The impact of automation / RPA for the C-suite

When we talk about the impact of automation and RPA, we’re talking about an active, ongoing event in the early stages of its global ripple effect. While business leaders race to take advantage of automation technology, its holistic effect on the workplace is still playing out before our eyes.

That said, there are reasonable predictions we can make concerning the future impact of automation on the C-suite. While clear upshots lie ahead, so too does unrest, disruption, and a series of complex decisions.

Mass misconception

Firstly, it is important to emphasise that C-suite roles remain secure. There is no risk of intelligent robots running businesses and displacing leadership roles.

At present, there is mass misconception as to how “intelligent” RPA is. On a practical level, “software robots” can run rule-based actions. And rule-based processing has been around for decades – just in less flashy formats.

Though futurists predict that AI systems will one day be running the business world, present reality is decidedly more mundane.

Crossing the chasm

So, we know that the impact of automation and RPA for the C-suite is not one of unemployment. In terms of the roles and responsibilities of the people who report into them, however, the C-suite should prepare for disruption.

Automation has now “crossed the chasm” in terms of everyday office adoption. It is no longer a new technology. As mentioned, the earliest iterations of process automation have been around for decades and have long since ceased to be novel. This breakout into the mainstream means more and more areas are being assisted (or handled entirely) by automation.

The interim result is an unsettled workforce with evolving roles and responsibilities. The full leadership team will need to be ready to steady the ship and make key decisions.

A battle for HR directors

The impact of automation will be most challenging, perhaps, for the HR director. The awkward interplay of man and machine will cause an office cocktail of frustration, anxiety and lethargy.

Most pressing is the need to prepare for retraining and upskilling human team members as automation takes over tasks. This training burden will fall onto HR leaders, as will the ensuing red tape and administration around job disruption.

Machine relations will also be a fresh HR challenge – namely, refereeing the partnership between human and bot. As a new niche, the learning curve here is likely to be steep.

Then, there is the challenge of motivating the existing workforce when their previous tasks are proven to be automatable. (And therefore less valuable.) Plus, motivating team members whose roles are not automatable – but who have seen their colleagues suffer a less fortunate fate – will pose its own unique difficulties.

Critical decisions for the CTO

For CTOs, meanwhile, critical decisions await. RPA solutions can cost enormous sums of money, sometimes reaching hundreds of thousands of pounds for larger deployments. Is this cost justifiable, considering the unrest created and the necessary training the technology demands?

More traditional business process automation tools – those that operate via integrations, not on an interface level – are more cost-effective but typically clunkier. Is cutting-edge AI and RPA really necessary, or will standard automation suffice?

So, it is a choice of investing in expensive “robots”, or in opting for the cheaper but less forward-thinking route of traditional process automation. (That is, manually connecting systems with web hooks and building a library of ‘if’ rules to automate processes.)

A moral dilemma for the CEO

For CEOs, the impact of automation is more ethical in nature. RPA represents a moral dilemma in the making. Consumers are increasingly demanding ethical trading standards from businesses. Whilst automating away jobs may be good for the books, it isn’t quite so good from a PR standpoint.

CEOs must weigh up the advantages of automated efficiency against the (likely) backlash that comes with mass redundancy. Finding the automation “sweet spot” – increasing productivity and efficiency, without losing ethical grounds – will prove a challenge in the years to come.

Clarity on the impact of automation and RPA

It is important to take any predictions on the future of work with a healthy dose of cynicism. The truth is that today’s RPA is not anything new in terms of the processes it automates. How it automates is new, certainly, but its capabilities are not as advanced as hype would have you believe.

However, there can be denying that automation has crossed the chasm. The technology has never been more in demand. And, with this spike in awareness and adoption, disruption will follow. It is the degree of this disruption that is yet to be determined.

As yet, then, not even experts can say with certainty every way in which automation will impact the C-suite and beyond. For the time being, the best preparation is to put considerable time and research into a co-ordinated automation implementation plan. Which, unfortunately, cannot be automated.