Despite popular opinion, a digital workforce is not a technology project that’s happening separately or in parallel to your human workforce. Instead, it’s an integral element of your workforce operating model. Similar to your decision to outsource of offshore part of your business, or to centralise a particular business function, a digital workforce also changes the make-up of your labour force and the model of how your workforce operates. In this way, it’s part of your overall workforce strategy.

What you are aiming for with the introduction of a digital workforce is a ‘unified workforce’. Augmented in the sense that technology functions alongside humans, a unified workforce incorporates digital colleagues into your human workforce. These digital colleagues remove the friction of day-to-day activities by carrying out the repetitive or mundane tasks, while referring more complex cases to their human workmates to manage.

When done well, the unified human-digital workforce has a combined strategy to drive everyone forward as they’re working together to support the company mission, and provide better working conditions for everyone. That said, the ideal isn’t always realised – and it’s for this reason that we’ve created the digital colleague lifecycle (DCLC).

However, one of the issues that we see time and again is too many people homing in on just the technology aspect and focusing on the delivery aspect to the virtual exclusion of anything else. Those that know me are probably tired of hearing me repeat: a digital workforce is not a technology project. For a robust digital workforce programme – that is adaptable, scalable and able to deliver real business benefits – a much more holistic and transformational approach is necessary.

A human analogy…

When businesses first embark on a digital workforce, few really know what it is, or how it’s going to look. So, when we’re trying to grasp a new concept, it pays to simplify things, but it can also help to liken it to something we already know and understand. We have an analogy that does both here…

While there are many aspects to the successful establishment and running of a digital workforce, the simplest way to visualise it is to think along the same lines as the ongoing running of a human workforce (although you get to exclude some of the inherently human challenges, like personalities and politics that come as part of that!)

Think for a moment about your human workforce and you’ll see there are some clearly defined – and well understood – lifecycle functions:

  • Recruiting
  • Onboarding and upskilling
  • Ongoing management

Now imagine that you have a job role in your organisation – let’s say an Assistant Health & Safety position – that you need to fill. You would start by defining the role that you are recruiting for and work to justify bringing a new person on board. You may need to create a business case to confirm the need for the role. Once that’s agreed, you would advertise and screen candidates. This is all part of the recruitment process.

Once you have found the perfect person, you move on to onboarding and training. You would show them around, set some KPIs and key accountabilities, and run through relevant operational protocols, all as part of a structured induction. You’d set up their logins and company email, provide access to (and training on) your systems and issue them their device. And from there, the new recruit’s manager would train them up in their specific job role. This is a vital and expected step. They may have been the ideal candidate, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they can do all of the tasks required from the get-go. The manager would give the new hire an easy job to do to start with and check whether they can do this autonomously before adding other aspects and leaving them to get on with delivering.

Which brings us to the final stage, which is managing them. Here it would be about allocating work, monitoring their progress and performance, and mentoring and upskilling them as needed. Plus ongoing training on systems as they are changed.

As you can see, this process is business-led; it’s a joint effort that pulls together capability from HR, with IT support. That said, it’s likely to be primarily driven by the person or people in the part of the business most impacted; for example, while a Health & Safety role might be driven by the HR department (as that’s where the role resides), the recruitment of a Finance role would be driven by the subject experts when it comes to Finance. They’re the ones who know what to look for in Finance resource and are the best to assess proficiency and provide training. 

Now, let’s introduce the digital colleague equivalent where there are also three defined stages or lifecycle functions, which must be undertaken together and coordinate with each other as a whole.

We can understand these more easily as we liken them to filling a human job role:

  • Pipeline
  • Delivery
  • Run

Stage 1: Pipeline

The pipeline stage is about identifying processes that are suitable for automation, assessing candidates and working through justification and feasibility to get approval. A large pool of candidates and prioritisation is key here as – similarly to a human recruitment process – the larger the candidate pool, the increased likelihood that you will select the best candidates. Internal teams would work to determine the evaluation criteria – what skills were mandatory or essential, and those that would be a bonus for their new worker.

Stage 2: Delivery

Akin to onboarding and training in a human recruitment lifecycle, delivery is about setting up the infrastructure and IT network accounts, designing the solution and configuring and training the digital colleague to perform the required tasks. 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.

However, just like aspiring to hire a new recruit with some or all of the prerequisite skills, don’t think every digital colleague needs to be configured (or trained) from scratch. There are more and more off-the-shelf redefined processes and components on various marketplaces, such as the Blue Prism DX, UI Path Connect and RPA-MarketPlace.com

Stage 3: Run

The final stage is run, which mirrors management of a human. As in our example above, this is about allocating work to the digital colleague in conjunction with your human workforce, monitoring the digital colleague’s performance, and managing exceptions that crop up along the way. 

At this stage, it’s also critical to promote the business benefits that have been achieved through having the new digital colleague onboard, as you would communicate the excellent work a new human recruit is doing. This certainly helps next time you need recruiting approval.

Sharing the love in the holistic view

In the same way that the onboarding of a human worker is a joint effort across the business, this should also be the case for a digital colleague. When you train a person, you explain the purpose of the process they’re undertaking and offer a step-by-step guide that includes all the parts for doing their job. Your trainee tries out the process, while the trainer oversees and ensures that they are doing it correctly. The trainee then gets training, in stages, for some of the more complex exceptions and thus gains more independence and autonomy. The exact same goes for a robot.

This kind of ‘doing the job’ training relies heavily on subject experts and experienced operators carefully coaching the new person or providing input into the process the digital colleague should follow. They would ensure expected outcomes are understood, confirm that the robot (or person) behaves as it (they) should, and identify and capture any issues.

At first glance RPA may seem like a technology implementation, but I’m hoping that it’s more obvious now that it’s not a job strictly for IT. Their involvement, much like for a human, will be focused around setting up the new user, providing security protocols and ensuring reliable access to the technical infrastructure to enable the digital or human worker to carry out the tasks required.

I’ll be sharing more next week about the digital colleague lifecycle’s dynamics – as well as more detail about what’s taking place during each of the three stages, so keep a look out for those, and don’t hesitate to let me know any specific questions you have.