December 5, 2021

Can robots help save us from the talent crisis?

Robotic process automation could be another arrow in your quiver in mitigating the effects of…


Robotic process automation could be another arrow in your quiver in mitigating the effects of the Great Resignation.

Image: iStock/Besjunior

An unusual combination of a red-hot labor market in some sectors, limited workforce participation in others and lingering pandemic-related uncertainly have generally been bundled under the Great Resignation moniker. Everyone from Fortune 100 executives to local small businesses has felt an impact from this reshuffling. For tech leaders, this has manifested in an odd combination of previously unheard-of access to new talent, combined with other staffers leaving in droves.

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It’s unclear whether this labor market is an aberration or an emerging status quo. In uncertain times like these, leaders should be looking for mitigations that provide flexibility, regardless of what happens in the future. One area that tech leaders may have underutilized is robotic process automation due to some misguided perceptions about the technology and its application.

Less HAL; more macro

Perhaps one of the biggest misconceptions of RPA tools is due to the unfortunate use of the term robot. While technically correct, the word conjures up images of intelligent, cunning machines from Hollywood more than the current state of affairs with most RPA tools, which leans more toward fancy macros than WALL-E, or my childhood favorite Johnny 5. RPA vendors don’t help this perception issue and sprinkle healthy doses of terms like artificial intelligence and machine learning in their marketing that have the unintended side effect of making these tools appear both more capable and more complex than they actually are.

The understanding that RPA will not replace your receptionist, investor relations or accounts payable team anytime soon might seem like a slight against these tools. However, a significant portion of the work performed in even the most advanced organizations can be quickly and inexpensively passed to an RPA tool. The power in these tools is not based on some super-human intelligence, but the fact that they can be deployed and configured or “trained” relatively easily by non-technical resources.

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If you spend an afternoon walking the halls of your finance, order management or other back-office departments, you’ll likely find people copying data from one system to another or acting as human interfaces between paper and technology-based systems. In extreme cases, you may even find entire departments with dual monitors and dozens of humans diligently reading, interpreting and rekeying data, where a dedicated technical interface is either too expensive, complex or simply too low on the priority list to get implemented.

While I’m not aware of any studies that provide factual evidence, it seems like a straightforward and intuitive assumption that these jobs are not the most fulfilling and are highly likely to be impacted by the Great Resignation. Furthermore, talented people may be spending a significant portion of their energy on rote work that could be easily performed by RPA. With some creativity and the assistance of RPA or similar tools, your company can transition these people to tasks that are not only more interesting but more impactful to your organization.

A double-win

Amid a talent shortage, it seems like a no-brainer to automate rote tasks and redeploy those efforts to higher-value and likely more engaging pursuits. Before suggesting that this is yet another straw on the overburdened back of your tech teams, consider that the best people to implement RPA tools are likely those most familiar with the process that you’re trying to automate.

Tech leaders often make an odd assumption that it’s trivial for a technician to learn a complex business process, yet impossible for a businessperson to learn a complex technical tool. Work with your peers who run some of the business units that might have processes ripe for automation, and identify a volunteer robot trainer or two that’s interested in exploring RPA. Most of these tools have trial versions or other ways to do some initial explorations before making a more significant investment.

Provide an IT contact so your new pool of Robot Trainers can “phone a friend” if they get stuck, and you’ll not only provide a willing volunteer with exciting and impactful work, but you’ll also free others from mundane tasks while simultaneously making IT look like  superstars. All this requires minimal effort from your stretched human and financial resources.

While the robots likely won’t be taking our jobs, or plotting a societal takeover a la “Westworld” anytime soon, they can provide some relief from the talent crisis and allow your people to devote their energy to the more enjoyable and interesting aspects of their jobs.

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