Executives have often expressed to me that they have not achieved the strategic objectives they expected from their technology investments. These comments are becoming more frequent and I am not surprised.
In a previous article I asserted that Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is simply ‘computing’ with a new name. This is true, but RPA is also process engineering in disguise. I think a review of the history of process engineering will help shed some light on why RPA is not the right starting point for discussions about digitally transforming your organization.
RPA has the potential to yield an immediate and impressive return-on-investment. It is a great way to get attention and start a new relationship. That said, starting there can also turn your digital transformation efforts upside down.
Workers are going to resist, what they perceive to be, attempts to take away their livelihood. Automation is a reality of digital transformation, but when the discussion begins there, it typically ends with poor user adoption and the investment fails to achieve the objective. Poor user adoption is not a new problem. It is simply becoming more frequent given the rapid (and haphazard) rate at which technology is being introduced.
I am going to review the history of process engineering to explain why I believe, despite the immediate beneficial financial impact, RPA is not the right way for leaders to begin discussions about their digital transformation initiatives.
The Birth of Process Engineering
I do not want to dispel contributions of pioneers before him, but in “The Wealth of Nations” Adam Smith eloquently described how specialists, working together in teams, can take on increasingly complex and challenging projects. Using an example of the making of metal pins, he demonstrates the benefits of separating work into functions, and the synergies that could be garnered from specialization. The concept itself is not novel. Humans have been working in teams since they started hunting together, but his concept of the ‘Division of Labour’ undoubtedly influenced Ransom Olds’ assembly line.
Process Engineering as a Discipline
Frederick Winslow Taylor was one of the first prominent figures in industrial engineering. In the early 19th century Taylor studied the science of work, the standardization of processes, systematic training, human capital and organizational management. Notwithstanding the benefits of Taylor’s work, myopic application of the principles resulted in many modern methodologies, such as Lean Process Management and Six Sigma, to become synonymous with corporate downsizing.
I was first introduced to these concepts in the context of cost accounting and time-motion studies in the mid 1990’s. It was readily apparent to me why we were taking measurements and I witnessed the impact of my work on people. I did not enjoy that work.
Although a purely quantitative approach to process engineering may have achieved the desired result in the short-term, organizations that embraced this approach were largely ineffective. Cost savings were realized, but the impact on workforce morale, and customer experience, resulted in a public relations disaster that would impact the process movement for many years.
Process Engineering as a Business
Peter Drucker’s sympathetic approach to employees contrasts with Taylor’s somewhat inflammatory tone. Drucker coined the term ‘Knowledge Workers’ and inspired organization to think about workers as stakeholders, rather than resources, to yield a competitive advantage. His focus on simplification and decentralization set the stage for Charles Handy’s Shamrock Organization. I have cited this model before when framing a discussion about how cloud technology can help facilitate healthier relationships between organizations and the people it relies on.
Process Engineering as a Service
The digital transformation philosophy we are employing at Kynektyd is based on decades of education and first-hand experience I have had working with multidisciplinary teams to achieve strategic objectives.
Because of this experience I will not contribute to disguising the uncomfortable truth. RPA is Process Engineering, it is aimed at replacing workers with machines and it is going to force uncomfortable transitions. Organizations are compelled to embrace automation and I have perfected delivering this service to help my client’s gain competitive advantage. I am not the only one. Jobs will be displaced.
That said, although process engineering, or RPA, is an unavoidable reality of digital transformation, I will not let it define my organization. The jobs we are displacing are replaceable with activities that will allow more people to enjoy a life of achievement. For that reason, I see RPA as a noble cause, provided it is done in a way that keeps people at the center of innovation.
There are many other areas of opportunity in the digital transformation space that will allow people to make better use of their time. Workers can take comfort in knowing that organizations that hire Kynektyd have made a commitment to keeping people at the center of innovation and our efforts will be on finding ways to help you create more value for your employer.
As Richard Branson famously said, “Client’s do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.”
Mr. Branson is dead right. Start the digital transformation journey with a commitment to your people and the return-on-investment will take care of itself.