Digital Labor: Automating Knowledge Work


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“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Shakespeare knew his garden plants, but he’s off target when it comes to technology. Take digital labor. What exactly is it? Academia may not be of much help: The sociology literature includes a 66-page paper just to differentiate between the terms “digital labour” and “digital work.”

KPMG offers a more succinct definition: Digital labor involves leveraging digital technologies to augment or automate the tasks undertaken by knowledge workers in your business. Up to now, activities requiring human judgment within complex scenarios have been largely immune from digital disruption. That’s about to change in a big way.

Two primary technologies are associated with digital labor: robotic process automation (RPA) and cognitive automation (CA). The primary difference is the learning mechanism. RPA robots (software or hardware) are trained to execute processes that humans have already learned how to do. In contrast, CA robots use artificial intelligence to do their own thinking—learning from experience, human teachers and, you guessed it, other CA robots.

Unlike traditional automation approaches, these sensing robots can adapt to changing circumstances and new situations, capabilities formerly the province of human workers. Therein lies the promise as well as the problem. Digital labor can easily and cheaply expedite back-office and middle-office tasks in industries such as insurance, accounting, finance, procurement, supply chain management, customer relationship management, and human resources. Unfortunately, the potential human displacement is an organizational and societal challenge that has yet to be resolved.

CIOs have a dual role to play. On one hand, their departments are ideal candidates for digital labor, not the least as an adjunct to digital technology platforms and augmented reality services. At the same time, the CIO must help the organization understand challenges and opportunities—and advise against impatient business managers initiating their own rogue initiatives to adopt digital labor.


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