Office Space is a 1999 cult-classic comedy that follows the story of three employees working for the fictional computer company Initech Corporation. Each character is captive to the drudgery and monotony of the cubicle world, performing the same boring, repetitive tasks every day and putting up with overbearing, uncaring and smarmy bosses.
As funny as the movie is, it shines a spotlight on the repetitive nature of modern white-collar business tasks, many of which still exist today. It also highlights how humans are simply not designed to do these tasks, that humans strive for more challenging, imaginative work and if they are not given these opportunities, then daily misery ensues.
Robotic Process Automation, specifically designed to take away many of these repetitive tasks and complement humans who can then go on to do more rewarding, valuable work later came on as the savior.
Here are three parts of the movie that would not have been possible had RPA existed back in 1999:
A Testing Procedure Specification or Test Program Set (TPA) is a document used by software engineers to describe the step-by-step process of tests and re-tests of software or an electronics system. In the movie, Peter’s bosses berate him for failing to add a cover sheet to the TPS reports he filed. TPS reports in themselves have come to signify mundane, pointless, repetitive, rules-based work, a point the movie makes brilliantly.
Luckily for today’s software engineers, much of the work involved in TPS reports can be automated, including adding the dreaded Cover Page. RPA robots leave digital records of everything they do, and the creation of the report itself can be automated and produced more quickly and easily.
“I have people skills!!”
As the consultants Bob Slydell and Bob Porter start interviewing the employees, they come across Tom Smykowski, a middle manager whose job is to physically carry job specifications from the customer to the software engineers (well, his secretary does most of this). To justify this obviously inefficient task, he claims that the software engineers lack the social skills to interface directly with the customer, famously declaring “I have people skills!!”.
This job would clearly not exist today for a number of reasons. To begin with, it is exactly the kind of the task that RPA can automate with ease. Whether it is job specifications, invoices or delivery addresses, information sent from the customer can be screened and scanned using RPA’s computer vision technology, with all relevant details (such as amount, invoice number, customer details, etc) copy-pasted to the relevant document and sent for onward processing.
Peter, and his co-workers Samir and Michael take it upon themselves to plant a virus within Initech’s computer system that would withdraw a fraction of a dollar from the company’s account into their personal account. The fraction is so small that they thought they would get away with it. However, unfortunately, a mistake in the virus’ code started withdrawing thousands of dollars and became noticeable to the company. But the trio is still saved by the inefficiencies of the finance department which took a while to realize that thousands of dollars were being siphoned from accounts (leaving enough time for the office to burn down).
While the film does not go into detail as to why, it is likely that the manual nature of communication between the different sections within finance (Accounts Payable, Accounts Receivable, etc) led to this delay. RPA technology deployed within finance is perfectly suited to removing these inefficiencies, with robots automatically and immediately validating every movement in and out of accounts. Discrepancies would be noticed almost instantaneously and communicated to the relevant person. Peter, Samir, and Michael would be out of jail by now.
There are various other tasks in the movie that RPA would be well suited to, including helping John with the “The Millennium bug” computer code.
Good office comedies often play off the monotonous boredom of work, highlighting the absurdity of the repetitive, simple tasks that the protagonists – usually white-collar workers – are forced to do day in, day out.
Yet if these tasks did not exist, if the characters have jobs that required creativity, imagination, and innovation, would these comedies have worked? Would the British comedy ‘The Office’ or the cartoon series ‘Dilbert’ have worked quite as well if RPA had existed to take away these boring tasks? For Peter and his co-workers, exhausted by the boredom of their daily work, RPA could not come soon enough.
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