Major South African enterprises are fast embracing Robotic Process Automation (RPA), and mid-size and even small businesses are set to follow suit, but, what are some of the advantages and disadvantages of implementing RPA into your enterprise?
In Part 1 of this article, Drew Sonden, solutions consultant and Peter Walker, who represents the CTO office in EMEA at Blue Prism, provided further information, clarification, and insight to demonstrate the power and value of connected RPA.
Major South African enterprises are fast embracing Robotic Process Automation (RPA), and mid-size and even small businesses are set to follow suit, but, what is RPA, how does it work and what can it do for enterprises?
In Part 2 of this article, Sonden and Walker continue to share some advantages and disadvantages of implementing RPA into your enterprise...
What are the advantages of using RPA?
Peter Walker represents the CTO office in EMEA at Blue Prism
As the previous answers have highlighted, RPA offers multiple benefits from speed and efficiency, to security and compliance. However, RPA doesn’t just release human employees from significant volumes of work. It offers the ability to design entirely new types of business workflow, where data volumes, complexity, or speed of response are beyond human capabilities.
Many banks in the Middle East still process a significant number of cheques. The length of time required for a human to process a cheque deposit meant that customers had to pay them in before midday to ensure they would have cleared by the next working day. Even then, many of the banks' anti-fraud processes were carried out retrospectively.
RPA was configured to collaborate with an intelligent scanning solution, allowing it to automatically process over 25 different aspects of each cheque in both Latin and Arabic character sets. It then automatically carried out the clearing process, reaching out to the bank’s internal systems and reducing clearing time to one hour. Simultaneously, it also carried out an extensive set of anti-fraud checks, collating data from a wide variety of different sources and processing it to ensure that the deposit was fully validated before the funds were paid into the customer’s account.
The impact of this is far-reaching: the societal benefits of providing continued access to familiar payment methods among senior citizens, as well as the more efficient transfer and use of capital across the economy, are difficult to overstate. Meanwhile for the bank, processing costs are down 90%, employees have more meaningful work to do, fraud and compliance measures are immeasurably improved and customer satisfaction is hugely increased.
Are there any disadvantages of using RPA?
Of course. But in the same way that there are disadvantages to eating. Obviously eating is overwhelmingly a positive activity, but eating too much, or eating the wrong things can cause problems. Similarly, RPA offers huge benefits but can face challenges if it is not implemented correctly. In the main, challenges arise when RPA is considered as a tactical engagement, or when it is viewed purely as an IT project.
RPA is sometimes mistaken for a panacea or ‘silver bullet’. Of course, this is short-sighted and simplistic: ultimately, it’s about having a governance framework to ensure that, across the breadth of tools and approaches available to an organisation, the right tools and methodologies are used in the right circumstances.
Drew Sonden, solutions consultant at Blue Prism
A key consideration for organisations embarking on an RPA programme is how it is publicised within the business. Whilst automation is designed to enhance employees’ productivity by releasing them from non-value add activities, there is often a suspicion that robots will end up taking people's jobs.
As an example, UK insurance firm Ageas recognised this potential pitfall and based their entire rollout strategy on engagement with operational staff. Rather than focussing purely on high-value automation opportunities, the team worked with shop floor employees to understand which aspects of their roles were most tedious, boring, or annoying and focussed on automating these first. By demonstrating a clear benefit to people’s working lives, Ageas shifted the perception of RPA from suspicion to enthusiasm, with business units clamouring to engage in the programme.
Organisations must also carefully assess automation candidates to ensure they have captured the entire business workflow. Otherwise automating one activity, say for example, onboarding new customers, can simply transfer a bottleneck to another part of the business, for example, sales fulfilment. ROM provides guidance that ensures organisations are aware of and able to overcome this and other organisational challenges.
Whilst it might seem strange, one of RPA’s core strengths can also be its weakness. As Digital Workers can operate so quickly, it’s possible for them to overwhelm IT systems whose capacity is designed around the human operation. At Pfizer, the Operations Team owns RPA but they ensure that the IT Community is heavily involved in the process design phase in order to avoid any unforeseen application or network responses. and This has helped them to save 220,000 hours per annum.
How can we overcome any challenges?
As with any new technology, the key to successful RPA implementation is to remember that the software itself is simply a tool that supports business change. Organisations must consider how RPA will fit into their organisation: who will own it, how it will be supported, and how demand will be managed; alongside what processes they wish to automate, what outcomes and benefits this will deliver; and, finally, how those benefits will be measured and communicated
We understand that even the best-planned project can face challenges. However, that’s why we offer a range of consultative engagements tailored towards resolving some of the most common issues that organisations can encounter in their RPA journey.
These range from technically focused engagements such as architectural support.
Sometimes cultural resistance needs to be addressed. We often find that middle management teams feel threatened – either due to the perception of an impending reduction in their personal “empire” or due to the feeling of being exposed for having presided over an inefficient regime. The solution is to anticipate this issue and provide an appropriate communication and incentivization programme to meet the C-Level objectives. This is one of many factors that Blue Prism emphasise as part of a drive towards “cultural adoption” of RPA.
Ultimately, the most common challenge that businesses face with RPA is satisfying demand. The value of automation is one that very quickly becomes apparent, with a return on initial investment often possible within three months. Clearly, this attracts considerable interest within any business and RPA teams, which are often small in the early stages of a programme can suffer from a lack of capacity. However, this is typically a proxy measure for the success of RPA within a business and in the end a nice challenge for an RPA team to have!
Can SME’s find it advantageous?
RPA is a truly cross-vertical technology. Businesses of any size have internal processes and where automation can remove responsibility from a team member, allowing them to undertake other activities that have a material effect on the bottom line, then it is likely that RPA will offer an ROI.
A crude measure of RPA’s effectiveness is FTE Equivalence, eg. a comparison of the tasks that a digital worker can complete in a given time period in comparison to human workers. Clients have typically seen a minimum combined FTE Equivalence of 6:1 across all of their automated processes, however, some clients see returns of 20:1 and above. With the cost of a digital worker being significantly less than that of a permanent employee, it is easy to see how RPA makes sense even for smaller businesses.
However, there are other measures of success that can speak even louder for an SME trying to establish itself in a crowded marketplace. Customer satisfaction is all-important to retention and growth; the growing importance of social media means that poor reviews can pose significant challenges for smaller organisations.
Innovations like connecting RPA to chatbots have helped Siemens to increase front-end customer engagement and reduce the time taken to respond to queries and this sort of low-effort approach to improving customer relations can easily be translated to dynamic new organisations.
Equally, the cost of error cannot be overlooked when considering the benefits of RPA. Particularly where humans are inputting or copying financial information, the mistype of a figure can have serious implications – particularly at the start of a complex process.
What are the predictions surrounding RPA?
RPA has already transformed business operations for thousands of companies worldwide and yet there are still hundreds of thousands more who have not felt its benefits. Over time, we anticipate RPA becoming another ubiquitous ‘three-letter’ software product in the same way that CRM and ERP already have – technologies that the majority of credible businesses cannot do without if they want to remain competitive in the marketplace.
Right now, we are already seeing organisations moving from just using RPA to take on standardised, repeatable, ‘swivel chair’ activities, to integrating artificial intelligence and cognitive toolsets so that it can add even more value. Already we’re seeing multiple companies using intelligent document processing solutions to allow digital workers to read and process invoices, whilst several banks are exploring using machine learning to enhance digital worker-driven fraud detection processes.
There is an increasing rate of people looking to make digital workers truly collaborative members of the workforce. As an example, Telefonica is using digital workers to support the customer support process. As mobile users ring the Telefonica service desk, digital workers will automatically reach into its internal systems to provide support agents with additional and important customer details. Agents can then also hand tasks off to the digital workers as calls are ongoing, increasing first-line resolution figures and reducing call handling times.
The power of connected RPA allows Blue users to connect their digital workforce to any application or service in days, rather than the months required by traditional IT. This means that as the pace of technology change gets ever quicker, organisations using our enterprise platform can continue to quickly identify which new technologies are right for them, avoiding the need to bet on which one or two new products might help them to retain their competitive edge.
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