Pushing automation to the tipping point:The bots in your backyard

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I know the popular (read clickbait) question to ask is whether a robot will take your job, but I’d like to challenge you to reframe those assumptions about robots.

When many hear the word ‘automation’, their minds go to images of robots manipulating physical objects, like Boston Dynamics’ infamous (and slightly creepy) SpotMini. Most people don’t think of the rules they set up on their email client to filter certain kinds of mail, or the initial response that goes out to every person who tries to contact a company’s customer service.

The time-consuming bits. The drudgery. The boring stuff. Automation has been with us ever since we first learned how to programme a computer, helping us by taking on the most cumbersome, least rewarding tasks in our lives.

Of course, just because automation isn’t exactly new doesn’t mean it’s business as usual. The great convergence of technologies, like machine learning, cognitive language processing and human-machine interfaces, means that process automation in business is fast approaching its tipping point.

Forget the physical robots and the factory arms. Customer service and back-end office functionality are the playing fields on which the automation war is taking place. And if you’re not already exploring how to use AI and cognitive technologies in your organisation, you could soon find yourself coughing up dust.

First rule of robotics: The customer is always right

We’ve come a long way since AskJeeves. The popularity of virtual assistants like Siri and Alexa has made interacting with AI in our day-to-day life seem positively mundane. It’s no wonder we’ve come to expect that same instant, smart feedback from our service providers.

Enter chatbots and other customer service robots. Just in case you thought they were gimmicks, this market is expected to reach a revenue of $3.1 billion by 2021. For industries like insurance and travel, which expend a huge amount of resources every year dealing with standard, repetitive queries, we’re seeing an accelerated uptake of chatbots for customer service.

In the insurance industry, price comparison platform Hippo.co.za has recently launched Siah, while OUTsurance  has gone one step further and introduced its own automated financial advisory product OUTvest. Contiki, following in the footsteps of global companies like KLM and Expedia, has built a Facebook Messenger chatbot called Tiki.

Banking is another industry that can’t afford to ignore the bots in their backyard, particularly if they want to expand their client base. United Bank for Africa is the latest to introduce a chatbot, this one called Leo, aimed primarily at Nigeria’s unbanked population. Back in SA, cash management firm Cash Connect has unveiled a self-service bulk deposit machine that can process up to 800 notes and coins a minute.

If you’re still on the fence about automation in your marketing and customer experience, consider that 91% of top companies worldwide are already using AI solutions for customer-facing functions. Even if you’re not rolling out a chatbot, you should at least have some form of automated customer analytics in place.

Second rule of robotics: The more boring the task, the better

We’ve looked at what’s happening on the front-end, but what about the back-end? That’s become the domain of robot process automation (RPA). Essentially, RPA is any kind of software that can do the same task as a human being within a process.

Most organisations have some form of process automation in place, whether it’s found in their claims processing, CRM or payroll systems. However, RPA is fast becoming a key strategic imperative, especially as African businesses strive to compete globally. We’ve reached the point where RPA is mature enough to take on more advanced processes like talent acquisition, risk assessment, employee onboarding and training.

No, you might not be sharing the water cooler with a robot co-worker just yet, but you will see the most repetitive, mind-numbing and labour-intensive tasks fall away to an algorithmic process. As RPA and other forms of automation become more accessible and cost-effective, they will become as business critical as having an internet connection or email. There’s simply no competing with an optimised, automated process in terms of scalability, cost-effectiveness and productivity.

Back-end office and customer service automation may not sound as sexy as robot butlers, but it gets more exciting once you start looking at the cost implications. KPMG estimates that automation could cut costs for the financial services industry up to 75%. EY finds that incorporating RPA into HR and payroll can result in a cost reduction of between 50 and 70%. Business leaders believe that their organisations could save as many as three hours a day per employee through automation, saving them hundreds of thousands per year.

Third rule of robotics: Always do good

Whether back- or front-end, automation has one very powerful benefit that goes far beyond cost reduction, and that is the ripple effect of freeing up the time of knowledge workers. Think of the benefits that come with more available brainpower. With Africa often facing shortages of skilled professionals, it’s easy to imagine the positive impact of automation on their ability to do good.

Take med-health start-up Aajoh, which hopes to alleviate the load on Nigeria’s overburdened medical community – the country has only one doctor for every 4 000 patients.  By using AI to automate patient diagnosis, Aajoh’s e-health tool could drastically lengthen the amount of time doctors have to spend on patients that really need them.

That’s the real power of automation: giving players that invest in it a greater capacity to solve problems, both business and societal. And with Africa poised to leapfrog digitally, there’s no better moment to start considering which tasks in your organisation can be handed over to the right bots.

What tasks do you foresee becoming entirely automated over the next few years? Have you seen the benefits of automation in your business? As always, I’d love to hear your comments.