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RPA and the Demise of Tribal Knowledge and the Village Elders

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by Craig Nelson October 29, 2015

The traditional village has a bunch of elders – story tellers who pass on histories, genealogies and values. The “villages” of today are called business units or functional operations, and the “elders” are curators of tribal knowledge who understand business process and how work gets done and who are vigilant in protecting their power base.

These are not necessarily positions of authority, but they are positions of control. Any documentation of a process potentially erodes the importance of tribal knowledge and can upset the delicate balance of control within the village. The introduction of Robotic Process Automation (RPA) will most certainly upset this balance, as the processes that had been operating incognito are now – through automation – exposed and documented.

The combination of process engineering and process automation, along with the convergence of a human workforce with a virtual workforce, will produce a reaction. The critical key is containing and directing this reaction to benefit operational efficiency, without demolishing the corporate culture (unless of course it needs a good demolishing).

We all subscribe to the importance of process reengineering and process documentation. However, the reality is that most organizations still depend on seasoned employees who understand and control operations to ensure the continuous and smooth delivery of products and services. These holders of tribal knowledge are critical to Business Continuity and are often in control of Disaster Recovery. This operating system ensures that when something does go wrong the village elders are there to swoop in to resolve the crisis and perpetuate themselves as heroes whose jobs cannot possibly be altered or eliminated.

RPA could spell the end of this model and the demise of tribal knowledge as a power base from which the village elders operate. Some may argue this can only be a good thing, but organizations that have long heralded that “human assets are their most important assets” will be faced with communicating a new vision and managing organizational change to properly take advantage of this new technology.

To capitalize on RPA, an organization’s leaders must lead and sponsor the dramatic operational and organizational changes that will inevitably follow. This can be a precarious balancing act for innovative RPA advocates who are passionate about their vision of the possibilities but lack the management ability to implement and fully operationalize such provocative changes. While passion is key, RPA sponsorship also requires the involvement of professionals with proven skills at orchestrating change. As such, the support of the village elders can be absolutely critical to the continued optimization that RPA offers.

To win this support, executives sponsoring RPA must address and communicate a vision of the future that includes:

  • Defining what the new organization will look like when human and virtual workforces converge, and where impacted humans fit into this brave new world of automation.
  • Defining the migration path for humans to move from performing mundane tasks to becoming the automation gurus who are now proficient in value adding functions such as governing the virtual workforce, evangelizing and promoting process improvement and demonstrating how automation can be leverage in other business units.
  • Defining how management intends to address the likelihood of employment redundancy and how human capacity might be absorbed through targeted growth or retraining.

An optimal implementation strategy combines C-Suite leadership (Innovators) and business unit professional managers (Deliverers) along with knowledge workers (Elders) with the right mix of skills and experience to align at the right points in the RPA implementation life cycle. While RPA may be the end of tribal knowledge, it needn’t devalue the role of the village elders. Perhaps the key is to tap into this knowledge and to give the village elders a stakeholder role in achieving RPA success.

About the author 

Craig has brokered shared services ITO/BPO deals of $400M to more than $1B. His background in process redesign, vendor governance and performance optimization provides a unique blend of operational, transformational and vendor management (VM) expertise giving him a strategic perspective on outsourcing effectiveness.