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What is a digital worker?

Digital workers are software robots, or AI-powered assistants, that automate repetitive tasks or processes. Designed to support your human workforce, they help you achieve faster, better results.

Digital worker definition


In the past, the term “digital worker” described a human employee with digital skills, but more recently, the market has defined it as a category of software robots which are trained to perform specific tasks or processes in partnership with their human colleagues. More specifically, Forrester offers the following definition for digital worker automation: It is “a combination of [intelligent automation] IA building blocks, such as conversational intelligence and [robotic process automation] RPA, that work alongside employees. They understand human intent, respond to questions, and take action on the human's behalf, leaving humans with control, authority, and an enhanced experience.”

IBM® Automation observes digital workers similarly, defining them as software-based labor that can independently execute meaningful parts of complex, end-to-end processes using a range of skills. They leverage artificial intelligence capabilities, like machine learning, computer vision, and natural language processing, to execute a sequence of tasks within a given workflow. For example, a digital digital employee in accounts payable may be able to autonomously perform parts of three traditional job roles — customer service representative, billing agent and cash applicator or dispute resolver — to complete an Order to Cash (OTC) process. Since digital workers increase the bandwidth of their employees, they have largely been adopted through digital transformation efforts, allowing companies to reallocate their workforce to more strategic tasks.

Launching a digital workforce

To initiate your digital workforce, you should first consider the human element. Enterprise design thinking can help you determine how you want humans to interact with digital workers to enable the intelligent workflow. From there, you’ll want to go through the following steps:

  1. Assess the need: The team should identify a process for a digital worker to own. During this stage, you may want to start more simply, such as incorporating intelligent data capture or basic business rules, to enable better decision-making, adding complexity gradually.
  2. Document the process: Detailed documentation of the process should exist to train new digital workers correctly.
  3. Train digital workers: Once a documented process has been identified to transition, you’ll train a digital worker to handle the tasks within the selected workflow. Bots are also instructed to identify and flag exceptions for their human counterparts, routing more complex use cases to them and freeing them from mundane monitoring activities.
  4. Assess performance: During this step, teams can assess the performance of a given digital worker, ensuring it has generated an appropriate return on investment (ROI) for the business. By using process mining and process maps, teams can validate training efforts, but they can also use this opportunity to identify bottlenecks, further optimizing the process.

Digital worker applications

While digital workers can extend skills beyond basic digital tasks, they have primarily been used for support work across a variety of business functions. Some examples include:

  • Supply chain: Retailers, such as Amazon, are leveraging robots to check stock quantities and pricing.
  • Human resources: Digital employees can answer benefits questions in real time, collect employee data and route complex tasks to subject-matter experts, evolving the employee experience within companies.   
  • Sales and product support: Digital workers can answer basic product questions to help customer success and sales teams manage prospective and existing clients. They can also route requests by level of urgency, so high-priority tickets are addressed in a timely manner, improving the overall customer experience.  

Challenges with digital workers

While digital employees help you gain process efficiencies, you may find challenges in implementing a digital workforce. Some of these barriers to success include:

  • Not enough tasks to automate, making it difficult to justify the cost of a digital worker
  • Technology may struggle with some unstructured data sources
  • Gathering information for documentation purposes can be costly and resource intensive
  • Scaling can be difficult if digital workers are not designed to be configurable and adaptable

Digital workers and IBM

Digital workers will change the way CIOs and their teams think about work, and IBM can help.

Creating digital workers is just one important step forward as the need for automation widens across business and IT operations. A move toward greater automation should start with small, measurably successful projects, which you can then scale and optimize for other processes and in other parts of your organization.

The digital workers you develop with our tools will allow your teams to start seeing better outcomes and delivering exceptional experiences to customers and employees. Read more about how to rebuild and empower your workforce with digital labor.

Working with IBM, you’ll have access to AI-powered automation capabilities, including prebuilt workflows, to help accelerate innovation by making your digital workers more intelligent.

Take the next step:

  • Break the cycle of routine work caused by the hassle of too many tools and not enough help. IBM Watson Orchestrate creates digital employees (digeys) that use a wide range of skills to support the unique work of your team in the tools they already use. Your digeys empower the team to streamline work and become more productive.
  • A longtime leader in task automation, IBM provides automated task capabilities in IBM Robotic Process Automation, a full-featured, AI-driven RPA solution that can drive ROI from day one.
  • IBM RPA can also come integrated with automation capabilities such as content, capture, workflow and decisions as part of IBM Cloud Pak for Business Automation. This flexible set of integrated software helps you design, build and run intelligent automation services and applications on any cloud, using low-code tools at scale. Learn more about Low-code versus No-code.
  • Discover business automation solutions from IBM that empower you to understand and orchestrate critical resources quickly with low-code tooling.
  • Read about the five “must-haves” for automation success (PDF, 4.9 MB) in this HFS Research report.

For more information on digital workers, sign up for the IBMid and create your IBM Cloud account.