Talking Tech: Task Automation in the Library

Reposted with permission from AALL Spectrum, Volume 24, Number 6 (July/August 2020), pgs. 47-49

By Cynthia Brown, Sr. Director of Research Services at Littler Mendels; Michelle Hook Dewey, Legal Research Services Manager at BakerHostetler; and Jennifer Mendez, Director of Knowledge Management Innovation at Fisher & Phillips LLP

The term “robot lawyer” has been tossed around for years, but what about “robot librarians” or “robot knowledge managers”? In Singapore, several libraries already have a full-fledged robot named AuRoSS (Autonomous Robotic Shelf Scanning system) wandering the aisles doing shelf reading and collection maintenance. For most folks though, the idea of an actual robot, or “bot,” is a bit too futuristic. Nevertheless, across industries, the concept and implementation of automation continues to grow. This is where robotic process automation, or RPA, comes into play. Though physical robot librarians are probably not on the horizon yet, the potential uses for RPA and other task automation bots in the law library and legal knowledge management are endless.

Sophisticated consumers of legal services are already using task automations such as
RPA in a variety of spaces. Payroll, time and attendance management, compliance
reporting, and benefits administration are just a few of the ways many companies are
using RPA to streamline human resources (HR) functions. For example, HR systems
use RPA to simplify forms by copying the address fields from one form to dozens of
others. Clients are also looking to simplify supply chain management by using RPA
processes for tasks such as inventory management, demand and supply management, and invoice and contract management. In the finance and accounting space, RPA bots have regularly been implemented to facilitate payments, records, sales, and collections. Other forms of task automation, such as chatbots, are used to facilitate simple information gathering undertakings.

Research support is perhaps the most natural next task automation candidate. Libraries and knowledge centers are rife with opportunities to explore the benefits of task automation. Beyond just research tasks, your library may find a variety of ways to employ bots for some of its day-to-day administrative actions, thus allowing your staff
to engage in the highest-caliber, most valued work. As you begin to think about identifying and developing RPA and task automation opportunities in your library, you may find the guidance below to be helpful.

What Is Task Automation?
Before you get started, it is essential to understand what is being discussed when we say “task automation.” It may be a letdown to know no physical robots are involved. At its core, task automation is simply a method of implementing tasks and controlling their
performance automatically with no or little human effort. Technology developers automate tasks by creating specialized software that can replace manual processes.

Task automation can come in many forms, including chatbots. Chatbots allow end users to interact with a conversation bot in order to provide quick reference interactions that have otherwise historically occurred via human chat or email. Bots can be trained to perform more sophisticated tasks using RPA, whereby they interact with software and systems just as a human would, thus allowing them to take over highly manual and repetitive processes.

What Are the Benefits of Task Automation?
Task automation has a wide variety of benefits, including lower costs, higher efficiency, and increased employee job satisfaction. A bot can improve speed and accuracy for basic tasks. Even when processes are well documented, human error and old habits can affect output. The bot, however, does it the same way every time. Bots also can provide the
ability for your team to deliver some services 24/7, with no sick days or holidays. The tasks assigned to the bot are also scalable and not subject to staffing restrictions.

Most importantly, the type of simple, repeatable tasks that RPA excels at are the tasks most folks dislike. This is especially true for new entrants, who are more familiar with computational systems and generally have less tolerance for data entry. Overall, the
general workforce displays a preference for complex and meaningful work and elimination of repetitive work processes. New information professionals can grow the depth and value of their work by working symbiotically with bots.

Research departments are frequently stretched thin. Even when libraries have the budget to hire new positions, the market of candidates is narrow, as evidenced by the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) creating a taskforce to bolster recruitment into the profession. RPA, bots, and task automation will not replace librarians, but they can certainly help fill some gaps. Highly skilled information professionals will still need to perform tasks such as complex substantive research. While a bot cannot perform the complex analysis required to locate and organize the
wide variety of information required to answer a research question, it can readily perform fetch and answer directional questions. This leaves information professionals with more time and mental bandwidth for engaging in more highly skilled tasks.

What Type of Tasks Are Ripe for Automation?
The creation process for automation requires upfront time and labor, so it’s important to identify high-volume, burdensome processes to automate. The cost-benefit analysis needs to weigh the amount of effort required to build and maintain the bot against the amount of work it can offload. A 2019 Gartner report estimated about 20 percent of
workforce tasks can be automated. This means that automation is best suited for mature and stable processes that expect little change or adjustment to the workflow over time. Once you build the process or tool, you will want to limit the number of times the process needs to be tweaked.

Bots of various forms can be used to automate a host of activities. Chatbots are already being employed in a variety of legal information settings. These bots are helpful for handling simple Q&A sessions. Chatbots can help with patron self-service for questions such as “How do I find my password?” and “Do we have access to XYZ database?” This
frees up the time librarians would otherwise spend answering such straightforward questions.

The use of RPA creates even more opportunities for library spaces to automate. Standardized business processes with defined business rules are the best candidates for RPA automation. If you can identify a process for which you can write out step-by-step instructions that define rule-based procedures, then you already have an RPA candidate
in mind. When building out a rule-based process for automation, selecting processes that have few exceptions is crucial. The key is to focus on tasks that require little to no discretionary decision making.

Some examples of RPA in law libraries might include repetitive research tasks such as complaint pulls, some electronic filings, and internal auditing tasks.

How Do I Find a Vendor for Task Automation?
Finding the right vendor is paramount to success in any task automation process. Whether you are looking for a chatbot platform or RPA software, you will want to rely on traditional vendor evaluation rubrics. Many aspects to explore in looking at automation vendors involve the same metrics you use for standard research vendor inquires. The use of a standard process or form for comparing vendors is highly recommended because the market is full of vastly different offerings.

Not all tools are interchangeable, even when they hold themselves out as being available for the same or similar use. Evaluate vendors with a known project in mind to avoid surprises and disappointment. You want to find a vendor whose skills and services map
directly to your project requirements. If you do not map out the requirements before vendor selection, your project will be subject to the limits of your vendor. A proof of concept engagement can be a good way to identify a fruitful relationship.

Successful automation projects require support for both successful onboarding and ongoing maintenance. Be sure to evaluate the maturity and sustainability of each vendor’s business at the outset. When dealing with tech vendors, there may be enhanced danger of the vendor not being sustainable. As part of your evaluation, look into the
vendor history and record of success. Where possible, try to speak with former clients, get feedback from peers, and explore the written reviews or assessments of the product and service. Follow standard vendor vetting criteria and keep in mind such factors as price, scalability, cognitive roadmap, integration with existing technologies, and ease of implementation. What training is provided by or needed to work with the vendor? What is their road map for future developments?

The Next Frontier
Task automation is the next frontier for law libraries. Our information workforce can harness the power of technology to improve day-to-day operations. Let the robots do the “boring stuff ” while information professionals engage in high-level, meaningful work.

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