I'm curious--if you woke up tomorrow and had a digital colleague in the cubicle next to you, would you freak out?

There's no set rule for what a digital colleague has to look like--they could look as simple as Amazon's Echo Dot or as complex as a walking, talking, humanoid robot. But the scenario of having one nearby, robot-esque or otherwise, is already on its way to reality, according to Pat Geary, chief evangelist at multinational robotic process automation (RPA) company Blue Prism, and Vijay Kurkal, chief operating officer at IT automation platform Resolve Systems. Blue Prism pioneered RPA software, while Resolve Systems has worked for more than a decade in the automation space across North America, Europe, and Asia, so both Geary and Kurkal have a keen understanding of where the technologies are headed.

No, a digital colleague isn't the same thing as traditional A.I.

There's a distinction between general artificial intelligence and a digital colleague, as Geary explains. Whereas both digital assistants and A.I. give greater efficiency, speed, and accuracy, traditional use of A.I. is more task specific. It doesn't focus on building an intelligent, automated workforce from the ground up or automating processes from end to end.

And both Geary and Kurkal agree that it's this ability of a digital colleague to let you entirely disconnect from impersonal work that's truly empowering. It allows you to not do easier work, but to do different, more interesting, innovative, and emotionally satisfying work that ultimately builds more human connections, potentially on a totally new career path.

Your job isn't going anywhere

Incidentally, this is exactly why you should be confident about not losing your job, according to Geary--a digital workforce lets people focus on other people and interact better. And, as Kurkal puts it, organizations also want to keep the technical talent they've got. They want champions who can put new tools to work in creative ways.

"Workers who possess deep knowledge about their environments and can combine it with creative and insightful thinking will be invaluable to their employers," says Kurkal, "fostering long-term relationships between employers and employees and triggering a shift away from the gig economy."

And companies already recognize the dramatic need to prepare for digital colleagues. Geary notes that, according to McKinsey, the potential economic impact of automating knowledge work could be between $5.2 trillion and $6.7 trillion by 2025. A Gartner survey further showed that 63 percent of senior executives indicated that a talent shortage was a key concern for their organizations, particularly for IT teams. Kurkal asserts that companies are turning to digital colleagues, A.I., and automation to do more with less, using these tools along with human brainpower to support the rapidly growing IT infrastructure.

Getting your team comfortable with digital workers

Geary and Kurkal both say that opposition to change is your biggest hurdle when it comes to transitioning your team to be comfortable with digital colleagues. People generally tend to resist shifts of any kind simply because they don't want to leave their comfort zones, but they can also see changes as being incredibly difficult or unfair to implement, or as potentially problematic given their personal view of company objectives. But you have to reimagine big-picture goals. 

"Once those are determined," says Geary, "a company should create a road map that defines the type of work humans should do versus their digital counterparts. As companies begin to introduce automation, they can add in the human touch where more empathy is needed."

You also need to address your culture. It's imperative that you embrace the new and get everyone involved, treating automation as a journey rather than a destination.

Kurkal offers one of Resolve Systems' customers as an example. The company built a handful of automations to prove value to their C-suite. Once leaders saw the benefits, they let more regional offices build on that foundation. Now the company has automated hundreds of processes, celebrates automation at quarterly all-hands meetings, and has a program that kicks $1,000 back to each employee who comes up with an automation that actually gets built.

Your digital colleague might not look human or even like a robot. But it's going to have a seat next to you, and soon. And, as a leader, your ability to stay competitive while also keeping your team happy depends on being able to see new ways of creating, producing, and allocating tasks. And other companies that see the benefits of digital workers are not going to wait for you to catch up. In this sense, the sooner you consider how to transition to digital colleagues, the sooner you'll likely be in a position of respect, stability, and significant market share.

Published on: Oct 18, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.