As the Army continues to transform for the future, it is looking to robots to carry out some of the dull and dangerous work now done by soldiers.
This move toward robotic process automation (RPA) will enable soldiers to concentrate on nonrepetitive, high-value and complex tasks—and potentially save lives on a fast-moving and lethal future battlefield. Described as a digital work routine that automates repetitive activities or tasks performed by humans, RPA can help the Army bridge its digital transformation gaps before 2035. That’s when the service aims to be ready to conduct and sustain multidomain operations.
RPA solutions could take over tasks like opening emails and attachments, filling in forms, moving files and folders, and making simple or even complex calculations.
To achieve this shift and employ software robots, the Army is focused on moving time, effort and funding from low-value work to high-value work by eliminating burdens and automating workloads. By looking through the lens of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, the Army can develop frameworks for implementing RPA across the force.
The mundane, repetitive tasks the Army asks of junior leaders do not inspire a sense of greater contribution to national security. Army senior leaders understand that soldiers require a sense of worth in their jobs, and they are concerned about the operational and strategic consequences of the burden caused by low-value work, whether reading and writing to databases or extracting structured data from documents. Additionally, being responsible for duties that do not provide the same high levels of value as enhancing mission-critical capabilities may lead some to leave the service at a time when the Army seeks to grow and retain talent across the force.
The ability of senior leaders to perform mission-critical tasks in future years might be reduced as a result of these circumstances, potentially lowering readiness for large-scale combat operations. Analyzing the organizational and environmental factors that contribute to the burden of low-value work is key to discovering the potential implementation and change for workload automation.
Data supporting the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats analysis includes survey responses from 97 respondents assigned to functional offices at the U.S. Army Reserve Command. This crowdsourcing survey, conducted from April through June 2021 by the authors of this article, asked about the perceived level of low-value work at the junior leader level, organizational learning and the use of robotic process automation.
Surveyed soldiers perceive their unit as a learning organization, with many saying they support prioritizing time to review work processes and seek new ways to complete their work. This feedback supports the perception that the unit is a learning organization and has a higher probability of successfully implementing emerging technologies. A learning organization can continually improve its internal processes by learning from past experiences and applying that knowledge to future endeavors.
There was little familiarization across work units, with just over a third of soldiers surveyed having at least heard of robotic process automation. More than half had never heard of it or related concepts of cognitive automation and artificial intelligence.
Results also generally indicate an agreement that the problem of low-value work exists across units, at almost 74%. More than three-quarters agree that transferring the repetitive processes would improve morale within their unit, and there was high agreement with statements saying robotic process automation would improve work-life balance, time and cost savings, and comfort with working alongside robots.
One time-consuming challenge junior leaders face is the requirement to manually report training and readiness activities. Driven by the Army’s focus on readiness over the past five years, the continuous retrieval of data from data management systems and legacy systems takes away valuable time from performing training and readiness activities those systems are meant to track.
Army leaders can benefit from leading efforts with interagency collaboration and sharing of successful RPA program designs, practices, use cases and strategies. The increase in agency process automation programs is beneficial to units since part-time forces like those in the U.S. Army Reserve and National Guard continue in their civilian jobs and bring similar knowledge back to their units.
Despite claiming low familiarity with RPA and a moderate level of familiarity with related concepts, more than 70% of respondents said they believe their unit can implement robotic process automation.
The Army’s ability to recruit and maintain end strength is a primary threat to implementing robotic process automation across formations. If units aren’t able to recruit and sustain end strength, due to the military becoming less attractive or because of a thriving economy, there will be less of a force to conduct daily operations and drive the implementation of innovative technologies like RPA.
Use of RPA by the Army’s adversaries in multidomain operations is also a threat. Although such use is not widespread, projected global use is expected to grow and eventually may scale the technological benefit to support adversary advancement in intelligent automation.
Findings from our survey suggest the primary objective for RPA implementation is the need to build units’ awareness and education efforts. Information about the benefits and limitations of RPA needs to be fielded across units to grow, understand and encourage further discovery and development of the technology. The knowledge then may drive action toward senior leadership priorities, allocating resources, identifying potential RPA solutions and, at a minimum, fielding a pilot for process automation.
Achieving the Army’s cross-agency goal of reducing low-value work at the junior leader level will have several strategic impacts. The impact on people is the ability to work on higher-value tasks that improve perceptions of the value of their service and increase the likelihood of continuing service. Higher retention rates of junior leaders support every facet of unit readiness. The full implementation of RPA technology will continue to produce an offsetting advantage to support modernization. The starting point is to spread the word about robotic process automation in the Army.
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Madeline Bodoh is director of the Continuous Process Improvement Office, U.S. Army Reserve Command, Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Previously, she was chief of the Organizational Analysis and Design Division, U.S. Army Special Operations Command. She holds a doctorate in industrial organizational psychology from Northcentral University, Arizona.
Lt. Col. Jeremy Reed is chief of information operations, U.S. Transportation Command, Scott Air Force Base, Illinois. Previously, he was deputy director, Information Warfare Directorate, Office of the Chief of Army Reserve. He deployed twice to Iraq and once to Kosovo. He has a master’s degree in government information leadership from the National Defense University College of Information and Cyberspace.