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By Terry Walby, founder and CEO of Thoughtonomy 

AI is about people, not robots

The financial services sector has been one of the early adopters of Robotic Process Automation (RPA), deploying automation to increase efficiencies, meet compliance obligations and drive customer experience.

Terry Walby

Terry Walby

However, within financial services the focus is now moving from tactical implementation, where basic back-office tasks and processes are automated across the HR and accounts functions or contact centre – to more complex and strategic initiatives. Forward thinking organisations are increasingly looking to automation to tackle the widespread skills and productivity issues which are threatening future growth and to free up capacity amongst highly-skilled employees to drive innovation and growth.

Intelligent Automation (IA), which combines RPA with Artificial Intelligence (AI) functionality, and additional capabilities such as Natural Language Processing, is now enabling banks and financial services to automate a far wider range of workplace processes, faster, more effectively and securely. We talk to financial services organizations about how they can redefine the way in which ‘work’ is resourced across their operations, based on the relative strengths and capabilities of human and digital labor through Intelligent Automation. For business leaders, it’s a real game-changer, providing the agility to respond to disruption and ever-changing regulation, and also to innovate and pursue new opportunities that would otherwise be impossible with a traditional approach to resourcing.

But it’s important to remember that the introduction of AI is about more than processes and technology. Automation is just as much about people as technology, arguably more so; it does not just impact those employees whose roles or parts of their work is being automated, it requires a shift across the whole workforce. Organisations need to equip their people with the skills, mindset and cultural behaviours required to effectively work alongside AI and to drive better business outcomes.

Innovation, scale and growth – the new benefits of automation

Demand for Intelligent Automation is coming from both ends of the market. Established banks are recognizing the need to respond to huge disruption in the market and to develop more agile operations to compete, whilst smaller players are looking to AI and automation as a way to scale quickly whilst keeping costs down. In fact, many fintech businesses, which are essentially technology platforms themselves, are putting Intelligent Automation at the core of their operating model from the start, deploying a hybrid human-virtual workforce as a way to scale quickly and maximise the value of their key talent within coding and software.

We’re seeing financial services businesses (both large and small) developing and launching new products and services which are built exclusively on the use of digital labor, and examples of companies that are using their virtual workforce as a platform to expand their operations into new territories. By deploying digital labor within these smaller operating units, they can deliver a first-rate service to customers without having to develop a sizeable infrastructure which can be slow, cumbersome and prohibitively expensive, and they can navigate around skills shortages.

Indeed, one of the major benefits of Intelligent Automation is that it means organizations can use their staff in a far more effective way. So rather than having highly-skilled (and hugely costly) talent tied up on executing repetitive tasks, businesses can automate processes to maximise the time these people dedicate to strategic, high-value work.  People no longer need to act as the ‘integration layer’, manually transferring data from one disparate IT system to another (a major barrier to digital transformation) – this work is handed over to virtual workers and people can focus on driving innovation and customer experience.

So what are the key considerations for business leaders when thinking about automation and what are the skills and competencies that need to be brought into the business to drive results? Longer-term, how does automation impact training and development requirements in a world where more mundane tasks will increasingly be carried out by virtual workers?

Automation for the people

Organizations need to tackle any internal resistance to automation head on and we’ve seen some great examples of banks, and organizations in other sectors, which have engaged and educated staff in creative and fun ways about the benefits of a digital workforce.

Businesses need to work with people on the ground to identify and target specific process and bottlenecks within operations that cause frustration and act as a drain on time and morale. This is a particularly important message within financial services where regulatory compliance is a huge driver for automation and a huge burden for many staff.

Here are five tips to prepare a workforce for the introduction of AI and to ensure a smooth, harmonious transition to a hybrid resourcing model:

  1. Remove the fear by proving the benefits

Employers need to demonstrate how AI can reduce the amount of time that employees spend on mundane and repetitive tasks and free them up to focus on more creative and fulfilling work, to learn new skills and to enjoy a more varied, flexible career.

Getting sceptical staff to see the benefits of AI is often the biggest challenge when so much of the narrative around automation remains highly emotive, caused by media reports that automation will lead to millions of jobs being replaced. There is an element of some job displacement but it should be noted that AI will result in net job creation. Most industries will see a whole range of strategic, high-value jobs being created, a report from Pwc provided some real insights to emerging opportunities.

  1. Be transparent and inclusive

Very few organizations are currently communicating with their employees this shift of how AI and automation will transform business in any meaningful way. This needs to change.

Some have run competitions amongst staff to name their virtual workers, with winning entries rewarded with prizes and charitable donations. Others have run initiatives asking people from across the workforce to nominate the mundane and laborious tasks (the ones they really don’t want to spent time on) that would be ripe for automation. Again, prizes are awarded for anybody who identifies a process that goes on to be automated.

These sorts of initiatives are good because they get the entire workforce thinking about the potential benefits of automation for them personally and understanding how IA can improve their own working lives and careers.

  1. Focus on learning and upskilling the workforce

People’s expectations of work is changing, the digital native is not expecting to be in an environment processing data knowing that it can be done more efficiently by technology. They demand stimulating work and expect employers to equip them with the most up-to-date skills. Therefore AI provides a platform to attract talent by differentiating against the competition with an exciting, modern employer brand.

Employers will need to develop new skills to support and complement the contribution of AI and digital labor, within their specific environments. The World Economic Forum predicts that the average worker will need an extra 101 days of learning by 2022 to prepare for the introduction of AI.

Organisations should map the new skills that they will need to develop amongst their workers in order to maximise competitive advantage in a more automated environment, and to help them shape future-looking HR and L&D plans as part of building a business case for automation.

When it comes to the technical skills required to implement automation programmes, very few organisations have a budget dedicated to building a new business function, so it’s often a case of starting small, re-skilling people internally to build a team, and then scaling up once the business case has been proven.

Re-training people to give them the skills to oversee an automation program and manage a team of virtual workers is a great message to convey to the workforce. And for the individuals themselves, they can move from doing what is often mundane work (hence it being automated), to becoming highly skilled and highly sought-after experts in IA. They can transform their careers (and their income) in a very short space of time.

  1. Create Champions of Automation

Beyond the dedicated automation team itself, it’s also important to ensure that each business department has its own ‘automation champions’ who can help their peers to get to grips with automation technology and to work effectively alongside virtual workers. These individuals also have a crucial role to play in identifying a pipeline of processes that can be evaluated for automation on an ongoing basis – after all, it is the people working on the front line within each business unit who are much better placed to identify mundane tasks with high volume or process bottlenecks which are ripe for automation, rather than senior execs or the automation team.

  1. Establish a culture of automation

The ultimate goal for organizations should be to instil a positive ‘culture of automation’ amongst the workforce, where people are proactively looking to automate some of their work to free up their capacity and feel comfortable handing over tasks to AI and virtual workers.

Such a culture be achieved over time, by communicating a steady stream of positive news about how the company’s virtual workers are helping individuals, teams, and the organisation as a whole be more successful. While it is critical that everyone understands the wider context for intelligent automation (faster processes, reduced costs, better customer experiences etc), the more personal stories are often overlooked. Employers should encourage workers to share their experiences of working with AI and how it has impacted their own morale, motivation and career prospects.

We talk about AI and the virtual workforce empowering people to maximise their full potential. It may seem counter-intuitive but the best AI and Intelligent Automation programs are essentially about people; about how they can be best deployed to add value to the business and how organizations can achieve more with the same headcount. That’s why AI must always start and end with people.

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