Robotic Process Automation (RPA) Strategy and Implementation Overview
Robotic Process Automation (RPA) provides a digital workforce that can supplement or replace humans. This type of automation differs from the familiar (but still rapidly evolving) industrial robots by focusing on process automation or ‘back-office’ functions.
Several types of RPA are available ranging from simple rules-based logic to those that are augmented by Artificial Intelligence; cognitive and human-like decisioning systems. The key ingredient in differentiating RPA from previous process automation tools is that RPA interacts largely via the User Interface (UI) of the systems used in a process, as would any human executing the process being automated. Except that RPA does ‘human tasks’ a lot faster, consistently and without error.
‘Basic’ RPA is already reasonably commoditized – pricing and delivery – and can be deployed in any process that involves tasks with steps that can be logically expressed. There are many examples in use; Finance (transaction processing, credit management, collections, cash application, reconciliations, inter-company accounting, asset classification and analysis, reporting etc.), Operations (customer account processing, fulfillment, complaint management etc.), Procurement (vendor master data management, payment processing, ERP posting & reconciliation etc.) and so on. This type of rules-based RPA can be deployed in many manually intensive processes – every business is different and so the size and ease of opportunity will vary.
The goal to improve customer experience, process quality, accuracy, and speed, combined with massively reduced costs, is worth the attention. For the people currently doing these tasks, many of which are repetitive and boring, RPA can also free up valuable time to focus on more interesting activities. But an RPA digital workforce strategy also presents new challenges. The key is to learn the lessons from others that have adopted RPA and avoid the pitfalls that can lead to project failures or reduced returns.
Strategy & Planning
A key initial step is to understand the scope of potential and priorities for process automation in your enterprise. An analysis of processes in use, their components, and potential automation options will result in a mapping of target areas. This is done using a matrix of factors that affect RPA suitability; complexity, exceptions, error rates, process and system change frequency, regulatory & compliance rules, headcount utilized, cross-business touch-points etc. Applying a simple (or weighted) scoring mechanism to determine issues, risks and cost set against the opportunity/benefits will identify if and where to start.
However, it is also wise to look at RPA in the context of other tactical or strategic automation/technology and process options as a change to core process/systems will often bring benefits of simplification in change management post-implementation. A ‘big-picture’ view may also include the use of ‘disposable robotics’ using RPA as a cost-effective vehicle to drive change rather than the end-goal. Residual RPA in this approach would potentially mop-up and automate user and process activity that could not be reasonably integrated into other core change activities.
Understanding needs is key in choosing the right vendor/partner in technology and delivery. Although the basic RPA rule-engines will have similar characteristics between vendors, there are some differences in interface, usability, features, technical environment specifications and commercial frameworks. Clearly, pricing and commercial terms can make a massive difference to Return On Investment (ROI) timescales.
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Business Case & Delivery
By far the biggest difference in cost-benefit ratio will be through the delivery program itself; discovery, analysis, design, development, testing, implementation and change management. A good delivery practice will select the right processes and balance effort with appropriate governance to ensure the approach does not kill the business case. Importantly, good systemization of the delivery practice will be necessary to leverage learning, scale, and speed in bringing benefits to life.
A strong business case is often readily available in areas of low complexity/exception rates and high-volume/FTE environments. But when considering the different flavors of RPA, that include Robotic Desktop Automation (RDA), there is often a case even at low FTE saving levels. There is also a host of ‘soft’ benefits (process consistency, enhanced productivity and cycle times etc.) that on their own can provide a strong business case, especially when considering customer and process stakeholder experience. Taking humans out of key and at-risk processes also reduces opportunity for fraud and abuse. If Shared Service Centers (SSC)/Global Business Centers (GBS) or Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) partnerships are deployed, the targeted and systematic deployment of RPA (and/or RDA) could be a game-changer.
Common Issues to Avoid
- Overly-complex, high-exception rates or change-prone processes targeted as a pilot or initial implementation
- Unstructured or shallow process discovery and design leading to process gaps and multiple RPA configuration cycles
- Attempting to configure the entire process 100% rather than applying the 80/20 principle and automating the highly repetitive tasks first, avoiding or eradicating exceptions
- Ill-conceived technology infrastructure leading to inflated costs or risks
- Inappropriate stakeholder engagement and/or alignment; failure to bring security, risk, compliance and audit functions on the journey; politics driving barriers to success
- Poorly defined roles, ownership, and accountability of program and delivery components; assumptions not validated; overlaps with BAU or activities in other functions causing conflict
- Over-zealous business case targets; ignoring ‘soft benefits’ which in fact can be a key business win.
There is a range of organization models and roles to consider in implementing RPA; these are described more completely in the full RPA Insights guide. However, it is wise to consider early on whether you may wish to develop a full in-house capability or partner with third-parties as your longer-term vision. Fully managed services are also available to enable you to concentrate on core-business and oversee a partnership in delivering the RPA transformation.
Employee and stakeholder engagement is an important factor in the success of RPA. A poor approach will promote resistance. A good approach will stimulate change and bring great results. In reality, many businesses should now be thinking ‘automation first’ when considering workforce planning. It makes sense to use machines where the human touch is simply not required or beneficial. Humans will clearly retain a leading role in innovating, designing and implementing change, whilst also maintaining a primary customer-facing operational responsibility. But much of the current human workforce could (and likely will) be replaced as new processes and businesses come to life or where existing processes clearly need improvement. Being transparent and engaging with employees and stakeholders in the chosen automation strategy, with timely and honest communications, will improve success and reduce negative consequences.
RPA with big-picture thinking will enable significant quality and cost benefits. But these will only be possible if a sensible and systematic approach is adopted. Applying the lessons of others will help to avoid RPA program failure, unnecessary costs, and unfavorable customer impact. With such significant benefits, it is wise to examine the potential – as many businesses (competitors?) are – but plan and execute with diligence and common sense.