Robotic Process Automation (RPA): How to persuade skeptics

Robotic Process Automation (RPA): How to persuade skeptics

When you say “RPA,” people may hear “job loss.” How to allay common fears and make your case for the benefits of robotic process automation

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IT automation and business automation aren’t quite the same thing, but they produce a common side effect in their initial phases: They freak people out.

It’s understandable. If you tell someone that you’re going to automate a lot of the work that they do today, they think that means they’ll be out of a job tomorrow, or soon thereafter.

“Every time there is a technology revolution, people fear they are going to lose their jobs, and that is not the case,” says Denise Leaser, president of GreatBizTools. “History has shown that just the opposite happens. Some jobs go away, but far more jobs are created.”

[ Need a primer? Read also: How to explain Robotic Process Automation (RPA) in plain English. ]

Leaser points to the advent of the PC era as an example. It certainly changed and even eliminated jobs, but it created many more opportunities: McKinsey estimates that the PC has enabled the creation of 15.8 million jobs in the U.S. since 1980. That’s the net, meaning it takes into account jobs that were displaced by the PC.

The growth of AI and automation will likely produce similar impacts. Leaser cites a recent World Economic Forum report that predicts machines and algorithms will displace 75 million jobs worldwide between by 2022. In their place, however, they’ll create 133 million new roles in the workplace, the report estimates.

Anything with a whiff of automation can cause some skepticism or outright fear.

Some fear is understandable. These are big numbers, and while they speak to outsized new opportunities, they also portend considerable change. This is why anything with a whiff of automation can cause some skepticism or outright fear.

Consider robotic process automation: The very name sounds a little scary, but it is at its core kind of dry. (There aren’t even any actual robots involved.) RPA is ultimately about using software to automate repetitive, high-volume processes that would have once required a human effort.

How to evangelize for RPA

If you’re beginning to identify or implement RPA use cases, you might encounter some resistance. RPA resides under the big tent of automation and AI, and while that means it offers powerful possibilities, it can also produce the aforementioned fear factor. You should be prepared to do some evangelizing.

“RPA opens the door to new, more intellectual opportunities for employees. Instead of spending hours completing manual repetitive tasks, team members can leverage RPA to focus on cerebral work that requires human ingenuity and creativity,” explains Sam Bobley, co-founder and CEO of Ocrolus.

Bobley notes that RPA today is often just a component of a larger, multi-stage workflow that still requires human thinking and decision-making to see successful completion. Done right, RPA is about getting rid of the stuff that no person really wants to spend their day doing.

“RPA is an enabler of human labor, not an eliminator,” Bobley says. “Automating mundane business processes helps companies significantly improve the quality of work-life for their team.”

Making the case for RPA: 4 tactics

Your RPA advocacy needs to be concrete and, if at all possible, personal.

Sharp IT leaders know that forcing significant change on people is often a recipe for all sorts of organizational malaise. Similarly, too many pie-in-the-sky promises with too few details tends to bring out skepticism among IT pros. So your RPA advocacy needs to be concrete and, if at all possible, personal.

“When evangelizing, you always want to know your audience and tell stories that you know will resonate,” advises Chris Huff, chief strategy officer at Kofax. “This is especially true with RPA due to the fear of job loss and overall labor arbitrage.”

Consider these four customizable strategies for following this advice:

1. Focus on the problem, not the solution

One way to mitigate the fear factor: Focus less on the technology inspiring that fear and more on the actual day-to-day challenges it can solve. This is also likely a more persuasive approach with people who are simply skeptical.

“Starting with the problem – instead of the solution – prevents the need to convince your audience to believe what you’re speaking about. They will likely have encountered these issues throughout their workdays,” Huff says. “Beginning with the problem gets your audience saying ‘yes, you understand me.’ At this point, you can baby-step into how RPA has been used in similar situations to address exactly these issues, but focus on the outcomes and impact, not on RPA [itself].”

2. Show in detail how individuals will benefit from RPA

“We talk about how employees can get 20 things done in a day versus four things done.”

You can also preach the benefits, but be sure to do so in specific ways – as in, how this will help at the individual or role level. While it’s true that RPA done right can lead to productivity and efficiency gains, “productivity and efficiency gains” may sound like corporate-speak for downsizing or other outcomes that people think of as negative.

A good example would be to translate it into terms that show how RPA might relieve the burden on individuals or teams or are currently overtaxed. In the “do more with less” era, this is a welcome message.

It’s indeed all about efficiency, says Matt Goldberg, chief customer officer at Pliant.io, but you need to translate efficiency into details that win people over.

“We talk about how employees can get 20 things done in a day versus four things done,” Goldberg says. “When they see that picture, combined with learning a new skill, the whole conversation shifts. There is no shortage of work to be done today in any business environment.”

3. Show people what the future holds

What will people be doing once RPA frees up their time?

Another factor that drives fear of automation and other technological change: Insisting that it will create new opportunities without describing those possibilities. This is something that should happen at the team and individual levels. If you’re going to promise that RPA will free someone up to do more interesting work, be prepared to describe (or at least predict) what that work will entail.

“The key to persuading people and accelerating the adoption of RPA is to make this real to them by showing them clearly what they will be doing in the future once RPA frees up their time,” says Antony Edwards, COO at Eggplant. “Show them the compelling new role they will be doing, and they will be the biggest champions of RPA.”

4. Bring in others to tell their real-world RPA stories

When the story comes from someone else, it limits the appearance of a top-down mandate.

If you as an IT leader are the only one doing the work of evangelism, it might not be as powerful as if there were other credible folks – including people from outside the company – doing it for you. Among other reasons for this: When it comes from someone else, it limits the appearance of a top-down mandate rather than genuine dialogue.

“Ideally, you don’t tell this [story] yourself. Leverage your network to bring in someone [who] has lived it and speaks with authenticity,” Huff says. “Once you have a groundswell of support at the executive level, you can begin the grassroots effort of brown bags, lunch-and-learns, etc. to educate and provide situational awareness on the benefits of RPA on a human level.”

Concerned about telling a persuasive story? At Kofax, this three-step plan – including a video – works wonders:

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One comment

I don't fear RPA for job loss

I don't fear RPA for job loss. I am an RPA skeptic because too often I see it encourage bad designs, such as screen scraping sites for data. Sometimes you have no choice but usually its a band aide for something a properly designed sharing architecture could solve. Maybe the site's a 3rd party and you can't control that or don't want to pay for API access? Maybe you shouldn't be pulling that data into your systems in the first place. I realize there are some decent use cases for RPA, but often, I see people using it as they would use VBA and dressing up poor design and planning and weak programming as the future.

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Kevin Casey writes about technology and business for a variety of publications. He won an Azbee Award, given by the American Society of Business Publication Editors, for his InformationWeek.com story, "Are You Too Old For IT?" He's a former community choice honoree in the Small Business Influencer Awards.

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