Workplace Automation is Everywhere, and It’s Not Just About Robots

Automation in the workplace today

What does automation look like if it isn’t towering robotics? Sometimes it’s as simple as a set of tools housed within common business software programs. At its core, automation is about implementing a system to complete repetitive, easily replicated tasks without the need for human labor.

“Automation takes a lot of forms,” said Fred Townes, co-founder and COO of real estate tech company Placester. “For small businesses, the most important thing is [repetition]. When you find something you do more than once that adds value … you want to look into automation.”

Historically, automation required expensive servers and employing a team of experts to maintain them. For many small businesses, this was a cost-prohibitive measure that simply put automation out of reach. With the development of cloud-based platforms, however, automation tools are now accessible to even the smallest companies, Townes said.

Machine learning as a driver of more sophisticated automation

Machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) enable new forms of “smart” automation. As the software learns, the more adaptable it becomes. These technologies open the door for automation of higher-order tasks as well, rather than just basic, repetitive tasks. 

“I think there’s a lot of focus at the moment on these tasks that humans don’t want to do,” Sharma said. “But what’s going to happen in the future is … automation will not just be about automating those tasks humans are doing today, but it will be about realizing potential opportunities.”

As data sets become more thorough and available, and as software draws on more sources and synthesizes more data points, Sharma said, contextual information in human decision-making will only improve. Machine learning, then, will serve as a supplement (perhaps even an enhancement) to human knowledge. Combine those capabilities with improved data retention through the internet of things (IoT) and the possibilities are seemingly endless.

Townes proposed that a shift toward more attractive user experiences with machine learning programs is already underway. To make interacting with these tools more natural and intuitive, companies will begin tailoring AI and automated technologies for a more organic, human experience, he said.

To make customer service chatbots appear more human, for example, Sage has intentionally built “imperfections” into its AI. For example, the answer to a user’s question might already be queued up by a chatbot, but Sage built a slight “thinking” delay into its system to simulate a more human customer service interaction. An ellipsis in the chat box indicates that the bot is “writing” a response, even though it immediately pulled up the queried information. Sharma said initial user feedback to the feature is highly positive, reflecting a desire for a more human, less machine-like interactive experience.

“Things will get more and more accessible,” he said. “These technologies will never replace the human being, but they will relieve the human being of the things that are less valuable, relatively speaking. [Humans] will be able to instead focus on those things that require creativity and touch; we’ll see more accessible, better experiences, and we’ll see human beings move to their highest and best use.”

For humans, the shock of an increasingly automated world can be difficult to process. According to Sharma, successfully integrating automation into human life starts with a comprehensive effort to educate people about what automation is, what it isn’t and what it means for them.

“Users are often initially surprised [by the capabilities of automation,]” Sharma said. “The first time they see something automatically there’s a bit of delight, and it’s also a bit scary until you show them the process the software went through. It’s more of an educational challenge, not so much a tech problem.”

Automation for efficiency and profitability

The bottom line of business process automation is, well, the bottom line. Automating processes saves time and allows resources to be diverted elsewhere. It means companies can remain smaller and more agile.

Increased efficiency, productivity and lower costs all translate to healthier profit margins for businesses small and large. How automation transforms the economy at large remains to be seen. However, it appears inevitable that we’re headed toward a future of more automation.

What this means for businesses, workers and consumers will be the subject of much debate moving forward. One thing seems certain, however: If it can be automated, it will be.

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