Insights: how to train your robot

08 February 2019

Robotics is changing how businesses run and how people work. Matt Ford, Head of Barclays UK’s Operations Business Management, explains how the bank is responding to exponential technological change – and why “everyone wants their own robot”. 

Let’s start with an explanation of what robotics means to us. It’s not about little metallic creatures on wheels delivering the morning coffee. For us, robotics involves giving computers complex sets of instructions to carry out manual, repetitive processes that humans currently undertake.

If you think about someone playing the piano and that if they slid their chair away, the piano would keep on playing. Effectively, we train the keys to play the tune – that’s what robotics is.

I wasn’t involved in robotics until recently, but the technology has improved exponentially over the past few years and presents us with many opportunities to improve how we work.

We currently use robotics where there are systems that don’t talk to each other, or processes where a person has to receive a piece of paper and type it into a system. These are activities that are not adding value to us as a business. This is what technology should be doing. 


Matt Ford, Head of Barclays UK's Operations Business Management

And the opportunities are huge. As long as the data is formatted in the right way, the robot can do something with it – manipulate it, put into another system and amalgamate.

But it’s proscriptive. This isn’t a scenario where the robots will suddenly rise up and take over – they don’t have the ability to learn, just simply to do.

Robotics for customers

It’s important to think about competitors or disrupters in the market. They’re starting from a fully digital standpoint, without legacy systems, branches and hundreds of years of history, so when a company like Barclays is talking about implementing the use of robotics, it needs to be done in a responsible way.

Around 90% of customer transactions – whether that’s opening an account, closing one, transferring money – are already done automatically, without any manual intervention, and the direction of travel is towards a larger proportion of processes being fulfilled digitally within Barclays UK. This doesn’t mean, however, that all our customer interactions will be fully automated in the future, far from it.

We currently process around 10 million transactions manually per month where the customer has initiated something and it requires some form of manual input from us along the way. As much as possible, we try and make those processes automatic – let the robots do it – then we can focus on the complex cases that require human consideration and decision making.

Because we’re automating the manual processes, we’re now better able to deal with customers that need our help. Vulnerable customers and those with specific requirements can be given proper consideration by our colleagues who can apply emotional intelligence – something which humans have in abundance.


A specific example is in account closures. Of course, we don’t want to lose people, but when we do, that journey should be easy for them. Before, the analyst would spend a lot of time checking details, going through accounts, paying money manually, getting the audit trail and sending out customer communications. Now, the robot can read the information in a spreadsheet and perform all those processes automatically – it’s still the same process for the customer, whether they interact with us face-to-face, online or via the telephone. We’ve taken approximately  40% of the manual process out so that it’s quicker, we’re more resilient to volume, accuracy has improved and the analysts are now free to deal with exceptional cases, which are up to 20% of that process.

A threat to jobs?

We ask ourselves this question a lot about how robotics might change the workforce. It does remove some activities that would otherwise require an operational analyst, because it allows us to do some of those things better, quicker, and more efficiently. But on the flip side it creates jobs – for example, we’ve put a number of people through training to become robotics developers. Our operatives now work in more value-added roles, as supervisors to the robots: setting them up to do the required work, checking they’ve done it properly and dealing with exceptions.

Tech will change the jobs we do and many of us will have to re-train to keep up with this. At Barclays, we’re committed to ensuring our colleagues have the skills to thrive in a changing world. When I first started in banking, my operations colleagues had to go down to the trading floor with a book to write in transactions that a trader had made, take them back and write them in the operations system. Well, guess what? In time, we built a link between the systems and that was no longer a required process – this is similar to that.

How to train your robot

Automating and scaling responsibly is crucial too – you could put a robot in and it could start doing something which, because it’s not been set up correctly, causes risk or impacts customer experience. We monitor our robotics daily to ensure it’s doing what we expect it to do. If any percentages change, we know that robot has started to malfunction. We’ve had to be robust about the implementation – if we change any part of a process, we need to communicate it, as the smallest variation in data can upset the robotics process. For example, if a source of data is moved in a system screen, and no-one tells the robot, it throws the whole process out.

Going too fast introduces risk. We have many controls in place to ensure that when we’re doing something manually, we do it well. We’re treading carefully so we don’t break anything.

We’re also training staff so that they understand the opportunities. It’s not about making everyone a robotics developer – it’s making sure they understand what processes they can improve. Demand across the business has been huge – it seems everyone wants their own robot.