RPA: Augmentation vs substitution

Perspectives on successfully implementing robotics process automation

February 2018


Some work is better left with robots, and some work is better left with people. This might seem tedious, but the fact is that tasks that cannot be substituted by automation are generally complemented by it. If approached correctly, this is an opportunity to not only find new applications for technology, but for people as well.

Most automation efforts are made with the primary purpose of cutting costs by saving full-time employees (FTEs). However, studies and experience show that if companies really want to reap the benefits of automation they should not only think of how to make robots do what current employees do now. Instead, companies need to understand that the biggest gains are achieved by approaching automation efforts in an augmentative rather than a substitutive way. Conclusion: Complementarity between humans and robots is key.

This article is the second in a series of articles – all with the fundamental viewpoint “People first” about how organisations should go about leveraging RPA benefits and turn them into competitive advantages. The last article touched upon the change in motivational schemes. It briefly mentioned the distinction between substitution and augmentation. This article picks up the relay on this subject to show how changing the fundamental approach to automation can create impactful innovation and not just improving efficiency.

Fear of automation

When facing automation, people are often worried that they will be substituted by the robots. One of the primary reasons for this is that many people are treated like robots; stuck in tedious back-office functions performing mundane and repetitive tasks like typing in data from one system to another, often disguised as terms like reporting or updating spreadsheets. And since robots are becoming increasingly able to do more and more tasks, this makes people in all walks of life very concerned about the advancing automation, fearing that their job might be next.

Reframing automation

The natural response from people in fear of losing their jobs would be to question the usefulness of automation. However, there is no arguing whether or not automation is here to stay. And just as the Luddites (the people from the 19th century fighting against the advent of the printing press) fought, so could today’s employees seek to sabotage or hinder the success of automation efforts. But this fear is bound to the idea that the robots will replace you. What if, instead of asking what jobs the robots will take next, we asked: What jobs will automation create for us? How can robots make the most of the human resources available and vice versa?


Substitution vs Augmentation

Reframing the question like this picks at the underlying intend of automation. It opens the discussion of whether automation is an effort to substitute or to augment your current workforce. In this way, substitution represents the classic approach where robotics is used to cut costs to achieve cost efficiency. In this way, substitution is opposed to augmentation. Augmentation is driven by starting with the work you do today and figuring out how that can be deepened. This way, robots can augment the current workforce to deliver even more value and positive impact to the customer.

Choosing augmentation over substitution requires greater creativity and willingness to risk, but so does all impactful innovation.


Luring behind the concept of augmentation is the realisation that some work is better left with people, and some work is better left with robots. Accepting this, it becomes clear that the complementarity between people and robots is key. This might seem tedious, but the fact is that tasks that cannot be substituted by automation are generally complemented by it. This is an opportunity to not only find new applications for technology, but for people as well.

Robots are only a threat if you are treated or act like a robot

Luckily, people are inherently good at coming up with new ways of working and solving issues to an extent that far outmatch computers and robots. Hence, if companies decide to take the augmentative approach to automation, people shouldn’t necessarily fear being substituted. This, however, is not the same as saying that their jobs won’t change. In effect, a willingness and ability to change and adapt is still required. To this extent, the fear of being substituted is contingent on the willingness and ability of people to adapt to changes. This might seem harsh to some. But this is the playing field as we have known it for centuries.

Malin Marker Persson, Constituted Head of HK A-Kasse (unemployment insurance); "In HK, we value our people and their unique skillsets, but we also acknowledge the merits of automation and the opportunities it can provide. Instead of believing that automation equals replacing colleagues, we believe in the importance of enabling our colleagues to deliver better and more meaningful work through automation. This approach enables us to spend our working time better and in a more meaningful way, ensuring that we can give our members a well-run and efficient Modern Union, while reaping the benefits of automation and providing meaningful jobs to our colleagues."

Race with the machines

However, management needs to be cautious about the augmentative approach. One of the risks lies in asking people who have been treated like robots for a long time to suddenly change behaviour, be creative and adaptive. People are better at being creative than performing repetitive and mundane tasks. However, if they have been treated as robots for a long time, they need time to change. One of the best ways for people to stay in touch with their creativity and adaptability is to keep educating themselves and continually take risks. These risks are needed at both management and employee level.

Going forward

To finish off, here are three takeaways to keep in mind when daring to take the augmentative approach:

  • Keep learning: Continuous learning within the organisation is key. One of the key competitive advantages of people are their knowledge and ability to learn. The world changes, technology changes even faster, and the only way to stay relevant is by continuing to learn.
  • Be willing to take risks: It is common knowledge that innovation requires risk-taking and investment. This is true for both employees and management.
  • Be willing to adapt: The idea that you can find a job and continue doing that forever doesn’t exist anymore. The ability and willingness to adapt is a key parameter to your success.

By choosing augmentation over substitution, robotics could facilitate the rise and not demise of people, so let’s hope the imaginations of managers expand as fast as their automation toolkits.


Bernstein, Amy & Raman, Anand (2015). The Great Decoupling: An Interview with Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee Davenport, Thomas H. & Kirby, Julia

(2015). Beyond Automation Gownder, J.P. (2015). The Future of Jobs, 2027: Working Side By Side With Robots: Automation Won’t Destroy All The Jobs, But It Will Transform The Workforce – Including Yours

Lacity, Mary C. & Willcocks, Leslie (2015). What Knowledge Workers Stand to Gain From Automation