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Intelligent automation enables a number of routine tasks to be performed by machine learning or artificial intelligence.  It’s easy to become caught up in the new freedom such technology provides. But where is the line that separates activity that machines can properly do and that which we should reserve to human beings? 

Why automate?
Automation can be understood as moving to using machines or computers to do a job instead of using people.

There is significant progress taking place in machine learning, natural language processing and robotics. More and more activities within the workplace are being automated.  Repetitive, large-volume activities are often most suitable for process improvement.  These activities tend to be the least interesting for people to do. Although they can help to build experience in an area the repetitive nature of these sorts of tasks can become frustrating for those undertaking them. Motivation decreases and engagement wanes – but a machine does not.

If some of these activities can be done more efficiently, effectively and consistently by a program that seems like a win / win for both organisation and employee.  As we strive towards more open and streamlined operations, we can improve employee autonomy which should lead to increased engagement.  Company culture also takes a positive step towards transparency and equity.

Automation has been picking up speed and changing in nature in recent decades. This is especially true of the last few years.  With the advent of improved software and robotics, industries such as manufacturing have increased their automation tools.  This has seen a redistribution of the workload as processes that can more easily be done automatically are de-risked. 

Office roles have changed through the use of software programmes such as Excel. Relationship management systems have helped to enable complex workflows to be streamlined for efficiency and to enhance user experiences. Machinery has grown smaller and more powerful in nature: Fax Machine vs Mobile Phone anyone? 

The changes gather speed and enable improvements as certain activities are completed by a machine.  It means that our focus moves on to a different aspect of the work.

Just because it can, doesn’t mean you should
As more of the workplace is automated, we need to reflect continually on our role in providing the right level of emotional support. We need to be vigilant to challenge applications of automation for appropriateness. We need to continually ask a vital question – is this the right thing to do? This can involve challenging behaviour or confronting difficult situations that need to be resolved. As we all know from experience, this can be uncomfortable.

The recent situation of ‘Man told he’s going to die by doctor on video-link robot’ exemplifies one dilemma.
>Could a video-link help to connect the necessary people? Yes;
>Could a robot with a video link appear to be more of a presence than just a screen? Probably;
>Could it be used to communicate messages? Certainly;
>Should it be used to communicate the diagnosis of imminent death to a patient and their family? Definitely not.

The screen offers significantly reduced opportunity to offer a hand or a word in comfort. In this situation it cannot take the place of a living doctor responding to the emotions in the room.

I’m fond of quoting Dr Ian Malcom in Jurassic Park: “Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”  Questioning how we are using technologies and imagining some of their limitations is part of our job. 

You can use a bot to answer redundancy questions, for example.  Often, lots of individuals need the answers to the same questions. At HRI, we are very clear on the limits of our role. Our bot could provide all of the technical answers. But using it doesn’t mean that you stop talking to people about their redundancy.

At times of high emotion and stress for people the temptation can be to abdicate responsibility. For reasons of busyness, fear, or just not knowing what to say, we sometimes avoid situations that make us uncomfortable.  Talking to people about their redundancy can be one of those situations.  It is absolutely critical that face-to-face meetings are still available, feelings are acknowledged, and the situation is talked through. 

The bot cannot and should not replace this.  It can bolster the information channels available, but it does not replace them all and this is a line to tread carefully.

Conclusion
Automation technology is an enabler tool and cannot replace every activity.  The need for the empathy and understanding remains relevant and critical.  Let the robot play to its strengths. You can automate activities but not abdicate responsibility for the process.

Louise Rogers, CEO – Human Resources Intelligence

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