A look to the future with Professor Leslie Willcocks: RPA and the changing world of work

With 2017 fast approaching, a glance at the future seems only appropriate. In our exclusive interview with Professor Willcocks, we look ahead in two areas: the future of utilizing RPA (Robotic Process Automation) and its implications to the market at large.

Past November Digital Workforce organized a unique breakfast seminar discussing the role of RPA in digital strategy and excitedly welcomed the event’s keynote speaker, Professor Willcocks. Leslie Willcocks, a professor of the London School of Economics, is considered one of the world’s most respected researchers, speakers, and business publications writers in the field of knowledge work automation. Following the seminar, Professor Willcocks sat down in private to answer some of our questions.


The more substantial value of RPA is tied to business processes and institutionalization of the technology. How do organizations reach these benefits as they move forward with RPA?

“One of our researched organizations had an interesting model they worked with, that in my opinion, could well be worth coping elsewhere. The company had identified eight key in-house competencies, which they combined with client assets to form a third entity – a service delivery vehicle. One of the organization’s key competences was process re-engineering, an area in which Robotic Process Automation falls perfectly.

RPA isn’t a technology in a vacuum. It has to sit with something, and it fits process best, but the technology has to sit with people too. This is late learning, as the early adopters often focused on fixing individual processes, almost like sticking a plaster – though a good one – on a wound. Fixing individual processes offers limited benefits compared to adopting the technology on a strategic scale, but doing so requires a willingness to build new capabilities. Luckily we found, that all good process principles – such as Six Sigma and Lean – fit RPA extremely well! These principles demand companies to take a broader look at their business strategy and key performance indicators as well as consider their alignment with the organization’s process technologies and people. New adopters of RPA are doing exactly this.”

Considering future advances, could RPA be utilized to tap into even more opportunities?

“RPA technologies are one small piece of the bigger automation jigsaw. Digitalization should be looked at as a whole. The organizations I know of work with automation centers of excellence. This should be the approach even if RPA is the only tool in the box right now. Things like business analytics and amplifying automation by analyzing unstructured data with solutions such as cognitive intelligence stick on top of what can be done with RPA. Creating a platform compatible with integrating all these solutions should be the obvious next step.”

What kind of impact do you expect RPA will have to the market at large?

“Compared to other robotic technologies, RPA faces fewer issues related to ethical conflicts or underdeveloped regulations. On the contrary, RPA is often used to conform to regulatory requirements. It is, however, important that the new tech area is well regulated. Having regulations in place helps steer the impact of fast-moving change while the social implications of growing business efficiency depend on the power and wealth being spread fairly.

Studies suggest jobs being both created and lost as a result of RPA automation. There is also a distinct difference between using technology as a complementary or replacement solution. The full data is poorly incorporated into most studies. Such flawed publications speak of 47% job loss due to automation. Based on our research, 14-16% fewer jobs in the sectors where RPA operates seems realistic. However, most of the eliminated workload won’t translate to a loss of total employment but tasks included in a job.

Using the term “robot” sometimes seems unnecessarily bias, when you consider that RPA could just as well be described as a software solution. When describing RPA, I often use the line “taking the robot out of the human” as it accurately describes what the technology does. The amount of knowledge work has dramatically increased in every sector, from health care to banking. Over the last 10 years of conducting interviews, no one has ever told me that their workload has stayed the same or decreased! This fact has gone mostly unnoticed in the public discussion but resulted in a situation where, for all the over-worked individuals, implementing RPA is simply great!”


Digital Workforce wants to thank Professor Willcocks for sharing his thoughts about the future of RPA, and to wish all our readers a prosperous New Year!



Leslie Willcocks, a professor of the London School of Economics and Political Science, is considered one of the world’s most respected researchers, speakers, and business publications writers in the field of knowledge work automation.

Read here our 2018 interview with Professor Willcocks about the future of Intelligent Automation.