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Robots will be cobots, not competitors

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Modern efficiency technologies in the workplace are often the source of stress and anxiety as they have now reached a level where they are able to take over some of the work previously done by people. This leads to a natural fear that jobs and livelihood are at risk.

One of the more topical of these technologies is robotic process automation (RPA). It is often positioned as the holy grail of internal optimisation and is a prime candidate for entrenching these job risk fears.

The RPA rhetoric is all about how it, and similar technologies can improve the bottom line by reducing headcount and doing tasks faster than people. IT departments then bring these technologies in and impose them on workers, exacerbating this fear that robots will take our jobs.

But there is another way to approach the optimisation challenge.

This same technology can be introduced to individual employees, and they can be taught how to train their own personal robot or collaborate with a and one, this allows them to choose what gets automated.

This changes the rhetoric from “The robots are coming to take our jobs” to “My time is so valued that the organisation has hired me a personal assistant”. I like to term this use of the technology ‘co-bots’.

Programming the co-bot is easy as RPA robots can often be taught by a simple “drag-and-drop” process and employees don’t have to be coders.

These automation processes are very good at repetitive tasks where there is a clear and predictable outcome, a type of work often dreaded by knowledge workers.

Recently, a team at Dimension Data needed to move 8000 video files from one place to another. This mundane task required that files were individually downloaded and then uploaded elsewhere. It would have taken a human a month and a half of full-time work, but it took half an hour to program a bot to carry out this process.

As employers, we need to consider how much of our workforce is doing mundane repetitive work.

Travel recons, leave recons, bonus calculations are not core to the employee’s job and not core to the business either. They are more likely to leave a knowledge worker feeling frustrated rather than fulfilled.

Outsourcing this type of work to co-bots, could help alleviate this frustration, while at the same time, freeing up the individual’s time focus on strategic, creative and valuable tasks.

The increasing use of co-bots in the workplace does lead to some interesting scenarios, as they work alongside humans and become more independent.

Recently, Dimension Data rolled out a bot to assist with client contract renewals. The bot was required to run a report in our ERP solution, reformat the report, and upload it back into our sales pipeline management tool.

In order to access these platforms, the bot required a standard user account for the platforms, which meant it needed an active directory account. Our active directory account is linked to our HR system which meant a new employee record needed to be created in our HR system – effectively creating a new employee.

As expected, the bot performed wonderfully, but it was also automatically enrolled in our induction programme, causing some consternation when it didn’t arrive on the scheduled day.

There can also be cultural challenges with RPA co-bots, in that they are not programmed to manage social nuances, but rather to carry out work efficiently. The same system ran into trouble because some of the people dealing with it via email didn’t know it was a bot and found it to be quite abrupt and impersonal. For example, “How are you today?” was met with silence.

I like to compare a co-bot in the workplace to an intern or a fresh graduate. They are enthusiastic, with endless energy, and will take on all the mundane tasks. However, you shouldn’t leave them unmonitored for too long, as they will probably break something due to inexperience.

Very often, business leaders build robotic business use cases on where they see value rather than where the individual employee could see value.

Automation take-up can suffer when too few people are involved in the rollout and when employees sense it is being imposed upon them. But by involving every business unit and function in the process, with each one able to define their own journeys, more employees will embrace it as it makes their own lives easier. 

In a recent Gartner study of companies using artificial intelligence and robotics, 16 percent of companies reported job decreases, while a surprising 26 percent reported an increase in jobs as a result of their efforts.

The advent of the motor car is a good parallel to this. Henry Ford’s model T car put a lot of farriers and street cleaners out of business, but instead, now we have mechanics, panel beaters, auto electricians and car washers.

While it is true that these disruptive technologies could take over several tasks currently assigned to unskilled labour, for me, that simply highlights our responsibility as companies to encourage the continuous personal development of our people.

By giving employees an automation tool and encouraging them to find uses for it, we can start them on a journey to find their niche in this new digital economy.

As unskilled vacancies are replaced by skilled vacancies, It is up to us as a society to ensure our people are making the same transition and are able to fill the new roles required of them .

It’s a daunting future, but an exciting one, with the potential to positively impact all of us.

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DStv Now adds free education to ‘lockdown channels’

In its response to the COVID-19 lockdown in South Africa, DStv is offering 16 free channels on its streaming app

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Two new channels have been added to a free service being provided on DStv Now, the online version of DStv. 

In response to the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic, DStv owner MultiChoice worked with local and international news channels in mid-March to add 24-hour news coverage to the DStv Now free service.

The company says the intent was to help all South Africans stay up to date with announcements and developments, and the results so far are encouraging. Usage of the service has increased 20% since the lockdown began, and peak usage is up 80% compared to pre-crisis peaks. 

 Now, in another step to help families through the lockdown period, MultiChoice has added additional educational content to the free service with the Mindset PoP channel. This channel features educational programming covering the entire General Education and Training (GET) phase, including Early Childhood Development (ECD), as well as a key focus on the Grade 4 – 9 curriculum. 

The channel aims to prepare children for when schools reopen. Mindset PoP will deliver live lessons daily, with six fresh hours every day. A website is available for parents to download worksheets and information sheets to work through with expert teachers. Lessons are based on the South African Curriculum Assessment Policy Statements (CAPS) and are also aligned to the Cambridge curriculum.

“We’re extremely grateful to all of the channel providers for being so willing to work with us to help all South Africans through this unprecedented lockdown period,” said Niclas Ekdahl, CEO of the Connected Video division of MultiChoice. 

“Thanks to their support we’re able to keep people informed, keep kids’ educations going, and keep people entertained.”

The full list of channels available to non-DStv customers on the DStv Now free service is:

100 – DStv

180 – People’s Weather

238 – SuperSport Play

313 – PBS Kids

317 – Mindset PoP

320 – Channel O

343 – TBN

400 – BBC World News

401 – CNN

402 – Sky News

403 – eNCA

404 – SABC News

405 – Newzroom Afrika

405 – AlJazeera

414 – Euronews Now

417 – africanews

To sign up for the DStv Now free service, go to http://now.dstv.com 

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FNB Connect cuts data price by 55%, offers 1GB free

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FNB Connect has reduce its data prices by up to 55%. It is also doubling customers’ data on Lifestyle plans without any price increase.

This weekend, FNB Connect will also give all its customers 1GB of free data during the national lockdown, with a validity period of 30 days. This lockdown data allocation is in addition to the Free Connect allocations that customers with qualifying transactional accounts receive monthly.

“This will enable our customers to save on telco spend, which is a regular feature in household budgets,” says Raj Makanjee, CEO of FNB Retail. “Access to affordable and free data goes a long way in assisting our customers navigate difficult times and is also aligned to our ethos of offering real help when it’s needed the most.”

Shadrack Palmer, FNB Connect product head, says: “In our efforts to provide our customers with more value for their money, we’ve reduced our mobile data prices and doubled the data bundles on most of our Lifestyle plans, to give our customers more reason to connect anywhere and anytime. This is needed now more than even, as South Africans are observing the 21-day national lockdown, with many strapped for cash during these challenging times.”

The new data prices and doubling of the Lifestyle plans are to be repriced as follows:

“Since the launch of our Free Connect offering in July 2019, we’ve tried to remain consistent to see how best we can incentivise our customers when they need it most,” says Palmer.  “As FNB Connect, we understand the pressures customers are facing financially and are committed to providing better value at every opportunity.”

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