Without working yourself out of a job, there’s probably not a segment of your business you wouldn’t love to automate. Letting information technology do the work is a smart business process—one of the most productive avenues of delivering value and adding efficiency to your enterprise. This is the essence of one of the hottest concepts within digital transformation: robotic process automation, or RPA.
Can a Machine Do It?
At its most basic level, RPA is an application of business intelligence—IT taken to the next level. Some simple processes don’t require an entire IT transformation and re-design, but can be generated or handled by computer—these are the spots where RPA can come in and automate the process.
Like physical robots that have aided the logistics and manufacturing worlds for decades, RPA involves computers in the same sense but for different kinds of tasks. RPA has capabilities that are cross-function, cross-device, and cross-application—able to complete mental tasks without using up the valuable mental energy of individual personnel, and often instantly or with huge time savings.
According to Leslie Willcocks, professor of technology, work, and globalization at the London School of Economics department of management, RPA can accomplish “repetitive stuff more quickly, accurately, and tirelessly than humans, freeing them to do other tasks requiring human strengths such as emotional intelligence, reasoning, judgment, and interaction with the customer.”
Transforming business via RPA begins by looking for routine processes, repetitive tasks, or very predictable basic practices within your work. Examine these areas—with the help of IT personnel—to consider where tech replication of these jobs may be possible. Pick out the parts that already feel mechanical to your employees—not the mental heavy work they have to ponder deeply in order to make a decision, but the everyday mini-steps that lead up to the big choices.
“Look for tasks that require manual intervention, are performed frequently, are rules-based, and eat up a significant amount of time.”—Deloitte
Now, to be precise, we’re not talking about intelligent automation (IA)—which is typically a more expensive level of machine learning, expanding on RPA with cognitive problem-solving abilities and higher-level analytics. Deloitte explains, “Unlike RPA tools, which can be broadly applied, IA solutions require more extensive configuration and machine learning that is specific to a much narrower business purpose and the complex scenarios it may encounter.”
But if you’re thinking your business might benefit from some basic RPA, step one is identifying the mundane and repetitious within your enterprise which a computer could do for you.
Where Does RPA Fit?
Before we get much farther into the how of RPA implementation, let’s talk about where this applies. In which business models and industries will RPA bring the most impact? What types of processes could benefit from technological automation?
- Transactional operations—Finance, HR, marketing, and other shared services are a large market for RPA. Deloitte says, “We have already seen this happening in investment advisory services, where some firms have mentioned seeing an improvement in productivity for their client-facing advisors, allowing them to reach more clients.”
- Established enterprises—Businesses which have expanded their technology in piecemeal fashion likely have segments which could benefit from RPA. The technology here is already a complex hodgepodge of legacy platforms, in contrast with younger startups whose cutting-edge tech has been intentionally simple from the beginning.
- Marketing—Analysis of customer activities can also be tracked, recorded, and enacted via RPA. Digitizing the big data of your customer base is foundational to streamlined client management, again freeing employees for greater use. According to Mark Weidner of Marketo, RPA has “the ability to analyze mass quantities of user data in real time, split that data into segments, identify anomalies, create scoring models and predictive content recommendations, and then deploy market messaging that resonates with consumers as individuals at scale.”
CiGen, an RPA service provider, suggests that both small and large businesses stand to benefit from the scalable capacities of RPA: “Across various industries such as finance, insurance, legal, media, primary infrastructure, hospitality and utilities, RPA is being used to automate mundane, high volume, and time consuming processes. These can include various tasks such as order and AP processing, HR, data audits and migration, service job entry and invoicing.”
RPA technology takes existing operations within any business model and mimics them—more efficiently and effectively—via computer.
The next step in wielding RPA tools is to get IT on board. And the most effective way to help the IT department through RPA implementation is to let the C-Suite lead. If executives present RPA change well to the in-house tech team, IT can enact the transformation of the processes to be handled via computer.
Then at every level, it’s crucial for leadership to help employees see the advantages of software simplification of the mundane. Be honest from the start about how RPA will change the organization and allow your team to participate in development as much as possible. Put proven change management principles to work here.
If needed, find a third-party partner to support development and guide implementation. Consult with them on every step of adoption and delivery. Deployment doesn’t take long in many contexts because RPA software is uniquely designed as an add-on to legacy systems. The whole goal is to simplify processes, not add complications for individual departments or for IT.
RPA moves mundane tasks away from people entirely, shifting the work to technology, letting a computer-coded device manipulate the data and communicate with the entire IT system. Obviously, moving work from a person to a computer requires a detailed understanding of the work itself—IT must understand every step of that particular process in order to develop multiple software elements to handle each task.
- Start by standardizing the process so bots will be able to manage every step precisely.
- Enacting RPA is the big piece of the picture. Once the process is known backwards and forwards, IT can set the rules, and software robots can take on the whole process, step by step.
- Creating robotic agility within the computerized process is also valuable: the more adaptable the device, the greater the value of this entire digital transformation.
- Of course, businesses should expect an extensive process of experimenting with the software, then scaling it to meet enterprise needs, and then finally carrying out full adoption. Plan carefully for this for minimal disruption.
Benefits of a Digital Workforce
What’s in it for you now that you’ve taken the time to identify processes and create computerized “employees” for your enterprise? Deloitte summarizes, “The prize is not only a cheaper, faster and higher-quality workforce for those rules-based administrative tasks, but the opportunity to establish a mindset and momentum that enables you to progress further and faster on your overall digital journey.”
Productivity. The genius of RPA is its output. In much less time, and for reduced costs, the yield is greater. Short-term gains are the goal of RPA.
Superiority. It’s hard to imagine a “thing” doing a better job than one of your valued team members, but the truth is that RPA produces higher quality work, with better accuracy, because it eliminates much of the capacity for human error.
Evidence. If the machine messes up or there’s a need for some reason to examine the process history, RPA provides an infinitely better data record.
Compliance. Wading through government and legal docs to make sure the entire business is conforming to regulations is a piece of cake for RPA bots. The compliance enabled by RPA is, in particular, a huge advantage. Xuan Liao of Forbes explains:
In the imminent proliferation of data privacy regulations worldwide, RPA can also play an important role in relieving the massive administrative burden that large regulatory policies such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) can present. With the regulation’s comprehensive policy to enable advanced data review rights and ongoing consent management, your marketing database is likely to deal with a flood of requests that can skyrocket operational costs. Software robots can capture the information, interpret data, perform action items and provide a response to the requester, regardless of where data resides or of its formatting.
Scalability. The incredible flexible potential of RPA for various industries of any size is one of its most appealing traits. So far, there’s no cap on the possibilities for application of RPA once the tools are created.
Morale-boosting. Eliminating the need for staff sounds like a negative. But actually, experts are finding that moving employees away from the repetitive, mind-numbing processes which a programmed piece of software can do enables the human workforce to focus on the jobs where they can provide the most value.
Instead of people, an adaptable machine does the work.
Sounds appealing, right? Robots supporting engaged employees may sound like a futuristic dream world, but efficiency will always be an attractive business model. RPA provides just that—a return on investment that preserves the most human capabilities of your employees while simultaneously adding productivity.