Semiotics, or why Robots is a perfectly fine word, so get used to it

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semiotics, se·mi·ot·ics, \-ä-tiks\

  • the study of signs and symbols, esp the relations between written or spoken signs and their references in the physical world or the world of ideas.

One thing we’ve particularly enjoyed over the last year is the multitude of reactions to the word ‘robot’ as it relates to the automation of routine tasks, via software emulating human work. Love it or hate it, you can’t argue with the fact that ‘Robot’ gets the job done – it creates visual imagery, it grabs the attention and it ultimately does prove to be useful as an illustrative metaphor for Digital Labor. Those who don’t like it argue that it elicits images of mechanical beasts in auto manufacturing plants, or more exciting still, it gets one thinking about Hollywood villains coming from outer space (or the future) to conquer humankind.

Remember the movie about the evil alien bots who descended to Earth, set on dominating us by efficiently managing routine F&A and Order Management processes? Man, was that a blockbuster hit! The soundtrack is still stuck in my head.

This got us thinking of semiotics. Basically, semiotics is the study of ‘meaning making’. In this case, the concept of a robot as a physical and spoken sign that has meaning to us. That meaning is first and foremost that of human activity and capability emulated. Yes, robots are stronger, more resilient, and often more capable at certain tasks. And, that is why ‘robot’ as a term for Digital Labor is just fine. And so, we’ll keep using it. It’s short, sharp, and gets the point across. The desk that used to house a human is now housing a robot (albeit invisible) capable of the same operations.

But, while we’ll continue to use ‘robot’ as a quick and efficient way to describe virtual task emulation via software, we predict that not everyone will. And we’re willing to bet on it.

We think, over the course of the next six months, BPO firms will stop using ‘Robot’. And then they will stop using ‘automation’. Why? For two reasons: Perception and Profit.

  1. Perception
    • External - Robots sound gimmicky and BPO firms don’t have the expertise in house to persuasively and capably explain why ‘robot’ as a metaphor is useful in illustrating the role process automation software plays. They also can’t (or don’t want to) explain how software is capable of handling the routine and repetitive tasks of transactional agents that make up such a large part of their solution and value-add.
    • Internal – Delivery center staff are starting to worry. Jobs are at risk and robots are to blame. BPO firms will shy away from using the term so as not to exacerbate already challenging attrition issues.
  2. Profit
    • Robots = margin. And, admitting to using them means admitting to higher than usual margins (much higher). So, for as long as possible, BPOs will attempt to retain that margin for themselves. They will do so by focusing automation efforts on existing fixed-price accounts. They will also bury automation in solutions, cloaked as a continuous improvement driver, but not clearly called out as a measurable percentage of the delivery bandwidth.
  3. Practicality
    • Automating processes is not easy. But, that’s only half the story. Automating processes and then capitalizing on the benefits of doing so, is the real challenge. Once processes go full digital, they take on a new appearance. They share data about themselves in ways never before seen. They open themselves up for study, A/B testing, audit, and true transformation. And, BPO firms just aren’t staffed to handle this. Enough people with the right skills just don’t exist in their current ranks. So it’s not practical (or wise) to sell a story of end-to-end transformation so soon in the industry’s evolution.

So, what is the take-away for Enterprises?  What do we suggest our clients seriously consider?

  1. Perception – robotic process automation, phantom automation, service delivery automation – by any name, it’s the right strategic move. So get a move on.
  2. Profit – why give it away? Take advantage of the windfall and use some of the liberated resources to fund internal automation initiatives (with expert guidance of course). Then use the rest of the savings to hire Data Scientists and User Experience specialists. You’ll benefit in spades.
  3. Practicality – nobody knows your business better than you. Your business analysts, line managers, junior and senior executives have the skills to interpret and act on the refined processes and the newly found data. And, when potential benefits are found, you don’t have to negotiate with a third party on who funds, who governs and who benefits. Clean and clear.
  4. Pretense – there’s a fourth thing. We have personally seen several situations in which BPO firms have outright lied about their affiliation and experience with specific RPA vendors. Why put up with robot vapor when you don’t have to?

So, ‘robots’ are here to stay. BPOs may not be. As we’ve said before, it will be an exciting next few years.

3 minute read