The Jetsons employed a robot maid named Rosie who did most of the cooking and cleaning for the space-age cartoon family. While the Roomba is a poor substitute for Rosie, robots are an increasingly common sight on assembly lines and in warehouses where they work longer, faster and more efficiently than human workers.
As the New York Times reported in August, some technologists and economists believe the falling cost and increasing sophistication of robots mean that automation may be able to replace humans in a surprising variety of manual tasks – and in relatively short order. Already, manufacturers like China’s Foxconn are adding large numbers of robots to their workforces.
Could robots play a similar role in the back office? They already are at companies like Fidelity Investments, which uses virtual robots to perform the kinds of repetitive clerical tasks that are often sent offshore to cut costs. Pat Geary, chief marketing officer for Blue Prism, a UK-based provider of robotic automation software that counts Fidelity among its clients, said companies are receptive to the idea of bringing their offshored business processes back in-house.
“Offshoring has become a ‘race to the bottom’ for cheaper and cheaper labor, which we don’t consider to be a very sustainable model,” Geary said. “We think it’s better to bring work back onshore and use a combination of smart people and dumb robots to get the work done and create more interesting jobs. If you put a bunch of smart, expensive people together with a bunch of robots, you can still achieve your cost goals and maintain control over your processes.”
In addition, Geary said, companies using robotic automation rather than offshoring don’t have to worry about losing institutional knowledge or, perhaps more important in this age of rapid market change, flexibility. Outsourcing contracts tend to be “brittle” and often difficult to modify to accommodate situations such as a new product launch or a new regulatory requirement, he said.
Blue Prism’s software is especially valuable for “smoothing out the resource curve” in such situations, he said, noting a British telco recently used Blue Prism robots to launch iPhone 5. “It was actually a simple process but when scaled across thousands of customers in a short amount of time, it could have put a major strain on resources.”
Geary offered another example of a telecommunications client that uses 10 people and 25-30 robots in the UK to handle processes it once outsourced to 50 FTEs offshore. Costs with robots are generally lower than offshoring, but not always significantly so, he said. “But with robots, you bring control of your processes back in-house.”
Automation Can Complement Outsourcing
Blue Prism currently has some 1,000 virtual robots performing about 150 processes for a roster of 30 clients. While robots are used by some clients in lieu of outsourcing, Blue Prism also sells its software to business process outsourcing (BPO) companies. “You can use robots wherever there is a concentration of repetitive, clerical-based administrative work. BPOs are an aggregation point for that kind of work,” Geary said.
Many companies also use the robots as just another workforce option, resulting in a blend of in-house, outsourced and virtual resources, he added.
Blue Prism usually begins client engagements with a “discovery workshop” to assess the opportunities for automation. It provides templates for assessing processes, and it trains the people who will be responsible for configuring robots to run processes. Those folks come from business units rather than IT departments, Geary said. While IT should provide the virtual machines used for the robots and overall governance, the business should handle nearly everything else.
While Blue Prism has gotten some “incredible resistance” from IT departments, Geary said they are invariably won over because the robots free them to handle backlogged work and also put responsibility for business processes squarely with the business.
Geary said he often uses the example of the content management system (CMS) that lets him add and modify content on the Blue Prism website. “Prior to the CMS, I would have had to go to IT to ask to change a word. But now if I mess something up, it’s my responsibility. I can’t fault IT if I write something stupid.”