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.
But what are the major opportunities and implications of RPA for businesses? Let’s take a look.
Are the robots coming for our jobs?
One of the most commonly cited implications of robotic process automation is the displacement and wide-spread loss of jobs. There will always be an opportunity to use RPA for cost-reduction purposes but, in our opinion, this is not the best use of the technology.
Many supporters of RPA highlight the major benefits of automating painfully mundane tasks that people don’t want to do – think matching orders or invoices, manual entry or checking of data. Enhanced compliance, audit trails and reduced error rates are also commonly cited benefits. However, we believe the true benefits are to be achieved by using RPA to drive scalable growth.
Scalable growth, productivity and the war for talent
Some people find it difficult to see how RPA can lead to growth. To these people, we ask the following question: what could your business achieve with a limitless workforce that worked around the clock?
That’s the opportunity afforded by a digital workforce. This might sound too good to be true but if you choose the right processes to automate – and if you operate in financial, professional, or consumer services in particular – the opportunities could be huge.
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.
The application of robotic process automation 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.
Greater operational resilience
Recent events globally have demonstrated the importance of operational resilience in keeping businesses going through tough times. Development of a part-digital workforce using RPA can help to provide additional levels of contingency in difficult periods.
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 actual robots and the rest to be carried out by human beings.
One of the main challenges to address before this can happen 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 adopting new technology. There’s often little value, for example, in automating a bad process.
Drivers for outsourcing, offshoring or retaining inhouse?
Organisations have typically decided to outsource or offshore activities that are considered non-core and where improved performance can be expected from an external provider. RPA technology potentially changes that dynamic. For those organisations with cost pressures, offshoring presented a compelling business case.
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 and business process outsourcing companies themselves 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 rite 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.
Depending on the scale of your automation programme, this centre of excellence may be a completely new function or, as is often the case, an extension of the IT team with appropriate upskilling and resourcing to support the new technology.
To unlock the strategic potential of RPA, you should consider developing your own capabilities for the ongoing development of your 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 we consult with are keen to explore how they can apply AI to their business. 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.
RPA offers an entry level position to experiment with AI. RPA itself isn’t particularly intelligent, you simply use a software robot to automatically carry out some parts of a business process that are routine, cumbersome, or monotonous.
But the RPA world is evolving quickly. More sophisticated elements are being incorporated all the time, such as optical character recognition (OCR) scanning, machine learning, and natural language processing – think voice activated assistants such as iPhone’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa.
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. The software robots perform the activities almost exactly as your staff do by clicking on particular fields on a screen. This differs to traditional IT automation, which 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.
In summary, RPA technology presents significant opportunities for your business to both tactically address process pain points and to strategically consider your 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.