Robotic process automation: your future colleague

Robotic process automation may provide the bridge between manual processes and the artificial intelligence that is on the horizon.
By: | August 15, 2019

Singapore is faced with the issue of a shrinking workforce, especially in an economy driven by technological innovation, and a nation that wants to be regarded as a first-class “Smart City”. In the near future, a situation may arise where an employee may have to wear multiple hats – performing several job functions to achieve the same operational output. Factor in tightening laws on foreign labour, and the ever shrinking organisational budgets, and things look a little grim for the country’s future workforce.

Technology has emerged as a solution to overcome these challenges.

Accenture estimates that businesses in Singapore could create up to US$215 billion in gross value added by 2035, if they apply artificial intelligence to their processes. One of the ways in which Artificial Intelligence (AI) can potentially drive growth is through labour and capital augmentation, which results from enhancing the skills and abilities of the existing workforce and physical capital.

While jumping straight into the realm of AI is no easy feat, organisations still have to start somewhere. A building block for AI implementation would be Robotic Process Automation (RPA). Organisations that begin to leverage these “digital workers” would already put themselves on the pathway to expand their automation footprint, especially when it comes to their business processes. It also sets them up to infuse AI into these processes further down the line, and make them more resilient to future volatility in the labour market and economic demands.

The new digital worker

RPA is a technology solution that is able to handle tedious, time-consuming, manual, and repetitive (but necessary) tasks at scale. By taking on these types of tasks, RPA can help improve organisational efficiency by offloading live resources, improving accuracy, maintaining compliance, and reducing costs. Examples of tasks that can be taken on by RPA include data entry, validating information, updating customers, and retrieving information to answer simple questions.

There is a slew of benefits that come with RPA implementation:

  • “Always on” – RPA software works at nights, on weekends, and takes no breaks – thus increasing throughput
  • Efficiency – RPA can reduce costs by up to 80% as robot employees can take on the tasks of multiple human employees, according to a report by Accenture
  • Speed – Accenture reports that RPA can reduce workloads by handling pattern-heavy and repetitive tasks much faster than humans, reducing handling times by up to 40%
  • Accuracy – When programmed properly, RPA will be able to carry out tasks flawlessly
  • Empowerment – RPA implementation will free up employees to take on more value-added tasks requiring higher levels of cognition

While all these benefits sound promising, it does raise an unnerving question: will RPA end up replacing human employees?

The short answer – no.

RPA is here to help employees perform better at their jobs, not replace them wholesale. At the end of the day, RPA is still a piece of technology that has to be programmed and “taught”, and may encounter situations that require human judgement. Employees will need to be open to the idea of upskilling themselves.

They can then be retrained to deploy and operate RPA within their own organisations, and learn the best means to utilise RPA to maximise the value that they themselves can add to an organisation. Initiatives like these also contribute to employee retention rates and satisfaction and increase their competitiveness and hireability in a digital economy.

Human-machine collaboration has indeed evolved – from merely pushing buttons on a factory production line back in the 20th Century to programming algorithms that enable them to crunch data and numbers, aiding humans by taking over menial tasks.

The ingredients needed

In order for the RPA revolution to take hold, organisations and employees need a helping hand. This is where governments can step in to lend assistance – be it in the form of grants, subsidies, training initiatives, or other interventions. For instance, in Singapore, there is a national AI programme called AI Singapore. It offers an initiative called AI for Industry (AI4I), that aims to equip technically-inclined professionals with AI basics and apply said skills in their course of work.

On top of that, one of the announcements from the 2019 national budget was that $3.6 billion would be set aside to re-skill employees – especially in digital technologies. Organisations should take comfort from the fact that there is state-level support they can turn to in order to equip themselves with the necessary skills, and fund their endeavours.

What’s as important as training or funding, is the support of a reliable partner. The right partner can work in tandem with the team responsible in an organisation for implementing RPA solutions. Nevertheless, embarking on RPA is easier said than done. The right technology partner can leverage its expertise to help you study the business processes and workflows in your organisations, providing counsel as to where exactly RPA can be deployed effectively.

Working in unison with the organisation, the right partner can develop the accurate RPA scripts based on user requirements and test them to ensure there are no kinks before deployment.

The employee of the future

So, what will the future hold for employees today? For one, they can expect to have “colleagues” that aren’t fellow humans. RPA will be working alongside them to take on some of their more granular tasks. A report from the WEF reveals that by 2025, machines and algorithms will be responsible for more than half the work done in the office, and create 58 million new jobs in the process.

Sooner rather than later, instead of building an RPA bot from scratch or training an employee to manage one, it would just be as simple as buying or renting one in a few mouse clicks.

About the author


Andrew Tan is the Singapore Managing Director of JOS, an organisation that is part of the Jardine Matheson Group, and provides technology solutions for Asia’s changing business environment.