A New Way of Business: RPA and its Digital Workforce – What it Means to Practitioners
If you want to make robotic process automation part of your operations, the first thing you need to ask yourself is what you want to use it for. That, effectively, is the key message to practitioners, from anyone who has real experience with RPA solutions.
Barbara Hodge speaks with Tristan Gitman, Automation Strategist at Blue Prism, about the far-reaching implications of the new digital workforce.
Q: We hear a lot about desktop automation versus enterprise automation. What’s the real opportunity here?
Anything can be automated, because we have the technology to do it. However, to take on a holistic enterprise RPA platform is ambitious. More commonly, we see “assisted” automations, whereby parts of a process are automated as opposed to end-to-end processes. One of the challenges in support services is the frequency of hand offs, so while these desktop process automations take on tasks, they are still dependent on the pace of inputs, or the performance of the humans they had their tasks on to, again.
To get to the big, enterprise wins, practitioners need to think outside the box and get some influential stakeholders behind them. Businesses today have the opportunity to reinvent their operations based on the digital workforce. While extreme examples are represented by Amazon or Uber, most brick-and-mortar companies can still take part. Robotic process automation – through enterprise platforms that integrate software, provide end-to-end transparency, and accuracy – will play a big role in future, digital enterprises. Enterprise automation implies doing a lot of things differently, however, and will incorporate things like bitcoin, digital finance, blockchain, artificial intelligence … and many more things to come.
The point is not that one approach is better than the other. To plug problematic gaps in processing, RPA is a perfect solution, but even when applied across multiple points, the wins are discrete, limited. Enterprise process automation, on the other hand, is far more ambitious by providing the ultimate in integrated systems and transparency that reaches across the entire enterprise.
The challenge is to start with a project that captures the attention of senior leaders – and this inevitably works better when it impacts customer-facing processes and can be traced to bottom-line improvements. Once you have that, and your leaders are engaged, then you can shift to the back office. But it's important to understand the technology first.
Q: What is making RPA so popular right now?
Automation has been going on for a long time. What sets "robotic process" automation apart is that it has become easy to implement across various tasks. Today, nearly anyone can use or even design robotics, given the right tools, without having to have a technical background. That is the differentiator. You are no longer reliant on IT, and you can control your own implementations.
Q: Why is it that robotics’ use in the "back-office" is only now emerging?
Robotics, or any performance improvement tool, generally makes big headlines when it's used at the customer interface, in other words, when it has a direct impact on the bottom line – for example, by onboarding new customers faster, and more easily. The customer has a positive experience which in turn feeds a new pipeline of customers.
In what used to be called the “back- or middle-office”, things are a little murkier because the impact is not as transparent, but the power of RPA is still there. Where robotics is really grabbing the attention of Shared Services leaders is in its ability to circumnavigate common hurdles. For example, at the end of each year most SSO leaders will have a list of initiatives to help deliver on next year’s strategic objectives. Many of these objectives depend on technology enablement however, because they are, increasingly, being linked to knowledge work.
There are a few core challenges, here. The first is internal technology constraints that might enable only a partial achievement of objectives; the second is resource limitations; and the third concerns the need to constantly adapt to changing external regulations. In a non process-automated world, these constraints can derail your initiatives (indeed, do). However, RPA provides a helpful fix.
On the technology side, it makes it possible to deliver on time by enabling businesses to augment the gaps that they are trying to remediate with enterprise technologies. RPA means you can give instructions to software that can handle new requirements. So you gain the time needed to address bigger updates or shifts.
On resourcing, robotics makes it possible to repurpose resources easily. Robots represent a digital workforce in an increasingly virtual world, which can be attached to any task, for any given period. Once completed, the software simply shifts to another task. There is no waste and no time lost as resources are redeployed.
Changing regulations have, traditionally, represented one of the biggest headaches for support services, Finance as well as HR and others. Right now, it’s not unusual to have 80 or so regulatory updates within the Financial Services industry, in any given year. In the past, this meant rewriting procedures, adjusting to new ways of executing, and updating systems to allow for more or different data. It required a lot of IT hours, your own staff’s hours, and teamwork, to make these updates. With robotics you simply change the instruction – everything else already exists.
Q: What are the real wins of RPA? How are they measured?
While front-office activities tend to be measured financially – they feed straight through to the bottom line – the real advantage of back-office RPA is not necessarily measured in cost. Instead, immediate improvements in quality and transparency; the ability to respond quickly to compliance requirements; and better employee engagement, are where the rewards fall. The latter is particularly important today, as attrition is a concern and companies are making employee engagement a priority. By removing transactional work and freeing people up to do more interesting, value-adding work the knock-on effect is less attrition.
Two key things are at stake here. First, the ability of RPA to enable execution; and second, an improved sourcing opportunity. RPA benefits execution through improved accuracy, throughput, and transparency. It offers improved sourcing capability by supporting people’s engagement and their productivity, which impacts execution cycles and increases capacity.
The improvement in operational performance is the ‘big bang’ of RPA – and that goes far broader and is far more sustainable than simple task-fixes that are measured in time and money.