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MATCH Challenge: preparing a workforce for automation

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As more workforces aim to make a shift to the digital environment through automation, Terry Walby, founder and CEO, Thoughtonomy discusses what businesses can do to prepare their workforce for these changes.

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At the HRD Summits, we bring business leaders together for MATCH Meetings, where they discuss the greatest challenges facing their organizations, taking in everything from talent acquisition to cultural transformation.

Each week, we take a MATCH Challenge and put it to our community to find the answer. This week’s MATCH solution comes from Terry Walby, founder and CEO, Thoughtonomy

MATCH Challenge: Preparing a workforce for a virtual environment and automation

Many organisations are already seeing the benefits of a well-structured, strategic automation programme. Rapid advances in Artificial Intelligence and Robotic Process Automation technology means that the pace of automation is set to increase significantly over the next five years.

Businesses are increasingly looking to Intelligent Automation as a way to create efficiencies, improve customer service, ensure regulatory compliance and, ultimately, to tackle the productivity issues which threaten their future growth.

Automation is about people as much as machines

Generally, when people think about automation, they consider robots and the technology itself. It’s easy to get caught up on the commercial rationale for Intelligent Automation and excited about the potential benefits. But it’s important to remember automation touches every area of an organization and, increasingly, the people working there.

Automating processes is not and should never be simply a technology or process-driven initiative to be led and managed by only an IT or finance department. There is always a significant ‘people’ element to automation, not just for those staff who are seeing parts of their work automated, but also across the wider workforce, in terms of the skills, mindset and cultural behaviours required to make automation a success.

Intelligent Automation programs depend in large part on the willingness of operational staff to embrace automation and recognize the benefits it can deliver, not just for the business but to them as individuals.

Organizations that think about this ‘people’ side of automation from the outset invariably find it easiest to integrate a virtual workforce. Indeed, we recently developed a white paper exploring how to build a business case for workforce automation. Interestingly, the paper highlights the extent to which people and skills are critical at every stage of the automation journey, from scoping and planning through to implementation.

The business case should present a robust plan to ensure that the introduction of automation is communicated to the wider business in a clear, transparent and confident way, setting out the strategy and articulating the benefits for the organisation and its employees.

Automation as a change management initiative

One thing to be aware of, particularly where the automation team is relatively inexperienced and learning on the job, is that automation touches nearly every corner of an organisation and its operations. We always help clients who are setting out on their automation journey to map out all of the ways in which automation will impact the business and ensure that their change management policies and procedures are closely followed. It’s important to think of every possible scenario upfront to avoid potential issues down the line.

For instance, if there were to be an issue with an automated customer-facing process, it’s vital that people on the support desk understand which processes are automated, can triage the problem immediately, and then flag it to the automation team to resolve. This can only happen with the right level of skills and understanding in each area of the business.

Building a positive culture of automation

As well as having access to the right specialist technical skills, organisations need to focus on training the broader workforce on automation, so all workers have the skills and competencies to feel comfortable and confident working alongside virtual workers. What’s more, with automation sometimes an emotive issue, fed by media reports that automation will lead to millions of jobs being replaced over the coming decade, it’s essential HR provides workers with the reassurance they need and a more rounded view of automation.

The fact is that automation will actually result in people having to do less mundane, process-driven work, and spend more time on interesting, subjective and creative-driven tasks. Workers who were initially reticent or resistant to automation, have completely changed their view once they realise they suddenly have more time to focus on the high-value work they enjoy. It’s about unlocking the true value of your human workforce, expanding people’s skills and re-thinking the possibilities of how unique human capabilities are deployed to make the biggest impact on the business.

 Champions of automation

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 frontline within each business unit who are much better placed to identify mundane tasks with high volume which are ripe for automation, rather than senior execs or the automation team.

Organizations need to ensure they invest in their people to make sure they have the right mindset and skills to take on a greater amount of strategic and thought-driven work. This is arguably the area of automation that needs the greatest consideration, to review and predict the new skills needed to develop amongst their workers to maximise competitive advantage in a more automated environment. This will also help them shape future-looking HR plans as part of building a business case for automation.

 A golden opportunity for HR leaders

What’s clear from the discussions we have with our clients is that HR is an important part of the automation agenda and needs to fulfil its role in delivering the right perspective of automation, facilitate a cultural shift and identify the skills required for success.

In a fast-changing business environment, automation offers HR leaders a huge opportunity to re-position themselves as critical, strategic players within commercial and operational discussions at the highest levels of the business.

By ensuring that they themselves have the right level of understanding of automation and recognising it as a positive shift for the wider business and their own personal development, HR leaders can claim an important role, championing the skills and people agenda within workplace automation initiatives.

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