Managing your team’s skillsets in a robotic world

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The CIO’s role is changing as the age of digital transformation takes effect. Historically, their role revolved around maintaining the software and systems that keep day-to-day operations running. Their responsibilities revolved around checks and balances as well as numerous tests to keep the essential technology functioning. To do this, they needed to build a team with deep knowledge of the IT infrastructure.

The potential of robotics is vast for every enterprise – repetitive processes across the business can be automated in a way that guarantees quality, compliance and consistency. This poses a new CIO challenge: what should a top quality IT team look like in an era when software and robotics can do so much?

The answer is not to hunt for fresh IT graduates with the latest qualifications. Instead, it requires breaking down the silos that have traditionally dominated IT at the enterprise level.

Tools vs process

Robotics and automation is flourishing, creating a cottage industry in forecasting their impact on society. CIOs can see the opportunity, whether they are looking at a factory floor dominated by industrial robots or considering the opportunities to overhaul their accounting processes with software robots.

The challenge occurs when you look at steps in a process, rather than end-to-end. A typical automation request from the business will focus on a very specific process, such as a journal process entry. On a technical level, finding a tool that will automate this process is straightforward.

Where things get complicated is when the CIO starts posing the strategic questions: where did this process originate? The answer is often “in another department.” This then leads you to a whole new set of technologies to consider. A treasury team may calculate their accruals using an Oracle-based treasury system, and then post to their SAP-based ERP. The process itself may be technology-neutral, but automating it requires cutting across several different layers of the stack.

This fundamentally changes how a CIO thinks about the talent on their team. Talent has developed based on these layers of the stack; IT team members have specialized, with individuals developing deep-dive talents in their particular silos. Implementing a robotics strategy means stepping away from these silos. As any manager will tell you, that can create friction in a team.

Moving IT to the front office

With the arrival of robotics, the hard truth is that humans are being disrupted. Their roles are being augmented. Will some be left without a job? It is too soon to tell, but it is certain that some jobs that are currently in the workforce will eventually vanish. IT professionals can often think of themselves as above this process, believing that they are the disruptors rather than the disrupted. But the truth is that anyone who works in a silo can find themselves left behind, whether they are working on an assembly line or writing code.

CIOs can best prepare their workforce for digital transformation through transparency and education. Increasingly, the skills that matter to employers most are those that enable staff to do the crucial, customer-facing parts of the business, and developing the technology infrastructure that will support these. IT will then move from being a back-office operation to being a front office operation, with all the demands that come with it.

Robots + humans = IT success

It is easy to be swept up in the hype around robotics, and sci-fi visions of a world without human labor. But the fact is that robots today, like assembly lines before them, only have true value when combined with skilled human labor. Take any labor-intensive process – critical financial reports, legal regulations, supply chain – and there is an opportunity to add value using robotics. But it’s equally true that the robots alone don’t deliver the value – a piece of software can create a flawless financial report but it cannot analyze it or set strategy for how a business should respond.

The same is true of the IT team. Automation can offer value across the business, but only if it is applied strategically. Automation for its own sake will only create problems further down the road. In other words, automation makes the IT team more important than ever – but the onus is on them to leave behind the old mindset, and embrace their new position at the cutting edge of the business.

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