This may seem like a bold claim and have lots of techies scratching their heads, but let me explain.

Robotic process automation (RPA), or the creation of a digital workforce, is driven by powerful new technology that was introduced to the market only 10-15 years ago. While many claim that the technology itself is a game-changer, I believe it to instead be the enabler – the catalyst to the changes we’re seeing in emerging new business models and the way organisations are rising to meet changing consumer behaviours and commercial pressures.

The mid 2000s – which heralded the birth of YouTube, the start of X Factor and the age of trucker caps and cargo pants – may feel like eons ago already, but they’re really not. In the overall scheme of technology, automation is a space that is still young and evolving. Unfortunately, because the understanding of how to best implement a digital workforce has been limited, and no defined process or methodology for adoption yet exists, many have approached the implementation of RPA like they would software development or other tech adoptions.  

It’s a common enough mistake – after all, we create and implement digital workforces for the same sorts of reasons as we might put in a piece of software: to optimise a process and hand it off so you can free up time and energy. However, the analogy really shouldn’t go much further. That said, I understand the desire for one.

When businesses first embark on a digital workforce journey, people often aren’t really sure what it is, or how it’s going to look. So, when we’re trying to grasp a new concept, it can help to liken it to something we already know and understand – in this case, however, it’s not software development. The establishment of a digital workforce is much more akin to building and running your human workforce (albeit without the inherently human challenges and HR issues!).

Let me explain…

Towards a unified workforce: RPA as part of your workforce operating model

I propose that a digital workforce is a key element of your overall workforce operating model. It’s part of your workforce strategy, similar to the decision to outsource or offshore part of your business, or to centralise a particular business function. These things change the make up of your labour force, the model of how your workforce operates – and adding a digital workforce does too. The first part to get your head around is that it’s not a technology project that’s taking place separately or in parallel to your human workforce.

With the introduction of a digital workforce, what you are aiming for is what could be termed a ‘unified workforce’. A unified workforce sees robots incorporated into your human workforce – performing the more mundane or repetitive processing, while referring complex cases to their human workmates to manage.

In most cases, a well-functioning digital workforce is not doing 100% of your processing. This works on a process-by-process basis, but even a highly mature digital workforce may manage something closer to 80% of processing with exceptions and anomalies referred to humans. Again, we are seeing RPA’s capability as very different to software. You would be very concerned if your finance software only processed 80% of payroll to your staff (and so would your staff!). However, targeting 80% straight-through processing (i.e. successful results) with automation represents a significant cost and time reduction and a positive result in many cases.

It’s important then to know when enough is enough. Many organisations make the decision not to spend additional programme budget on trying to attain the final percentage of functionality when that budget could be better used elsewhere, say, in deploying the next digital worker. Hence the creation of an overall augmented workforce where technology functions alongside humans.

For this reason, the organisation as a whole needs to adopt the digital workers and accept them as the new normal. It’s not just about management buy-in; the people working alongside the robots need to embrace them. You want them to be digital colleagues. When people do this, they are much more likely to see the possibilities and venture new processes as candidates for automation – processes that will have the maximum impact on their roles.

The process for human versus digital workers

While there are many aspects to the successful establishment of a digital workforce, the simplest way to visualise it is to think along the same lines as running a human workforce. When it comes to your human workforce, there are some clearly defined – and well understood – lifecycle functions:

  • Recruiting
  • Onboarding and upskilling
  • Managing

You start by defining the role that you are trying to recruit for and justifying bringing on board a new person. Once that’s agreed, you would advertise the role and screen candidates: this is all part of the recruitment process.

When you have found the perfect person, you move on to onboarding and training. You show them around, set some KPIs and key accountabilities, run through relevant operational protocols, and provide access to (and training on) your systems as part of a structured induction. From there, their manager would train them in their specific job role, giving them an easy job to start with and checking whether they can do this autonomously before leaving them to start delivering.

The final stage is managing them. Now it’s about allocating work, monitoring their progress and performance, and mentoring and upskilling them as needed. These are vital and expected steps. They may have been the ideal candidate, but they still require support from across the business. There’s a joint effort that pulls together capability from HR and IT support, while being primarily driven by the manager who needs the new resource in their team (i.e. the subject experts who know what you look for in assessing proficiency and providing training.) 

Now let’s contrast this with a digital workforce. Here there are also three defined lifecycle stages:

  • Pipeline
  • Delivery
  • Run

The Pipeline stage is about identifying processes that are suitable for automation, assessing candidates and then working through justification and feasibility to get approval. Prioritisation is also key here as – similarly to a human recruitment process – internal teams would work to determine what skills are mandatory or essential, while others might be a bonus for their new worker.

Delivery is akin to onboarding and training in a human recruitment lifecycle. You’re setting up the infrastructure and accounts, designing the solution and configuring (or training) the robot. You’re running tests as you move the robot towards becoming an autonomous worker. And lastly, you’re handing the worker over to carry on its activities as part of the team.

The final stage is Run, which mirrors management of a human. As in our example above, this is about allocating work to the robot, monitoring its performance and resolving any issues that crop up along the way.  

In the same way that the onboarding of a human worker is a joint effort across the business, this should be the case for a digital worker. When you train a person, you explain the purpose of the process and offer a step-by-step guide that explains all the parts. Your trainee tries out the process while the trainer oversees and ensures that they are doing it correctly and that it works. Or, in more techie lingo, that the path is ‘happy’ (i.e. runs without exceptions needing to be applied). The trainee then gets training, in stages, for the handling of some exceptions to the norm – to a point – and thus gains more independence. The exact same goes for a robot.

There’s training and coaching required from subject experts and experienced operators. They would ensure happy paths are fully understood, validate that the robot (or person) behaves as it (they) should, and identify exceptions. RPA may seem like a technology implementation, at first glance, but we’re hoping it’s more obvious now that this is not a job strictly for IT. Their involvement, much like for a human user, will be focused around setting up the new user, providing security protocols and ensuring reliable access to the technical infrastructure for the user to carry out the tasks required – e.g. access to the network and applications.

Business-led, with IT security and support

The establishment of a digital workforce is part of your organisation’s workforce operating model; it’s more like onboarding, training and managing people to conduct an activity within an organisation. There should be a combined strategy to drive your entire workforce forward and enable both people and digital workers to support your company mission.

I hope that, by now, it seems logical that because the business (in this case, the users or people in the area impacted by the digital workers) best understands the processes – and the upstream and downstream dependencies and implications – the business should own the establishment of the digital workforce, as opposed to IT. One of our customers told me, “We wouldn’t send our new junior accountant to IT to learn how to do reconciliations… Why should we send our digital workers?”

The subject experts understand the service level agreements, details of the issues that might be encountered with each process, the spikes of demand each one sees, and the future direction and life expectancy of each process. That said, there is a very important role for IT to play here. Just like they would support the induction and onboarding – and the ongoing work life – of a human workforce, IT needs to support the digital workers. They would set the security standards, establish infrastructure and support the digital workforce platforms ongoing. They would implement high availability and disaster recovery controls, so your workforce as a whole can carry out their mission-critical processes.

For the greatest success, it truly is a team effort.