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Ananth Krishnan, Director Process Excellence (Digital Transformation), Land O’Lakes Inc.
Robotic Process Automation – the term conjures up images of robots magically doing many human tasks. Robots and process automation are not new to the industrial world. Industrial robots have increased productivity while increasing quality and reducing costs. We even have robots in our houses (robotic vacuum cleaners, for example.)Also, like every other new technology, RPA vendors market their platforms as the silver bullet to all the organization’s problems. Any technology vendor worth their salt must use words like AI, Bots, Prediction, Data Science, Cognitive Intelligence to market their products. I’ve attempted to sort through the hype and provide a context for understanding and adopting RPA technology.
Simply put, RPA technology aims to do to business processes, what robotic automation did for industrial processes. We deploy software robots that act like humans – performing business processes at high speed, high quality, and low cost. A clearer name would have been ‘Robots for Business Processes,’ but what’s the fun in that?
The case for using RPA – Business Realities – CIO’s balancing act
Most organizations deploy systems to digitize, integrate and automate business processes. ERPs, CRMS, and custom applications are typical examples. Despite this, a multitude of factors still stand in the way of organizations realizing the full potential of digitization, as viewed from a business lens.
If you examine the IT and Business dance at organizations, there are two extremes. At best, organizations have deployed applications and systems with reasonable business architectural and process thought. Each application does what it does best, and an integration layer (or a data engineering layer) moves the data ‘around,’ with reasonable efficiency. At worst, organizations have a patchwork of applications that do not work well with each other along multiple dimensions – technology stack, process disconnect, organizational silos. Most organizations are likely in the middle.
Add to this the rapid pace of technology innovation and ever-changing business demands, and you have a recipe for organizational chaos. The classic IT process (and systems) cannot keep up with this onslaught of demands. To provide new digital capabilities, CIOs must typically choose between seismic changes to their application portfolio (i.e., replacing enterprise applications) AND customizations or expensive integrations. All these options are expensive and time-consuming. To be fair, there are situations when seismic change is warranted. But with a limited budget and an ever-expanding list of business demands, CIOs find it harder to do a balancing act of maintaining/upgrading current systems, lowering cost, improving security, being sensitive to privacy laws and innovating with new technology. What if there were technologies that alleviated some of the pain? What if CIOs didn’t have to choose? What if you could support business growth by extracting more value out of existing technology assets and defer or focus new technology investments optimally?
RPA Promise – Cross Pollination of Technologies, Art of the Possible
RPA platforms will be valuable in the CIO toolkit to help their organizations generate additional value from existing systems while charting the journey into new technologies. The primary attraction of RPA is that it can break the deadlock of hard choices by integrating existing systems without those systems having to change. Magic? Absolutely not. Here is a recent example from our organization – albeit a small one.
Our sales team wanted to get visibility to customer invoices – on demand. For legacy reasons, the systems that are in place are not configured for segregated access.
The key thing to remember is the ‘P’ in RPA. Robots can bring a high level of productivity, efficiency, and accuracy at a low cost – if you apply them to the right processes
In the past, these infrequent requests would be sent to customer service, who would then ‘pull out the invoice pdfs’ and email it to the requestor. But the business situation has changed – the sales team needs it sooner and more frequently. The classic technology response would need time-consuming work to provide this capability – build segregation in the legacy system, train the sales users on the system and so on. Enter RPA! We created an email inbox where the RPA bot ‘listen’s in.’ When a request for an invoice comes in, the bot simply does the work that the customer service person would have done – look up the pdf, extract it and send it out. We developed and deployed this solution in weeks – and there was no training required.
To be fair, the RPA technology can do much more than what I explained above. RPA capabilities can be viewed along a continuum – as shown below (courtesy: Deloitte). I strongly believe that most organizations will get initial value out of RPA using the first step.
1. Taking the robot out of the human: Use a software robot to mimic repetitive user action. This relieves the user of low-value tasks, increases speed and accuracy and provides a 24-hour virtual person to do these tasks.
2. Making some human-like decisions based on rules: Configure rules within the robot configuration so it can take some decisions based on data or events. An example of this would be an invoice processing robot that applies discounts or provides automatic responses if the invoice does not meet accounting rules.
3. Predicting outcomes based on past ‘learning’: Robots that can learn from patterns in the data and start predicting outcomes. An example of this would be a bot predicting that a consumer is likely to ‘close an account’ based on the frequency of suboptimal customer interaction or based on the type of questions a consumer is presenting.
4. ‘Almost’ Thinking like a human: Robots that can interact with users as if it were a human. An example of this would be chatbots that may detect sentiment and respond emotively.
So, What Next? Does RPA solve all my problems? Where do I use RPA?
While the full promise of RPA platforms will eventually manifest, organizational maturity will be the biggest area of challenge and change. The key thing to remember is the ‘P’ in RPA. Robots can bring a high level of productivity, efficiency, and accuracy at a low cost – if you apply them to the right processes. My conversations with consultants from McKinsey and Deloitte reveal that many organizations are pursuing RPA as a silver bullet – without paying due attention to the process. Deploying any technology without first assessing the right fit and the right area to apply it will always end in disappointment and wasted investment. RPA is no different. I use the following 2x2 matrix to check if a potential ‘ask’ passes the smell test.
Recommendations for CIOs and technologists.
“Put the horse before cart” Going back to the continuum, the best area to start RPA would be consistent, repetitive, high-volume processes that are currently manual.
1. Get familiar with the technology. All the leading RPA vendors have educational videos that talk to the capabilities of the technology and its potential application areas. They are more than eager to help you learn.
2. Show RPA to your internal business partners. The best use cases for RPA will come from process owners in the business area that see the potential for automation and productivity increase.
3. Educate the organization on the importance of process standardization – where it is most appropriate.
4. Do a light evaluation of RPA vendors and select 1 or 2 of them to do a couple of Proof-of-Concepts. Each platform has its strengths, and you must find a fit for your organization.
5. Proof of Concept: Create a small team comprising – a couple of developers and Business Process Analysts who can work with the RPA vendor team to develop a POC.
6. Find a right-sized process – one that is standardized and has high volume and consistency. Do not attempt to redesign complex processes while you attempt a technology POC.
7. Create an RPA Center of Excellence – Do not go overboard – Start small, learn best practices – either from the RPA vendor or from a trusted independent technology solution provider.
8. As you complete your POC – decide if you will own the RPA tech capabilities or use an external provider. If you choose to develop your IT staff, invest in training. Regardless of your choice, train your business partners on ‘when RPA’ and ‘when not RPA.’