Automation is one of the biggest buzzwords in the technology business today. But we often think about automation in the context of large systems and moving large volumes of data between complex systems. The reality is automation has a place right through a business. Not just in big systems but in helping people execute repetitive, every day processes.
Robotic Process Automation (RPA) can understand data and then execute a process. What further differentiates RPA from the common view of systems automation is that it can be deployed at a relatively low cost making it an ideal candidate for supporting end users in their day-to-day work.
During a recent roundtable discussion held in Canberra, that was sponsored by Automation Anywhere and facilitated by CSO Australia, a number of senior technology managers discussed how RPA could fit into their organisations, what processes were prime candidates for RPA, what the challenges are and how to make RPA part of the technology agenda.
The goal of RPA is to use existing data faster and more effectively than today. With a number of the organisations at the table at different points in their RPA journeys, with some still at the proof of concept and others two years down the road and at a relatively high level of maturity, it was agreed that the focus of RPA was not on replacing existing staff. Often, automation is sold on the premise that it will help reduce staff numbers. But that wasn't the case according to the attendees.
The capacity multiplier
RPA was seen as a capability multiplier. Rather than replacing people, by automating routine and repetitive tasks, personnel can be liberated to work on more interesting and higher-value tasks. For example, rather than having people re-key information between systems, a mundane and sometimes error-prone task, a bot could be used to "screen scrape" data from one system and write it to another. The person who used to do this job would then be free to deal with exceptions, where data is missing or incorrect, rather that simply copy/pasting.
When RPA meets machine learning, it can augment the skills of employees. For example, in security analytics, RPA can be used to deal with security issues where there is a well-understood management process. This allows security analysts, who are in short supply, to focus on more complex problems.
Similarly, in back office operations such as finance and HR, there are numerous tasks that can be automated to great effect. For example, employee on-boarding can be made faster by applying RPA to parts of the process.
Those at a higher level of maturity in their use of RPA noted that this emerging technology isn't a panacea for all process issues. But it's another tool that can be used to accelerate the processing of information and assisting people by helping them get rid of boring work.
Where does RPA work best?
RPA works best with processes processes that are repetitive, don't require much thinking on the part of human operators and have very few exceptions. However, those may not always be easy to identify.
One of the challenges was understanding what a process actually is. in many cases, the kinds of activities that are strong candidates for RPA are often tasks that are done by a specific person. For example, the creation of new data is often considered suitable for RPA. But in many cases, rather than thinking of that as a process, people say "That's what Bob does".
The return on investment for those tasks can be very high. A recent study by McKinsey, noted during the discussion, found that the ROI on RPA was between 30% and 200% in the first year alone.
More than manpower and dollars
While the focus of automation is often on cost savings and the reduction of staffing, there were other benefits.
As the volume of data businesses manage increases, and the number of connections between systems continue to rise, having tools to assist with the linking and moving data between systems becomes more important. And doing that with the fewest possible errors can reduce the risks associated with data errors.
Also, by automating specific tasks and activities, the knowledge of how those things work becomes embedded in the organisational memory. Many people complete jobs that are never properly documented or handed over when they leave the organisation. RPA ensures the knowledge of the seemingly insignificant, but actually very important tasks, becomes part of the corporate fabric.
Where are the challenges?
Automation is often seen as a threat to traditional employment. But several of the roundtable attendees noted that the number of people employed in the automotive industry has consistently increased even though automated manufacturing processes have markedly changed how cars are mode.
As more of the repetitive tasks have been automated, people have been employed in new areas that emerge where human intelligence and creativity can be harnessed. RPA, they said, enables people to work on more challenging problems and interesting tasks.
One way to help people manage the shift with automation is to empower them to automate their own work, making RPA about a personal, rather than process, approach. Having good tools that allows people to do this puts them in control so they can see the benefits first-hand rather having automation forced upon them.
The RPA opportunity
The driving question RPA allows people to ask is "What if I had more time?". By taking a user-led approach, you allow people to ask that question so they can see the benefits themselves. As users free up time by automating boring tasks, they can focus on more complex challenges and also take time to think about how to solve problems or come up with ideas that can benefit the company.
Where do you start?
The consensus of the more experienced RPA practitioners at the roundtable was to start with a limited trial or proof of concept activities. Those proofs should be done within business units so that internal champions are created.
While that's happening, you can develop a governance framework to support a broader deployment as you learn from the users' experiences.
When it comes to automation, some of the lowest hanging fruit in a business might well be at the desks of users and not in complex backend systems. By empowering users to automate the mundane tasks they least enjoy and are most error prone, you can deliver value quickly.
RPA lets you take tedious tasks and liberate personnel so they can use the most powerful computers in your business to solve tough problems and apply their creativity to finding new opportunities.