Robotic process automation (RPA) has been one of the most closely watched areas of enterprise technology in recent years. It introduced the concept of a virtual workforce and has quickly become a new way to define the future structure of business.
IT leaders gathered in Sydney recently to discuss how their organisations were using RPA – a type of automation where a computer or virtual worker mimics the execution of human users’ repetitive activities without needing intervention or assistance. The lunch event was sponsored by DXC Technology.
Rajesh Nair, managing partner, RPA at Professional Solutions (a DXC Technology company), says banks and insurance organisations have led the way in the uptake of RPA in Australia with some interest shown from other industries within finance, accounting, and HR functions.
“The reason being that everyone wants to try, test and live the experience on processes they can control rather than automating processes linked with end customer experience. There are some cases where customers simply want to reduce their risk rather than take cost out,” Nair says.
RPA technologies have delivered huge returns on investment for organisations worldwide and are now being viewed as a new, virtual destination for outsourcing, Nair says.
“Within our own functions where we’ve deployed robots, employees have named the robots and see them as colleagues rather than a threat. I see a new world where RPA technologies will allow people to actually add value to their daily jobs rather than completing administrative, manual, and repetitive tasks which would be completed by their new colleagues – robots,” he says.
“I don’t see it being any different to the way we saw physical robots being introduced in manufacturing. Humans and robots have their own ways of working collectively,” he says.
Still, there’s a lot of confusion in the market about what RPA actually is, “from basic screen-scraping all the way to intelligent AI-driven automation,” says Sonia Eland, Director, global partner ecosystem at DXC Technology.
“So it’s key when talking about RPA to agree on a definition. Organisations that have been early adopters of RPA are those that over time didn’t keep up with technology updates required to maintain their business systems in line with new business processes, and instead applied more and more people to be the ‘glue’ – to manually move data from one system to another and back again,” Eland says.
RPA robots can quickly process large volumes of work, moving data across systems, and they don’t make mistakes, says Eland.
“Though typically today, whilst much of a process can be automated by bots, we still find many require a human part in the process – for example to make approvals or handle business exceptions,” says Eland. “In this scenario, the people managing these processes are now freed up to focus on the exceptions, while the customer of the request being processed, experiences a faster turnaround of service.”
Tech chiefs attending the luncheon agreed that virtual workers will form a significant part of their workforces in the future.
Clothing brand Seafolly is experimenting with RPA technologies in areas such as finance, fraud identification and prevention, inventory planning and modelling, supply chain optimisation and automation, and product and trend behaviour analysis, says IT director, Nathan Alexander.
The key benefits of RPA from a financial standpoint will result in higher profitability due to increased operating efficiencies and reduced costs in these areas, he says.
“There are significant revenue growth opportunities to leverage by applying machine learning to the various customer journeys that will influence everything from the type of product that is offered to customers and when, all the way through to how quickly this will be delivered or provisioned. There’s also opportunities that will come from ‘personalising products,’ which is particularly critical for Seafolly with respect to product fit.
“But it’s early days and there are significant impacts and changes that will be required across Seafolly to support RPA correctly,” he says.
Aidan Coleman, CIO at Charter Hall says the property group is piloting RPA technologies in a few areas. For instance, it is trialing an app in Sydney that uses machine learning and RPA to create the optimal temperature for tenants of its commercial properties.
The app allows individuals to automate and control temperature in the workplace area which they occupy. It learns over time to create the optimal environment for users.
“We are also looking at how RPA and machine learning could provide additional insights that might inform our long-term business forecasting. We will do this by augmenting human processing with ‘machine intelligence’ and we are testing the value case in a strategically important part of our business,” he says.
Like Seafolly, it’s early days for Charter Hall and Coleman adds that the objective is not to replace human decision making but to add a perspective and enhance the company’s ‘critical thinking and decision making’ processes.
The Royal Australian & New Zealand College of Radiologists (RANZCR) is using RPA in two areas: email marketing automation and financial transaction processing.
“Email marketing automation is integrated into our newly-built Microsoft Dynamics 365 CRM platform. This enables us to start collecting better information so new or existing services can be improved for our members,” says Craig Horton, head of information technology at RANZCR.
“More efficient financial processing also takes qualified accountants away from bookkeeping tasks and utilises their expertise across the business. This type of automation decreases manual processing by 50 per cent,” he says.
Syed Ahmed, head of digital products and operations at Bupa, expects that over time, RPA technologies will become ‘normalised’ like Word, Excel or email.
“We will simply adjust to working with them and in fact, we’ll end up building processes over and around them,” he says.
A useful addition to traditional BPM methods
Roundtable attendees agreed RPA should be combined with traditional business process service methods such as manual task completion, integration/re-engineering, and offshoring.
DXC Technology’s Nair says integration and re-engineering solutions can warrant a robotic process automation deployment and RPA is not a replacement for these practices.
Offshoring/outsourcing, he adds, primarily exists because of domain expertise, labour arbitrage, a company’s ability to ‘follow the sun’ for service delivery and various other reasons.
“With these factors in mind, organisations should design the optimal process, re-engineer sub-optimal processes and automate using RPA only if required. Let people add value to the business and interact with customers whether in your own office or an offshored/outsourced centre,” says Nair.
Charter Hall’s Coleman adds that RPA is not a silver bullet that will remedy the significant challenges in optimising business processes.
“In my view, it is another arrow in the quiver to be used in conjunction with more traditional BPM techniques and should be a consideration when assessing the value and viability of an offshoring approach,” Coleman says.
“Automating a bad process is still a bad outcome and there is a risk that we rush to deploy these technologies without fully appreciating the criticality of the human cognitive to business success as well as human happiness.”
Roundtable attendees were also asked if the cost efficiencies provided by RPA would enable them to bring offshore resources back home. Charter Hall’s Coleman expects that as RPA evolves over the next two to three years, more organisations will re-assess their offshoring value case.
“But I also expect the offshore managed service providers to be at the forefront in deploying technology to add more value to their offerings,” he says. “With this in mind, would it really matter if your co-worker bot is located offshore on onshore?” he asked.
Bupa’s Ahmed adds that the question of whether or not cost efficiencies provided by RPA will enable companies to bring offshore resources back home depends on the reason for offshoring in the first place.
“If it was to outsource non-core functions, then the case for bringing those functions back into the organisation will still need to be re-assessed based on the original drivers.”
Organisations mostly offshore due to labour arbitrage, but in reality most offshore BPO providers will similarly look to implement RPA to bring their internal costs down, Ahmed says.
“When that happens – and if it’s cheaper to offshore – then we’ll end up with an interesting situation where not only are functions offshored but offshored to a computing process.”
Who’s responsible for RPA?
Several c-level executives are responsible for making sure business outcomes are achieved and new governance policies are adhered to when ‘bots’ replace humans across departments, according to attendees.
Paul Kennedy, CIO at Greencross Limited, says that business outcomes will be measured and managed by the relevant department head.
“Governance and compliance will be managed under existing risk and compliance frameworks – technical by IT and financial by finance,” he says.
Initially, Charter Hall’s Coleman expects to be working closely with heads of human resources and finance.
“However RPA is just another area that is requiring the CTO/CIO to move further into a business operations leadership role, taking on more accountability for business outcomes and risks of deploying such technologies,” he says.
DXC Technology’s Eland adds that as RPA is used to ‘mimic’ humans as they complete tasks, they are doing the same type of work as people do and become a valuable part of teams.
“Therefore the CIO, COO, chief human resources officer, and relevant CxO that owns the process should ideally all be working to ensure an enterprise-grade, secure platform for controlling and operating bots across business systems is available,” says Eland.