Robotic Process Automation (RPA/Robotics) is an innovative technology which is applied on an increasingly large scale, and is touted to lead to a revolution in the automation of manual tasks. The emerging technology can – according to First Consulting – bring enormous efficiency advantages which can be realised in a relatively short time frame and with limited resources.
The experts of the management consulting firm see three main use cases for RPA: back-office processes, customer care and front office processes, and as an enabler for artificial intelligence.
An RPA journey generally starts by automating back office processes, such as within HR or finance administration. Many organisations have recently taken these first steps in 2018. However, the true potential of RPA is only fully realised through larger scale implementations. Going forward, robots will play an ever-greater role in the execution of daily tasks, both by automating back office processes and by supporting employees in their daily work. The goal of automation is not simply to achieve greater cost reductions, but to use human capital in the best possible way. In 2019 this will become even more apparent as the shortage of sufficiently skilled employees continues to rise in proportion to the demand for their skills.
Although the name may suggest otherwise, RPA doesn’t refer to mechanical robots. RPA is a type of software which replicates human actions within digital processes, which is why it is often compared to a virtual employee. RPA uses existing systems and applications, meaning that no high-impact IT adjustments are required for implementation. This allows RPA to be a business-driven initiative.
The vision for 2019: large scale adoption of robots
In the past twelve months a significant number of organisations have acquainted themselves with RPA. Many did so through proof of concepts (to test for technical and business viability), or by automating processes based on a minimum viable product. In the latter case, automating the process’ ‘happy path’, the main case of the process barring exceptions, was essential. The first phase in the scaling of RPA within an organisation is known as the ‘start-up’ phase.During the start-up phase, RPA is typically introduced by automating a back-office process, such as recruitment. Let’s take, for example, the case of a telecom organisation which has designed their recruitment process to consist of many repetitive, manual tasks. In this case, employees must manually copy information from applicants’ CVs into the HR system. Other activities include passing the result of a candidate’s interview process to financial support and contacting the relevant business team for onboarding. This example process is 90% automatable. The main benefit of this automation is that the recruitment team can now focus on their core tasks (e.g. dedicating more time to the recruitment and selection of candidates) along with meeting and getting to know them. Within organisations, there are many more such examples.
Following the initial Start-up phase, organisations enter the ‘Structure’ phase. This phase is not about building singular robots, but building a ‘robot farm’. The scope now expands to include not only back office processes, but also, for example, customer care processes, using robots as digital assistants for employees and integration with Artificial Intelligence solutions (see diagram below).
The Structure phase makes robots an integral part of the business. An example of this is the implementation of robots in customer care work such as within call centres. Customer care employees typically spend a disproportionately large amount of time to answer questions, as they need to gather information from multiple systems. Usually, there is no single version of the truth available. Replacing or enhancing these processes using the legacy systems requires a significant amount of investment. Through the application of RPA, the investment in time and money is significantly reduced. Robots can easily gather the required information from the various systems without the time-consuming and costly replacement of legacy systems. This makes RPA a valuable asset in the process improvement tool kit: it can be used to improve customer services by increasing speed and accuracy at relatively low cost and over relatively short timeframes.
Robots may also be introduced as digital assistants. Initially, robots will be designed to execute simple, repetitive tasks, such as manually calculating travel costs from websites such as tfl.gov.uk or nationalrail.co.uk. However, when robots are deployed on a larger scale within the organisation, it becomes increasingly viable to build increasingly complex robots. The advantage of robots is that their fundamental ‘components’ may be reused across different processes, business functions and business units. Leading platforms such as UiPath play a major role facilitating component share, offering both internal and external markets to current and potential clients.Following completion of the Structure phase, the ‘Scale’ phase introduces further integration into the business, full integration with IT processes and strengthening the established Centre of Excellence. The framework which was established in Start-up and refined in Structure can now be rolled out to increase the scope and impact of the RPA programme. It is at this stage that an RPA programme can introduce new technologies, including elements of AI such as OCR, machine learning and sentiment analysis, which further enhance the value delivered to the business. In this phase, the full value of RPA can be realised sustainably and over the long term, whilst setting the foundations for future advances in AI.
The rise of robots in the organisation will result in a significant change in the way that organisations are structured. What would it mean if every employee could dedicate 20-30 minutes of their time each day to more value-adding activities? The extra income that would be generated would soon amount to hundreds of thousands of pounds within small and medium enterprises, and perhaps millions more for larger, global organisations. Furthermore, cost reductions and quality improvements resulting from RPA initiatives contribute to even greater benefits. By using RPA, organisations are able to drive their growth forward without being limited by personnel shortages, quality concerns or legacy infrastructure costs.
Taking the step from the ‘start-up’ to the ‘structure’ phase requires more than just process and technical knowledge. When delivering larger-scale implementations, change management plays a significant role. A successful approach employs all three components of process, technology and change.