Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Robots at workplace and Time and Attendance systems

What would be the place of a Time and Attendance system in the workplace of future where robots would be pervasive and would be handling most of the tasks done by humans at present? Sample the below video first:

A 'human-less' factory, supermarket and hotel (to take examples of industries with maximum human employment) looks a possible certainty in the near future. As machines replace humans in the workplace, what challenges does that bode for a Time and Attendance solution software? (The question of the effect on the entire HCM product line is more mind boggling!).
I would like to examine two aspects introduced by this new paradigm:
a. The effect on the way time capturing and attendance tracking is done for employees.
b. Applications of a Time and Attendance system for Robots.

A workplace where Robots have predominantly replaced humans will alter the very fundamentals of the current Time and Attendance and Workforce Scheduling market.At present, the main business drivers of Time and Attendance solutions is the fact that employee wages represent a major part of an organization's expenses and the legal requirements related to wage hour compliance. Every idea and product in the Time and Attendance market revolves around addressing these two business drivers. But, both of these needs will become obsolete in a post-Robot workforce world. With the reduction in the number of human workers, the strategic importance of optimizing wages and the overall wage related expenses to the organization will go down. This very fact clearly eliminates the most important pillar on which the Time and Attendance industry has been built - the need to check, control and optimize employee wages, especially those of the hourly employees. Robots on the other hand will not need breaks, need not be paid overtime (unless and until there will be labour laws for Robots!), will not need tracking of absences, may not need clocking time as they can work round the clock. Well, in such a scenario what is the strategic importance of a Time and Attendance system? This will undoubtedly lead to re-writing the fundamentals of the industry (I do not intent to ponder on an answer to this ground breaking question in one single post!).
One significant change I see happening due to this is in the way human employees will report time. With robots taking up the blue-collared jobs, human workers would be relegated to the office. Here again, I foresee the pervasiveness of the ROWE  (Result Only Work Environment) culture in the future. The anthem of ROWE is for employees to 'work anywhere, anytime without any fixed schedule'. With the improvements in collaboration technology and with machines (robots) grinding it out in the shop floor, companies should be able to adopt a flexible work culture like ROWE, allowing employees to work from any location. This shift in the workplace will necessitate the evolution of new mechanisms of capturing time/absence information. Fundamentally, time and attendance systems will have to be available in mobile and social networking applications. This is in tune with recent research suggesting that the market for mobile office applications will be around $6.85 billion by 2015 with more and more organizations moving enterprise applications to mobile devices. This is undoubtedly the 'blue ocean' for Time and Attendance systems and I would be surprised if the major Time and Attendance vendors do not latch up to this trend. Thus, the first major trend that I foresee due to the introduction of robots in the workplace is a paradigm shift from the traditional mechanism of tightly tracking time and attendance to a more flexible time reporting environment where the emphasis would be on collaborative and social devices for recording and reporting time.

The second aspect was about the application of a Time and Attendance system for Robots. This is completely uncharted waters and will be an interesting ride!

I see two primary ways in which robots will be deployed in the workplace:
1. Treat a robot as an immovable capital investment like any other machinery and the company decides to buy robots for use.
2. Lease robots for use on a monthly or even hourly basis. I foresee the possibility of large scale robot leasing houses which would have an army of robots specializing in various tasks and deploy the robots at a fixed monthly/hourly rate to customers. Specialization of skills for robots will of course be pre-dominantly important when we are talking about these machines replacing the multitude of tasks and skills done at present by humans. This will introduce a 'job market' for robots with relative demand for various skills and these robot leasing houses will play an important role in supplying 'talent' to the market.

If the second idea that I detailed becomes a reality, we could potentially see robots coming in and going back from work everyday (especially in an environment where operations do not take place 24*7). Further, if the robots are leased on an hourly rate to the company, it might become important to track the time worked by the robot. Thus, we could potentially see the need to track the time worked in a shop floor by robots and this is indeed an opportunity and challenge for the Time and Attendance vendors. The area where I see maximum impact is on Workforce Scheduling. The dynamics and parameters used for workforce scheduling at present will have to be uprooted in a post-Robot workplace environment and the possibility of a robot executing a task will have to be taken into consideration while scheduling and generating work schedules. This will also entail the need to feed back the work schedule generated to the robot. Thus, there is a distinct possibility that in the future, Time and Attendance systems will have to interact with robotic systems and possibly even an IT system that controls the administration of robots. This will entail technological changes and challenges to the Time and Attendance vendors and opens up an entirely new and non-existent possibility.

In conclusion, I feel that the signs of the workplace of the future bodes a fundamental shift to the Time and Attendance systems market. Even if the idea of Robots in the workplace might be futuristic, it is fast dawning upon us and we should be prepared for the tremors that will come with it. More importantly, the shift to a more virtual workplace and adoption of ROWE or ROWE like concepts present a more imminent challenge to the industry and calls forth for innovative products and a re-think of the very fundamental business drivers of the Time and Attendance industry.

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