coming back to Paul and saying things such as, ‘We get to solve problems we’ve been trying to get around to for the last 10 years, but simply didn’t have time to do.’
“The digital workers have fundamentally accelerated everything they’re doing,” says Elliott.
“The human workers have been able to think about the work they’re doing, and come up with solutions for how they will conduct business in the future, not just get through the work. That’s been the biggest advantage.”
Time for a promotion
Bellas manages his digital workers in much the same way he does his human employees. Each staff member, whether digital or human, requires a solid working environment, and an investment of training and time.
“Like any new employee, Rob and April have continued to develop in their roles,” says Bellas. “Upskilling them is key, as we find better ways to use their capabilities in the broader team. We keep a close eye on the bots to ensure they effectively support our human team.”
“They require little day-to-day interaction, other than monitoring their progress or performance throughout the day to ensure they have access to everything they need to complete their work.”
If a problem emerges that is beyond Rob and April’s current capabilities, they will inform a human manager that their programming isn’t equipped to complete the task.
If it’s something they are likely to encounter again, Rob or April will receive training so they’re able to solve the problem.
“They are able to do more functions now, as the robots’ processes have matured. The quantity of processes that the robots can handle has also increased,” says Bellas.
Rob and April are able to be given recognition for their efforts too, just like their human colleagues.
“Rob is taking on more responsibility, so we are considering whether we treat that like we would a promotion because the automation has matured. We should recognise that in our structures.”
If Rob receives a promotion, he’ll take on the coveted title of Lance Corporal.
“It’s all about embedding the digital worker into the team,” says Bellas.
Although Rob and April sit on the lower end of the digital cognitive scale (robots with higher processing ability might be able to hold a conversation, for example), taking an anthropomorphic approach by naming them, including them on the organisational chart, giving them ranks, employee numbers and possibly even promotions, has helped to cement their acceptance into the team.
“This approach ensures the human team has the confidence in planning and allocating work appropriately,” says Bellas. “It also supports a better understanding of the skills and capabilities the whole team needs to budget for our workforce appropriately.”
Success story of digital workers
The integration of Rob and April into the Defence Force has motivated Bellas to advocate for the uptake of digital workers more widely.
“Digital workers will augment the work our current teams do, enabling the organisation to become smarter, faster and more capable.
“We can conduct simple transactions faster and with greater accuracy while making better decisions faster.
“In essence, human and digital workers aren’t in competition – they work together using their unique skills and capabilities in roles that suit them best.”
This is what’s known as a superteam – utilising the best of both worlds.
While it’s possible that other organisations looking to bring on digital workers might initially experience uneasiness and skepticism from their human employees, Bellas’s advice, based on his own tried and tested method, might help other organisations to implement this type of technology.
In a nutshell, it comes down to knowledge sharing, he says, but doing so through a strategic approach.
“Educate your teams and bring them along for the journey. Then start small in areas where you can build confidence and organisational maturity.”
“Stay away from areas you consider higher risk until the process and programming is solid.”
Engaging in an open dialogue with his team, and including them in the robots’ development, also helped to allay initial fears.
“Their involvement provided the security in knowing exactly what type of work would be executed by the digital workers. As early AI adopters, the team now understands and knows how to manage AI.”
This also gives his team a “competitive edge” in the job market, says Bellas.
“The team now has an understanding of the different types of technology and how it can be applied to make their lives simpler, and give them time back.”
As for whether other opportunities to manage AI exist in the job market, Elliott is currently working more broadly in Defence and with Police forces, and establishing a collectively intelligent workforces in government organisations in Europe.
“It’s quite a global event, and that’s because the fourth industrial revolution is here,” he says. “It has been with us for a few years, and over the next 10 years, every organisation will feel the impact and will shift in some way.”
This article was first published in the September 2021 edition of HRM magazine.