To understand the impacts of process automation, it’s important to first understand the relationship between humans and technology in an organization.
In this article we’ll start covering the relationship between humans and technology in an organizational environment. Reviewing this relationship is important if we want to understand the role of human-beings and machines in an increasingly automated organizational environment. We will dive deeper into this topic in later posts, but for now, let’s get back to basics and start our analysis by understanding the elements of an organizational structure and the role of humans and technology.
The role of an organization
An organization is defined in many ways according to different authors, but all the definitions refer to three common elements: a core business, processes, people and technology.
For instance, Louis Allen, defined an organization as “the process of identifying and grouping work to be performed, defining and delegating responsibility and authority and establishing relationships for the purpose of enabling people to work most effectively together in accomplishing objectives.”
In Oliver Sheldon’s view, as “organization is the process of combining the work which individuals or groups have to perform with the facilities necessary for its execution, that the duties so performed provide the best channels for the efficient, systematic, positive and coordinated application of the available effort.”
For L.H. Haney, an “organisation is a harmonious adjustment of specialised parts for accomplishment of some common purpose or purposes”.
A company exists to deliver value to customers via its core business. The core business is able to function because of the organization’s processes. These processes are composed of tasks that are performed by people who use technology as a support.
The goal of an organization is translated by its core business; coordination is represented by its processes; and resources come in the form of an organization’s employees and facilities. In this sense we can see a hierarchy.
Provided that the goal of a commercial or business organization is to generate profit by delivering value to its customers, the core business describes an organization’s main activity to deliver value. For instance, Starbucks’ core business is sourcing and selling coffee; Apple’s core business is designing, manufacturing and selling hardware and software; and Google’s core business is collecting, delivering and selling data. As we can see, the main activity, or the core business of a company is organized in processes: design, manufacturing, sourcing, sales and etc. But what exactly is a process?
According to Thomas H. Davenport (1993) a business process is ”a specific ordering of work activities across time and space, with a beginning and an end, and clearly defined inputs and outputs: a structure for action… Processes are the structure by which an organization does what is necessary to produce value for its customers.”
Johansson (1993) defines a process as ”a set of linked activities that take an input and transform it to create an output. Ideally, the transformation that occurs in the process should add value to the input and create an output that is more useful and effective to the recipient either upstream or downstream.”
However, so long as the same or higher value is delivered to the customer, one might ask what the role of people would be? Could an organization function independent of its employees?
Processes don’t occur in a vacuum. The transformation or addition of value in a process traditionally comes from people. If we continue dissecting our standard organization, the result is a group of people organized to execute activities that add value for a customer.
People can have two roles in a process. They can execute or perform a process or they can be responsible for the continuous improvement of the process (frequently identified as the process owner). Many times the process owner is the same person who is performing the process.
When executing a process, people have the support of technologies or tools that help them execute processes and deliver value efficiently. This brings us to the central point of our analysis: the relationship between humans and technology in an organizational environment. What’s the role of humans and machines in an increasingly automated world?
We’ve seen this story before. From the introduction of steam engines in the assembly lines during the Industrial Revolution, to the mass adoption of personal computers in modern organizations, to the emergence of the Internet and most recently artificial intelligence: in all these disruptions, humans have feared that the value generated by their labor could be fully replaced by technology.
It’s true that the advances in technology have been responsible for an increasing automation of human labor. It would be naive to say that jobs were not lost in the past and will not be lost in the future due to automation, but to which extent can technology replace us? How far can a machine go in generating the value currently generated by humans?
Like people, technology is a resource at an organization’s disposal. Contrary to people, the technology doesn’t control the organization. Rather, it is controlled by the organization and provides services to the people within the organization. With the advent of artificial intelligence and machine learning, many people, from Elon Musk to the late Stephen Hawking, started raising concerns that this relationship might be eroding.
For instance, in some cases, an automated agent (or a robot) may be able to substitute a human performing a process, we call it Robotic Process Automation (or RPA). Once this RPA starts collecting data related to the performance of the process, we could add a machine learning algorithm that would enable this process to keep improving itself without a lot of human intervention. This is called intelligence process automation (or IPA).
Theoretically, as this robot becomes more and more intelligent, it would replace not only the human in charge of performing the process, but also the process owner responsible for the improvement of the process.
If we think of an organization as a collection of processes, it’s easy to get carried away and extend this logic to the entire organization. We could see robots replacing humans in every functional area of a company. We could even go further and picture a dystopian world where everything is controlled by robots.
In reality, automations will indeed become increasingly present in organizations, as processes get more and more automated, but their status of support tools is not likely to change in the near future. As we will see in our next articles, designing smooth interactions and collaborations between humans and robots will become an important part of any organization’s digital transformation efforts.
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