Are Robots Really Coming For Our Jobs?

July 28th 2017 - Friday

I recently read yet another article on the looming demise of accountants and other GBS professionals at the hands of merciless robots. These robots were armed to the teeth with Tech weapons and coming for our jobs. “Run for the hills” was the main thrust of the story. After 26 years as an executive in Shell, lastly as VP of a global finance organisation within the Company’s captive GBS model and now running a Finance & GBS Transformation Consultancy, I tend to be a bit sanguine in the face of alarmist headlines.

What first jumped to mind was the famous 1981 cartoon by Peter Birkett in Punch magazine showing Dr Who’s arch enemies, the Daleks. Dustbin-shaped indestructible machines with laser guns whose mission was the conquer the Universe, but shown in the cartoon staring at a flight of stairs that they are unable to climb. So, how frightened of disruptive technology should GBS Industry professionals really be?

It is clear that this is an unprecedented time in corporate history. Technological innovation is increasing exponentially and consequently its impact on how we live, work and stay competitive. It is breaking down the barriers towards entry for new competitors and enabling existing players who adopt quicker to outstrip their rivals like never before. There are many examples of how the traditional advantages of size and scale can now be trumped by speed and agility - from Airbnb to Zest Finance who uses big data to challenge traditional approaches to credit scoring and loan underwriting. For the first time, the pace of change threatens to outpace companies’ ability to learn and adopt it.


Accelerating Growth

This is equally true for the GBS Industry.  Technological innovation offers a platform for rapid acceleration from the still typical entry point of low cost shared service provider to that of a true business partner using centres of excellence to shape business strategy, drive integrated value and enhance customer and partner experience. Let’s consider just a few examples.

IBM’s Watson is an example of cutting edge cognitive software capable of answering questions posed through a normal conversation. It is famous for having won $1 million on Jeopardy (a US quiz show), which raises some interesting possibilities for maximising returns on corporate IT investment. Amongst its many touted application uses, it offers customers highly-personalised query resolution helped by analysing their historical trading data and typical issues logged.

To many consumers, being recognised and efficiently helped by a machine may be a far more attractive prospect than a human customer service experience. Watson can also leverage its data analytics capabilities to identify risks and reprioritise work, such as likely late payments to pre-empt or perhaps whether a credit reassessment is really needed. Operations are able to focus on a risk/reward basis and reduce effort and cost of tasks that are non-value adding under this definition.


Embracing The Age Of Automation

Across all GBS functions, Robotic Process Automation (RPA) offers a needed alternative to slow and expensive ERP and system interface change requests. Manual, time-consuming, rule-based and typically boring tasks can now be automated quickly and effectively across different systems, software and media.

At times the Robot acts like a clever macro, at others, logging into systems and acting as if a human operator. However, having had the dubious honour of robot named after me, I understand the importance of negative testing in protecting one’s robot reputation.

Blockchain technology, which first gained publicity through Bitcoin, offers another revolutionary step forward. Whether it leverages broad public participation to disintermediate those such as Banks or is used more by private peer-to-peer networks of value chain players (which seems more likely), it has the potential for a huge impact.

Reconciliations become redundant as all players are part of a distributed network and can see the same data at the same time, and the very nature of a blockchain means only one version of the truth can exist. Slow, often paper intensive processes such as supply chain, title transfer and certain financial transactions can become nearly instantaneous.

Clever cryptographic mathematics ensures data privacy and allows a decentralised quorum of network participants to use their approval authority to agree (verify) and add transactions to the chain (embedded within blocks) within seconds. Audit ability, risk and control frameworks go through step change simplification.

The GBS Industry will be at the heart of these types of disruptive technology. It will fundamentally change how work is done and the skills needed, and offers significant competitive advantage for early adopters.


Future Proofing Employees Skills

To return to the question I posed at the start of this article, there are of course implications for GBS professional jobs. Those whose ambition is to be a bookkeeper or handle incoming customer calls may not be as excited by this vision of the future, but for the vast majority, this offers a great opportunity.

Mundane and monotonous activities detract from our ability to broaden our thinking, connectivity and business impact. As innovative technology automates the repetitive elements of jobs, it frees up the individual to take on a broader scope of responsibility and influence. At the same time, it helps this person future proof their skills, by learning how the new technology can be used to create value and by spending far more time on “why” things happen and “how” they impact the business. RPA is a great example, where staff are excited to move up the value chain of skills, learning how to map out and test processes using RPA and then take on the more analytical challenge of managing exceptions across a broader scope of work.

Of course, it would be naïve to think this utopia of clever machines doing the hard work and humans doing all the interesting stuff is just a matter of course. I can remember the promises attached to the first ERP implementations back in the late 90s. Life was going to be great. Transactions would flash before our eyes and reports would appear with all the answers. As a regional controller I had visions of coming to work in flip-flops and shorts, reviewing financials and signing off insightful advice to the business from a deck chair in my office. Reality was different.

I cried myself to sleep the first night after we found 50,000 unreconciled items in the Goods Received/Invoice Received account that no one could explain. Before long, I knew by heart the phone number of every system expert and super user.

But this was a key learning experience for me, which took me a long time to really appreciate. I think it is equally applicable to GBS professionals if they want  to not only to survive the onslaught of digital innovation, but also to differentiate themselves in driving value through it.

Technology is only as efficient and effective as our ability to understand how the business really works, and therefore, how best to apply it. Whilst it is very important to have deep professional skills in a particular discipline, we will not be effective in implementing such innovation with the GBS Industry unless we really are a business partner who understands what happens before and after our job, process, function, and how this enables the business to make money and what could go wrong to stop this happening.

To be successful, we need to be adept at building relationships and having conversations outside our silo, using language that reflects an understanding of other parts of the business and consequently compels alignment on priority and sequence of action. We then become a true business partner and act as the integrator of value. My mistake all those years ago was only to care about my parts of the process, system, and data without understanding how this supported integrated value for the business and then influencing change where I saw things were not right.

Robots do not have these competencies. They are like a set of stairs to the Daleks. If we master them, then far from fearing the advance of technology, we take leadership in unlocking its full potential for the GBS Industry and for us as GBS professionals, a true business partner using centres of excellence to shape business strategy, drive integrated value and enhance customer and partner experience.



David Burgess GCMA, FCMA, BA OXON. CEO Burgess Consulting ñ your Finance and GBS transformation partner.