Robotic process automation software is automating a rapidly growing number of digital tasks. Is your job in its crosshairs?

John Edwards, Technology Journalist & Author

August 15, 2023

4 Min Read
Hand turning a conceptual knob with a robot pictogram to automate a task
Olivier Le Moal via Alamy Stock

Robotic process automation (RPA) makes it easy to create software robots that emulate human actions. Like people, software robots can read screens, generate keystrokes, navigate systems, identify and extract data, and perform a wide range of other defined actions. Unlike humans, software robots can work continuously without pay or benefits.

RPA offers an efficient way to automate repetitive tasks, freeing humans to focus on more creative work, says David Zhao, managing director of IT consulting firm Coda Strategy. “Therefore, IT jobs that involve simple, repeatable tasks are most at risk.”

Any IT task that follows a strict set of steps and is repetitive in nature is up for grabs with RPA, warns Wayne Butterfield, a partner with ISG Automation, a unit of technology research and advisory firm ISG. The good news, he notes, is that most IT positions don’t fit this description. “Even jobs on the IT service desk still, in the main, require a conversation or perhaps the interpretation of a written ticket,” Butterfield says. “That means additional technologies would be needed, along with RPA, to automate even some of these processes.”

Enterprise Inroads to Automation

In May, IBM announced that they could replace approximately 7,800 jobs with AI, with many of those positions being transferred over to RPA. “Large IT service providers have been doing the same for years, shedding tens, or hundreds of thousands of jobs that involve manual, repetitive tasks,” Zhao notes.

While transactional automation is becoming common in many business areas, most IT tasks remain difficult to automate. “There are pockets in systems testing, credentials management, and service desks, however, most other parts of IT have historically not had the type of activity [that allows] RPA to really get a good foothold,” Butterfield says.

RPA is not about eliminating jobs, it’s about replacing mundane, repetitive tasks, states Brad Hairston, advisory alliance director for RPA developer SS&C Blue Prism. RPA shouldn’t be positioned as putting jobs at risk, he says. “It’s best described as a job enhancer, enabling human workers to focus on higher value activities that are more enjoyable and more fulfilling.”

Hairston notes that numerous studies have shown that workers whose tasks focus on innately human capabilities, such as inspiration, creativity, and empathy, are happier in their jobs, more motivated to perform well, and more likely to stay put. “RPA can take care of the more administrative tasks while human workers handle the sophisticated and meaningful tasks,” he says.

If RPA has replaced the IT activity you’ve been handling, it’s very likely you weren’t much of an IT professional in the first place or, at best, your skills were not being utilized in the right ways before RPA came in, Butterfield says. “Use the opportunity to develop your skills to do more complex IT work -- it’s certainly out there for the taking.”

Moving Forward With RPA

For many organizations, RPA is opening the door to AI. That’s good news for team members facing replacement. “Current digital workers can acquire AI skills in order to automate more complex processes,” Hairston says. “Even with [a] more advanced level of automation, most business and IT processes still require human involvement and/or oversight.”

One thing is certain: Change is inevitable. Hairston points to The World Economic Forum’s The Future of Jobs Report 2023, which estimates that 44% of workers’ skills will be disrupted over the next five years. The current pace of technology evolution is transforming jobs faster than ever. IT can either be a key facilitator of the change or a recipient of the change. “In the former case, IT can push the business toward RPA and other automation technologies that are designed to be used by business,” he says. “This will help companies achieve their most strategic objectives and view IT as more of a partner.”

As RPA and AI gain stronger footholds, the only way forward is to help displaced team members reskill and upskill, Zhao says. “Fortunately, many online training platforms are available at affordable costs.” To expedite learning, he advises organizations to develop curated content that employees can freely access. Zhao notes that such content should be relevant to both the work being phased out as well as to the tasks that team members will need moving forward.

Executive-level sponsorship of any intelligent automation strategy is essential for long-term success. IT leaders, meanwhile, are responsible for choosing effective solutions, conveying their benefits to employees, and stirring up incentives and motivations for workers to champion digitalization, Hairston says. “This includes providing comprehensive training, reskilling, and upskilling learning opportunities.”

What to Read Next:

RPA and Hyper-Automation Are Transforming the Back Office

Enterprise Guide to Robotic Process Automation

Roadmap to RPA Implementation: Thinking Long Term

About the Author(s)

John Edwards

Technology Journalist & Author

John Edwards is a veteran business technology journalist. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and numerous business and technology publications, including Computerworld, CFO Magazine, IBM Data Management Magazine, RFID Journal, and Electronic Design. He has also written columns for The Economist's Business Intelligence Unit and PricewaterhouseCoopers' Communications Direct. John has authored several books on business technology topics. His work began appearing online as early as 1983. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, he wrote daily news and feature articles for both the CompuServe and Prodigy online services. His "Behind the Screens" commentaries made him the world's first known professional blogger.

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