In Singapore, where labour is scarce and expensive, automating work processes to improve our productivity and free up time for higher-value work seems like a no-brainer.
Yet, it is only in recent years that more companies, especially small and medium-sized enterprises, in the city-state are heeding the call to automate, due in part to efforts by the government to encourage organisations to improve the productivity of their workers.
Automation, however, is not just limited to factory floors, restaurant kitchens and airport terminals. There’s room for automation in the office, too.
In Singapore, 60% of managers still spend three hours a day processing work e-mails, according to ServiceNow, a supplier of cloud-based automation tools. Many of these e-mail requests, especially internal ones, simply involve the basic processing of straightforward items, like purchase orders or invoices, says ServiceNow’s senior director Chris Pope.
Globally, employees spend 40% of their time on administration work, going by ServiceNow’s 2016 State of Work Survey. That’s equivalent to two full days per week which could be used for high value work.
But why aren’t we automating these inefficiencies out of our organisations? Corporate culture plays a part – some people may be resistant to change. Others might not know that certain manual processes can be automated.
In fact, Pope says the biggest challenge in automating work processes is in understanding all the manual processes that take place within an organisation. “Since they are so ingrained within organisations, often, people don’t have an awareness of every single function.
“Today, with the advancement of IoT technology, there is the ability to build sensors into so many more areas of working life, allowing real time monitoring of systems and then seamless automation of response processes, without human intervention,” he says.
While there’s no doubt that automation will do us good, it also needs to make sense for companies from a cost and technology perspective.
I remember talking to the CEO of a Singapore-based laundry service that switched from bar codes to RFID (radio frequency identification) chips to automate the tracking of laundry items, only to revert to using bar codes again within six months.
The CEO was blindsided by the allure of tracking items in one fell swoop, which made sense from a productivity point of view, but not so much from a cost perspective as RFID chips are still more expensive than printing bar codes.
When you’re only making a couple of dollars from washing a shirt, tagging each item with an RFID chip that costs about 50 cents clearly does not make sense despite the improvements in productivity.
So, yes – go ahead and automate, but not for the sake of it. More importantly, know what you’re getting into. The resources wasted in implementing a bad decision for your company could have been put into more productive use.
Unless you have been living under a rock, you would have heard of the term “digital transformation” that has been bandied around over the past few years by technology suppliers big and small.
And why does it make a difference now, given that organisations, including governments, have been embracing technology to improve work processes and meet other business goals since the invention of the computer?
While digital transformation has been happening for decades – Singapore’s national computerisation programme, for one, started in the 1980s – I think what has been driving the resurgence of the term in recent years is the democratisation of technology, including artificial intelligence, and cheaper access to computing power in the form of cloud services.
Together, these factors have enabled a wider pool of organisations – beyond large enterprises with deep pockets – to tap into the so-called SMAC (social, mobile, analytics and cloud) technologies that have the potential to transform industries in orders of magnitude compared to the last two decades.
Stories of such organisations abound. We recently reported on how Mojo Power is using cloud-based microservices to shake up the energy market in Australia, by delivering power consumption data in real-time to households. Another upstart, Ninja Van, is using automation and algorithms to improve customer service and optimise delivery routes, disrupting the logistics industry in Southeast Asia.
Sure, those companies were born in the digital age and would undoubtedly take to digital transformation like a duck to water. But it isn’t just upstarts that have been making waves in digital transformation. Big boys like DBS Bank in Singapore and oil and gas giant PTT in Thailand are harnessing big data analytics to reduce trade anomalies and better understand customer needs, respectively.
One question that is often overlooked when we read about these success stories is: how did they do it? Perhaps more importantly, how did they overcome any resistance to change? And for companies such as traditional general insurance firms that have built their businesses around agents, how did they walk the tightrope between selling direct to consumers over the internet and ensuring their agents continue to keep their rice bowls?
Oftentimes, it’s never about the technology that determines whether an organisation is successful with any digital transformation effort. Building a culture of change is just as important – if not the most important ingredient – for success. After all, if people are resistant to change, you’re never going to get any buy-in, even if the benefits are obvious.
I remember driving a digital transformation pilot project years ago at an organisation that wanted to reach out to young consumers who were adept at using instant messaging (IM) as a form of communication. The idea was to roll out a live chat widget on the organisation’s website so customers can connect with service reps, some of whom had not used IM tools before.
The project was supported by the CEO, and I had put in place a change management plan that included training service reps on IM lingo and working with affected staff on the operational changes required to support an additional service channel.
While almost everything went according to plan and the pilot service was well-received by young customers, the culture of maintaining the status quo among some service reps and senior decision makers meant that the project did not go beyond its experimental phase.
These anecdotes hardly make it into the stuff we read on digital transformation, which tend to focus on success stories. Yet, I’d argue that such ‘failures’ should be celebrated, and are just as important in helping organisations understand what it takes to succeed in digital transformation.
In the science fiction drama series Humans, Laura feels displaced by Anita, a humanoid robot known as a synth that was bought by her husband to help with the household chores.
Imbued with human-like intelligence, Anita – and the rogue code in her that powers her alter ego Mia – does a great job at being a nanny to the kids and washing dishes. But unlike her fellow synths, she has a sense of consciousness, to the point of being manipulative at times.
While synths may appear to be far from reality, they don’t seem too far-fetched, given the rate at which artificial intelligence (AI) is advancing.
Consider Erica, the well-known human-like autonomous android that says she (or it?) wants to explore the outside world in a recent documentary produced by The Guardian.
Erica even cracks robot jokes and desires to move her arms and legs – which her creators at ATR Institute in Kyoto say will happen someday.
The thing is, Erica’s main creator Hiroshi Ishiguro created her not only for the oft-cited purpose of automating mundane tasks for humans, but to understand what makes us human, including what it means to interact with others, be creative and have a personality.
Assuming Ishiguro gets his way in representing humanity in robots, how should we interact with humanoids? What impact would they have on society, besides making us more efficient?
Should we treat them as humans, partnering us on factory floors and trading floors? Will they succumb to failings such as greed that have plagued mankind for thousands of years? Can we trust them to take care of our children?
Over the weekend, I had a conversation with my wife about whether she would trust a humanoid like Anita to take care of our son, like a nanny or domestic helper would. She couldn’t give me a clear answer, although I suspect she is wary of the bond that may form between the humanoid and our son – like how Laura felt in Humans.
And how should we interact with them? Do we bark out orders because they are machines and hence there’s no need for pleasantries? A friend recently recalled an executive who was criticised by his business associates for passing curt instructions to his personal assistant (PA) who was copied in his emails. The thing is, that executive’s PA is an AI programme and not a human being.
Today, discussions on human-machine interactions are mostly centred on feedback loops that enable us to correct the mistakes of machines, like how we would with a child. The social, cultural and psychological impact of AI is often not discussed enough, primarily because most of the rhetoric on AI today is shaped by technologists and business people, not anthropologists.
I believe that impact will be intertwined with how we view a robot, which may not be a person or a machine after all. As Dylan Glas, a robotics researcher at ATR, puts it, a robot may be a new oncological category for which we can’t describe at present. The Japanese believe robots could even have souls like all things do.
Lest you think we still have time to think things through, or that humanoids like Erica will never see the light of day, remember it was just over 20 years ago that the idea of a tablet computer was conceived by the creators of Star Trek. Before you know it, the Ericas and Anitas could well be in our midst. The question is, how will we cope with them?
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