Digital Workers: 5 Best Practices for a People-First Approach to Adoption

5 min read

Digital worker best practices to help businesses realize return on investment through greater productivity and better business outcomes.

The growth of the U.S. labor force is slowing. Over the current decade, growth is projected to fall by almost 50%. The news is already full of stories of industries and businesses struggling with attrition, skills gaps and stagnant productivity.

In a tightening skilled-labor market, adopting digital worker technology can yield significant productivity gains by automating line-of-business functions. When implemented thoughtfully, digital workers can also improve job satisfaction and, thus, the retention of your most important resource: people.

The new digital workers

Digital workers, also known as digital employees, are non-human team members trained to use intelligent automation technologies to perform multiple tasks in a set of sequences and meet a complete business need from beginning to end — in contrast to the narrower automation capabilities of bots and chatbots. An example might be processing invoices through an organization’s system — moving them from sales to finance to procurement for execution and delivery.

Just like human employees, digital workers have a persona in the organization — a level of authority, peers and someone to whom they report. Like people, they have certain credentials — systems they can access, people they can interact with and a level of security clearance. And like human hires, they come with job-specific skills and the ability to build new ones as the job requires.

Digital workers today are helping HR staff craft job descriptions, generate lists of candidates and contact them. They’re helping customer support teams approve exceptions and schedule follow-up meetings. They’re working across departments to process customer address changes for procurement. And they’re helping insurance companies evaluate complaints, gather approvals and notify customers.

The more advanced digital worker software can act across multiple processes and systems, converse dynamically and gather inputs from humans, and remember and draw from previous interactions to improve workflows.

5 best practices for digital worker adoption

As digital worker technology continues to evolve, best practices are emerging to help business leaders realize return on investment through greater productivity and better business outcomes.

1. Stating the obvious, but start small

Rachel Reinitz, IBM Fellow and Founder and CTO of IBM Garage, recommends deploying a “thin slice of workload” to prove a technology’s effectiveness, start deriving value quickly and build buy-in. In short, get people comfortable and confident with digital workers without changing too much, too fast.

2. Work from the end user up — early and often

Since digital workers are designed to relieve employees of work that can and should be automated, begin with those employees’ input. What are their most laborious and time-consuming tasks? What use cases will help them meet their top organizational objectives? The purpose of digital workers is to help individual human employees become even more effective at their jobs by giving them the power to assign work, improving personal efficiency and employee experience.

3. Counter fears with clear paths forward

Employees may respond to the prospect of digital workers with skepticism or fear. It may feel no different to them than being told that a human employee will be taking over part of their work. They may ask (or feel), why is this part of my job going away? Will I need to oversee this new employee?

Remind them that the goal of digital workers is to reduce the drudgery in their roles — like replacing handwashing of dishes with a dishwasher. The goal is to help them focus on their uniquely human talents, based on their experience, ability to learn and communication skills. To counter their fears, provide employees with a clear path for professional development to further those human skills.

4. Consider high-touch use cases

Repetitive manual tasks may be your first target for digital workers, but don’t discount the processes that require frequent human review or interaction from end to end. Because digital worker technology integrates so well with communication channels like email, Slack and chat, it has the potential to act as a highly efficient project manager as work moves from stage to stage.

5. Assess individual impact

Though managers will need to measure the impact of digital workers at a team or departmental level through an ROI lens, it’s equally important that employees can compare their own performance (and satisfaction) before and after using digital workers. Consider doing more detailed time tracking of tasks and employee satisfaction before implementing digital workers, so you have a benchmark to compare against.

Real-world adoption success: IBM’s first HR digital worker

Jon Lester is Director of HR Service Delivery & Transformation at IBM. In 2021, he and his team received a new technology to test from the IBM Watson Research Lab. They thought it was just a new iteration of familiar digital assistant and conversational AI technology, until they began working with it. The solution, now called IBM Watson Orchestrate, allows managers to create and deploy digital workers through an intuitive, code-free interface.

Jon and his team created a digital worker to assist real IBM HR employees in the day-to-day work of the promotions process, which was extremely time- and labor-intensive. The digital worker, named HiRo, “has a digital CV — role-specific skills and capabilities that we trained it on,” Jon explains. It now handles the information compiling and formatting tasks that used to take so much time.

According to Jeri Morgan, an HR Business Partner covering one region for IBM Consulting, “At the front end of the process, it took almost two weeks to access data and format it into something that the business could use. HiRo does that in near real-time. Those two weeks are gone.”

The spreadsheets are gone too. The managers and leaders receive a focused view of their employees, with data showing whether they meet promotion criteria and what steps need to be taken to fulfill requirements. Jeri estimates that for each manager, this part of the process is reduced from two weeks to just hours.

Decisions made by people for people

The balance of duties between HiRo, Jeri and the other stakeholders ensures that the actual workforce decisions are made by people. “Any decision that involves a pay raise or a nomination is made by the manager, the HR Business Partner and the practice lead,” Jon explains. Further, before HiRo could be put into production, the cross-functional team had to demonstrate to IBM’s internal ethical AI governance team that HiRo complies with five principles of ethical AI: explainability, fairness, robustness, transparency and privacy.

By applying HiRo to one IBM business unit in one geographical region, IBM saved about 12,000 hours per year and accelerated the promotions process by 50% while reducing its workload significantly. "We went from a 10-week cycle to probably 5 weeks,” says Jeri. Based on this success, HiRo is about to be rolled out to IBM Consulting’s other regions worldwide, and the projected time savings is 50,000 hours per year.

Beyond saving time, HiRo and other digital workers’ highest value may be their potential to transform jobs. We’re in the midst of a global labor and talent shortage. People are expected to “do more with less” all the time. This technology can help. “They can spend a much greater portion of their time on the most important work — like workforce planning and equity, and they can use Watson Orchestrate to supply the information they need to do that important work even better,” says Jon.

“One of the challenges with digital worker technology is you don’t quite understand how good it can be until you see it,” Jon said. “When we did a 30-minute showcase to all of HR, people came up with a phenomenal number of ideas about how we could apply this across pretty much all of HR — we got payroll, we got benefits doing things like 401(k)s, for example.”

Read the full case study.

In summary

The demographics of the workforce are changing rapidly. The Baby Boomer generation is retiring in numbers that far exceed those joining the workforce. A skills gap is widening that will require a big effort to overcome. Digital workers can help businesses by automating a wide variety of tasks so employees can focus on learning and high-value activities, improving organizational productivity.

Learn more about the latest in digital worker technology.

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