Resetting RPA in shared services expectations (it's much bigger than you thought it was!)

by Rob Hughes, Senior Director, EMEA Marketing, Automation Anywhere 

Rob Hughes

I spent the past few days at the Shared Services and Outsourcing Week (SSOW) 2017 conference in Manchester. The week has been filled with exciting stories from shared services leaders from across Europe offering up insights on everything from talent to process methodology, mixed with awards and good company. However, as with most events and gatherings of senior folk across the corporate landscape, lately one theme seems to dominate -- Robotic Process Automation or RPA.

Stories from technology vendors across the sector and some from those remotely related to the sector (it seems that the RPA freight train has attracted a wide range of companies wishing to jump on board, irrelevant of their real offerings) abounded throughout the conference. However, one presentation really stood out as the new benchmark for achievement in RPA and it came directly from a customer rather than from the vendor.

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ANZ Group’s Viji Varghese, head of the RPA centre of excellence, presented the bank’s achievements to date and shared his remarkable insights into what he sees as being fundamental to reaching the potential available through a Digital Workforce. While many companies struggle to build more than 100 robots in their first few years, Viji’s team are now past the 2000 mark in 22 months. The RPA factory at ANZ pumps out an amazing 40 robots per week and this digital workforce has helped them to avoid 34 regulatory breaches over the past couple of years, which is a big deal for a bank.

The numbers and achievements go on but one number dominated the entire conference -- their aspiration to have 12,000 robots working across the ANZ shared services centres by the end of 2018. I’ll rewrite that number … 12,000 – twelve thousand … just in case you think it might have been a typo.

The capability to build this level of capacity requires more than just a centre of excellence (Viji’s direct COE team is made up of around 70 RPA experts with skills including governance, compliance, IT, HR and of course RPA specifics such as developers, architects and designers) but the real drive, he says, comes directly from the business. ANZ has invested in training over 500 business users in how to ‘build a bot’ and this ground swell in competency is what drives the factory engine. Demand for the COE’s services is consistent and is fed by problems looking for a solution rather than a solution looking for problems. The whole shared services organisation is on board and testing use cases on a continuous basis. In fact, the demand is so high that only around 50% of the tasks proposed by the business are converted into robots -- if the business case doesn’t stack up then the task continues at a manual level. 

So, while a lot of organisations are running proof of concepts, ANZ is leveraging a large scale deployment of digital workers supported and driven by their human workforce. Lower cost (even against the Indian labour arbitrage model), huge efficiency increases, higher productivity and zero errors across 85% of the banks processes (that’s how many processes a robot works on at ANZ) leaves me wondering what more proof you need.


On day two of the conference it became apparent just why it can be tricky to get the proverbial RPA ball rolling in some organisations, even when the strategic intent and aspirations are the same as they are for ANZ. I was humbled to be asked to chair a panel made up of Ashish Mathur, CIO at Maersk (who won the Excellence in Automation award based on Maersk’s own incredible results), Marcin Nowakowski, CFO of BNP Paribas’s shared service centre in Poland, Serina Jonas, EMEA HR Service Delivery Country Cluster Head at UBS, and ANZ’s Viji himself.

We addressed some of the frequent questions asked in relation to RPA around speed, scale, change and, of course, where do you start?

Although each of the panellists view these themes through very different lenses and their respective organisations are at different points of the RPA journey, they all agreed on the main challenges and which levers should be pulled to get past them. So what did I learn from the experts?

  1. Just do it. Sorry, no plagiarism intended but if you wait around for the right governance structure to be agreed upon or for all the stars to align you are putting yourself and your company at a competitive risk. Remember Blockbuster? By the time they woke up and thought that streaming movies was a good idea, Netflix had put them out of business, without a fight.
  2. Go wide, not deep. Trying to automate an entire end-to-end process in your initial stages will set you up to fail. As Viji says, take the ‘happy path’, automating 50% of a process gives you almost immediate ROI and frees you up to move on to the next ‘happy path’ – the multiplier effect here is enormous.
  3. Top down + bottom up makes change a lot easier. Forcing this type of change on a human workforce will not end well. Empower people through extensive training and your humans will amaze you with ideas and developments from individuals that you never knew existed.
  4. Fail fast. Develop the mentality of ‘you win or you learn.’ Or if you’re smart you go and visit the COE teams who have already navigated the pain, since experienced people are still incredibly accommodating in RPA and will offer you shortcuts to enabling your own company. I’d do this soon, though, as I can’t see too many philanthropists still being around in the next 12 months -- this type of knowledge could become pricey and is already a competitive edge.
  5. Back the right horse. The technology you choose matters. Do your research and if you have big aspirations (as you should) make sure that you pick a technology vendor that enables you to go after speed and scale. Starting small is not a bad thing but when you’re ready to grow make sure that your technology enables you and doesn’t slow you down.

RPA is more than another toolset and has the potential to fundamentally change the way in which business services are delivered, no doubt. Looking at the results from those who have more than one hundred robots in play speaks for itself, and when you consider what the successful large corporates are doing with their digital workforces and what they are aiming to achieve the potential is incredible. Even more impressive is the speed at which they can churn out their robots as this allows them to build unheard of flexibility into service delivery to meet expected and unexpected peaks in demand.

I guess you have to ask yourself: Are we a Netflix or a Blockbuster?