Robotic Process Automation (RPA): what are the opportunities and implications for businesses?

If you’ve not yet heard about Robotic Process Automation (RPA), then you soon will have.  RPA is a type of Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology that can replicate the actions involved in monotonous and repetitive business processes.  This technology has the potential to create significant opportunities for businesses both operationally and strategically.  This is not science-fiction, it is happening now.  This article will focus on what the major opportunities and implications are for businesses, but for more information about RPA, click here.

Are the robots coming for our jobs?

One of the most commonly cited implications of robotic process automation, or ‘robots’ for short, is the displacement and wide-spread loss of jobs.  Whilst, there will always be an opportunity to use RPA for cost-reduction purposes, in our opinion, this is not the best use of this technology.  Many exponents of RPA highlight the major benefits of automating painfully mundane tasks that people don’t want to do (eg matching orders or invoices, manual entry or checking of data, etc).  This technology can be used tactically and strategically to address particular pain points within a process to enable staff to focus on more valuable activities.  Enhanced compliance, audit trails and reduced error rates are also commonly cited benefits.

Scalable growth, productivity and the war for talent

The lack of available talent is a common concern that we hear from organisations. This could be further impacted by Brexit and continued low unemployment rates. Deploying that scarce talent to jobs that are routine, mind numbing and require little judgement is therefore not a recipe for success – particularly if the stereotype of the 'millennial’ is to be believed.  The application of RPA technology to automate the right types of tasks and activities, allowing precious talent to focus on valuable activities, can potentially set an organisation up for exponential growth.  

Implications for process and job design

Most of us crave rewarding, satisfying work where we can make a difference and don’t feel like an uninspired robot.  Therefore, it makes perfect sense for repetitive, monotonous tasks to be carried out by robots and the rest to be carried out by human beings.  One of the main challenges to be addressed in order to move to this scenario is the design of appropriate processes and job descriptions. These should identify which tasks and activities will be carried out by robots and which will be carried out by people. This challenge can be overcome with appropriately skilled process improvement professionals.  Remember, this is about business change more than simply new technology.  Furthermore, there’s often little value in simply automating a bad process.

Drivers for outsourcing, offshoring or retaining inhouse?

Historically, organisations have decided to outsource (and/or offshore) activities that are considered non-core and where improved performance can be expected from the external provider.  This technology potentially changes that dynamic.  For those organisations with cost pressures, offshoring (and the potential wage arbitrage difference) presented a compelling business.  Some sources have estimated that the use of a ‘robotic labour force’ presents a more compelling cost comparison than even the most competitive offshore rates.  Accordingly, many outsourcers / BPOs are investing heavily into this technology.

How will people ‘cut their teeth’ in this new world?

In many industries the most junior individual has historically been expected to carry out the most routine activities.  Whether it was an apprentice, office junior or a professional services trainee, this right of passage generally helped to provide the uninitiated with some relevant experience and ‘on the job’ training.  As RPA and other automation and AI technologies automate these routine activities, there will be implications for training and education for organisations.

Human resources department… and robot resources department?

The good news is that robot resources don’t require a HR department as such. However, they will still need maintenance, development and (to an extent) scheduling.  Rather than a ‘Robot Resources’ department, most organisations embarking along this path will consider a ‘Robotics Centre of Excellence’.  Dependent upon the scale, this may be a completely new function or, as is often the case, will be an extension of the IT team with appropriate upskilling and resourcing to support this new strand of technology.

To unlock the strategic potential of RPA, an organisation should consider developing its own capabilities for the ongoing development of their robotic workforce.  To begin with though, this is likely to be served by a third party while the feasibility and proof of concept is confirmed.

An entry point for Artificial Intelligence

AI is currently a very hot topic in both business and society.   Many organisations that RSM consult with are keen to explore how they can apply AI to their business to obtain benefits.  AI is not a particularly simple topic to access and there are not a wealth of readily available, mature solutions available to medium sized businesses.  Robotic Process Automation potentially offers an entry level position to experiment with AI. RPA can be readily understood ie use a software robot to automatically carry out some parts of a business process that are currently routine, cumbersome and / or monotonous.  

The RPA world is evolving quickly as well - bringing in more sophisticated elements such as Optical Character Recognition (OCR) scanning, Natural Language Processing (think voice activated assistants such as iPhone Siri or Amazon Alexa) and Machine Learning which could help to build a path for your business to incorporate more elements of AI.

Quicker time to value and return on investment

One of the most important features of RPA is that the automation takes place through the same user-interface that your teams currently use.  Specifically, the software robots replicate the activities almost exactly as your staff do by clicking on particular fields on a screen.  This differs to traditional I.T. automation (that typically links different systems and applications via ‘back-end’ databases).  

Why is this important?  Well, typically, RPA projects can be delivered in a fraction of the time (and cost) of a traditional IT automation project. This dramatically increases the time to receive a return-on-investment.  

Summary

In summary, RPA is a technology that presents significant opportunities for organisations to both tactically address particular process ‘pain-points’ and to strategically consider their processes, operations and resourcing approaches.

Common uses for this technology are in certain back office areas such as accounts payable and reconciling transactions and in core processes within service businesses such as insurance, financial services, law firms, customer services, technology, media and recruitment.

For more information about how our technology and management consulting team can help your organisations benefit from RPA, please contact Darren Mee.

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