Will it happen? Yes. Business process applications and computer intelligence are converging, promising a world where cognitive systems handle many business processes now done by humans—faster, with fewer errors. Forerunners of this sci-fi-like digital labor are already at work at select companies copying and pasting order information into spreadsheets, answering customer questions in call centers and helping technicians diagnose equipment maintenance issues. At KPMG, we’re investing in these advanced technologies to improve the efficiency, effectiveness and quality of the work we do for clients every day.
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Most companies understand they can’t ignore these developments, but many are uncertain about where to begin or how to manage the fallout among their work- force. Here’s a reassuring truth. While technological change can indeed make an impact quickly, it almost always happens incrementally. Uber seemingly disrupted the taxi business overnight, but it wasn’t possible before the Internet, high-speed mobile communications, cloud computing, big data, distributed storage and advanced data analytics enabled its platform. Digital labor, too, will develop in stages—even if they move quickly—giving businesses time to start small and work toward increasingly sophisticated applications. And while some companies may find it makes short-term economic sense to reduce their workforce, others will surely find it smarter to deploy displaced workers into higher- value activities.
In fact, we believe many companies will find that digital labor acts less as a displacer of employees, especially in its earliest iterations, and more as an assistant, allowing people to do their jobs faster, more thoroughly and more accurately—and to spend more time on work that makes a difference. As cognitive technologies become more sophisticated, they promise to create knowledge at an explosive rate and help companies innovate faster. Viewed this way, digital labor is not so much a threat to the human workforce as it is the next evolutionary step toward ever smarter, productive and innovative employees.
This is what we are finding at KPMG, where we are investing heavily in cognitive technologies, including IBM Watson, to supercharge our audit capabilities. For example, a typical audit today covers a statistically valid sample of data, but we see that cognitive systems could analyze the full population of available data—financial and non-financial. The result: more accurate audits; more granular audit reports; deeper insights into client controls, accounting practices and reporting processes; and a broader perspective on risk.
For companies eager to take advantage of digital labor, we suggest a three-step approach. Think about how digital labor could impact your business, and develop a business case for its application. Prioritize pilot projects, in which cognitive technologies can be used to automate strategic business activities, and leverage your findings to develop a short- and medium-term roadmap. Finally, develop a longer-term vision for your digital labor strategy and communicate it to your organization.
The time to start is now. Digital labor’s entry into the workforce will be incremental, but it will be fast. How quickly you segue from a labor-centric to a technology-centric business process model will help determine where you rank among tomorrow’s winners.
To learn more about getting started with digital labor, please visit KPMG.com/us/digitallabor.
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