Scaling Digital Opportunities in Shared Services

By: Stephen Sutcliffe

Digital opportunities are not new in the shared services industry. The SSON 2019 State of Shared Services Market Report shows that almost 57% of European Shared Services have started implementing and piloting RPA technologies. While automation technologies are not new, few centers have begun scaling their digital capabilities with only 21% of organisations starting on that journey. With more and more shared services expected to implement digital technologies over the coming months, the next natural step is for these functions to take their digital capabilities to the next level. This could be through discovering where value can be added or it could be looking at disruptive technologies and how they fit with the business framework.

NHS Shared Business Services (NHS SBS) is one of the largest shared services providers in the world, hosting the largest Oracle platform. Over recent years it has been looking at how it can progress on its digital journey. Joining NHS SBS four years ago as Director of Finance and Accounting, Stephen Sutcliffe is spearheading a mission to scale digital opportunities across the shared functions. With its automation capabilities very much established, NHS SBS is looking at scaling automation, implementing Artificial Intelligence and has even started a consultancy project to help its other functions and their clients to enable automation within their businesses. 

In this exclusive interview with Stephen Sutcliffe, discover how NHS SBS has accelerate new digital business opportunities and how it is scaling existing capabilities to improve its internal processes and add greater value for its NHS clients.

How is NHS Shared Business Services currently using and utilising digital opportunities?

"As a philosophy, we are continuously looking to improve our processes. We're always trying to drive more opportunities internally. In the long term, we've got a real strategic objective of saving money for the NHS. To date, we've saved hundreds of millions of pounds and much of this is from implementing digital solutions for our NHS clients. We have had a real drive on robotics and RPA in the last 18 months. Currently, we have around 800 processes in place, of which half would definitely benefit from automation capabilities. So, we're really moving away from having just a few robots sitting on processes and we're working with UiPath to scale a substantial RPA program. At the moment, we have 130 processes that are using automation and this is already saving us almost 200,000 man-hours a year. In terms of the wider digital technology piece, we're also looking at other aspects of automation, particularly chatbots. We currently take around 60,000 calls into our call centres each month so we have various automation plans in place around intelligent chatbots and other technologies to help us improve this process." 

How did you get started on implementing and scaling your automation capabilities?

"In the early days we had numerous people within the organisation who were looking to see what technologies were disrupting both the banking and shared services sector. We were involved in various conferences and forums about the future of the sector and from these discussions, we realised that RPA had a lot of potential. Our early stages really consisted of understanding the processes and how we can improve them. Doing the groundwork, you realise you're missing a lot of opportunities and this level of understanding gives you the foundation to move forward. Initially, we identified processes which were easy to implement and that would have the biggest benefit to us. We started off on a really simple process within foreign exchange. This process previously had someone checking foreign exchange rates once a week and updating this information in Oracle and that took about four hours per week. This now gets checked automatically every single day and takes seconds to update. Although it doesn't provide any particular financial benefits, it's really improved our productivity and capabilities. In the past six months, we've been moving toward Orchestrator - this is a big robot that controls smaller robots. With this implementation, we have established a Centre of Excellence approach and we hope to have this fully established in the next six months." 

How are these technologies helping to transform the service you're providing both to the business and to your clients?

"I've been an accountant for 25 years and it's a;ways been the same job, in fact, it's probably been the same since 1700 when double entry book keeping first came along. But just like in our personal live, technology is transforming many things and for me, what RPA is bringing is not just financial benefits and delivering savings back to the NHS, it's right at the heart of our mission - giving an efficient and excellent service. More than this, it's enabling consistency, higher quality and we're seeing very clear evidence in our customer satisfaction score. Our NPS is improving off the back of RPA. It genuinely does enable us to talk to staff about other value-adding tasks they can be doing, how we can develop their skills and how we can maximise the value we're providing to our clients. In fact, we're looking at how we can look at our clients internal processes and identify where we can help them to automate some of their own processes using our expertise. So, RPA is enabling us to open up new avenues of value and service for our clients."

Why should other Shared Business Services consider capabilities like Artificial Intelligence as well as just basic automation technologies?

"As with a lot of developments, you've got the opportunity to stand still and deliver a good service today but in not too many years, you'll be left behind. Everything will be outdated. For us at NHS Shared Business Services, we're in a competitive space so we have to demonstrate the value that we deliver to our clients. Otherwise they'll do it themselves of they will look elsewhere. So, for us, it's absolutely giving us a competitive advantage. But also, why would you not want to be in the position of driving forward improvements for both your staff and your clients, and really demonstrating the benefit of shared services. We've got the scale, we've got an ability to look at what the best practice is and we ought to bring that best practice to our organisations. If we're not pushing things forward from a technological point of view then, quite rightly, people will begin to ask, what is the value of shared services?"

NHS Shared Business Services has utilised its digital opportunities to the next level. Automation is a simple tool but Stephen and his team have continuously looked for new ways in which the technology could add value to their function and keep them on top of their competition. Not only has automation led them on unique ventures in consulting and partnering but it has helped them to understanding the value of other digital opportunities. Moving forward, NHS Shared Business Services will be making big steps when it comes to Artificial Intelligent, Machine Learning, Chatbots and other cognitive capabilities.

When we sat down with Stephen, he quite rightly state that shared services who aren't making the most of digital opportunities are losing value in the wider business. For any shared services out there that have yet to begin seriously considering digital opportunities and where they can be implemented and scaled within their function will fall behind. So, how will you utilise your digital opportunities?

Stephen joined the NHS through a graduate scheme and has since been progressing through roles within the NHS, including as Director of Finance for 15 years. Around four years ago, Stephen was offered the opportunity to join NHS Shared Business Services as the Director of Finance and Accounting. The organisation is one of the largest shared business service providers in the world, with the largest Oracle platform. On behalf of almost 300 NHS organisations, Stephen and his teams process around eight million invoices a year and manage almost £170 billion worth of cash. Stephen will be joining us at Shared Services and Outsourcing Week Autumn 2019 in Prague to host a case study sharing the lessons he has learnt from implementing RPA at the UK's largest shared services function. Find out more about Stephen's session at SSOW Autumn here.