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Robotic Process Automation 101

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Digital transformation is an amorphous, overwhelming concept. Companies know they need to do it, but they are not sure how to start the climb. Robotic process automation (RPA) is the foothold many are embracing. Last year, Gartner dubbed RPA “the fastest-growing segment of the global enterprise software market,” and now it predicts double-digit growth through 2024.  

RPA is growing like gangbusters because it has positioned itself as a noninvasive, cost-effective tool for integrating business operations. It meets two of the biggest demands of the COVID-19 economy: the need to cut costs and decrease dependence on human labor for repetitive, daily processes.

If you’re thinking about harnessing the power of RPA for your business, here’s what you need to know:

What is RPA?

At its most basic, RPA is programming digital assistants (aka bots) to use technology the same way people do. It mimics how humans work to connect disparate business applications. Running over top of existing infrastructure and systems, a bot copies data from one source and pastes it into another. When people do this type of work, we often refer to it as “swivel-chair operations.” Whether you use human or bot labor you are avoiding the expense of upgrading or replatforming technology.

If you’ve done any research into RPA use cases, you’ve probably noticed one word keeps popping up: Legacy. RPA is a noninvasive way to connect legacy systems that don’t “play well with others” to modern technology stacks and cloud environments. Back-end APIs are another way. If you have APIs that allow you to move data into and out of otherwise closed systems, you probably don’t need RPA. Your IT director can help you determine which tactic, APIs or RPA, is cheaper, more effective and stable for your particular tech environment.

There are certain business units most likely to benefit from RPA. Finance and HR are often burdened by legacy systems and high-volume, repetitive, rule-based tasks that sap employee morale. RPA software vendor UiPath says 70% of its clients begin their automation journey with finance and accounting. Invoice data entry is such a popular proof of concept that UiPath demos invoice extraction and processing. Cash applications—matching payments to outstanding accounts receivable—is another common starting point.

The goal of RPA is to free your human employees from data-entry drudgery. Robots can do this work faster and with much more accuracy. People were never meant to mindlessly input data. We are far better suited to critical thinking, creativity and collaboration.

How to choose a vendor

Once you’ve sized up your technical landscape and decided RPA is the best solution, you can select a vendor by examining the people part of your organization. This includes your culture and available skill sets. 

Do you have a handful of people sprinkled throughout your organization who love to automate away their busywork? Maybe they build Excel macros to run weekly reports and share their homemade apps with the team. We call these naturally ingenious employees citizen developers. If you’re already a Microsoft shop, Power Automate’s (formerly Microsoft Flow) RPA platform, Ui flows, will come easily to them. If they are familiar with Power Apps, Power BI, and AI Builder capabilities, your citizen developers can chain together workflows, using prebuilt connectors to orchestrate intelligent automation symphonies across Dynamics 365, Microsoft 365 and Azure.  

Most RPA vendors have low-code, no-code options these days. They realize that’s where the market is headed. But if your people currently don’t have the natural inclination to tinker around with automation, your company is likely better matched with veteran RPA providers like Pegasystems and UiPath. UiPath has been at it since 2005, so its spectrum of products is more mature than Microsoft’s relatively recent market entries. However, substantive process automations will require your business analysts to team up with professional developers. 

What makes a good RPA pilot project?

Like digital transformation, automation is a journey. You have to choose your first step wisely. My data and software consultancy sizes up the automation suitability of business processes based on how easy they are to automate and how much value doing so will bring to your organization. We recommend starting with Quick Wins. These provide the most bang for your bargain buck. They are processes that are fairly uncomplicated to automate, but still yield relatively high benefit.

Quick win processes are stable, meaning they are comprised of well-documented steps that don’t change. They are fully digital; no Post-it Notes or handwritten forms. They deal only with structured data, fields with set values instead of the longer chunks of natural language you might find in an email or transcribed phone call, and they only involve 1 to 3 separate applications.

For healthcare companies, a great quick win might be automating the claim filing process with your biggest payer. The process is all set fields, codes and dollar figures. Your internal billing system interacts with the insurance company’s digital interface.

The goal of your pilot project is a proof of concept you can show off to other units and departments. Quick wins build confidence and enthusiasm. From there, you can assemble a RPA Center of Excellence. This is an agile team that both develops and executes the rules and roadmap for your automation journey. It determines which processes get automated, in what order, and how. As your RPA initiative matures, you may take on increasingly complex processes involving unstructured data. RPA’s intelligent automation capabilities continue to grow as AI tools become more integrated and accessible.

Pitfalls to avoid

Failing to garner buy-in: Automation is an emotionally charged subject. Workers at every level across all industries are trying to gauge how long they have before the robots take over their jobs. As a business leader, you can combat this fear with clear, consistent communication of a shared vision. Make sure everyone understands what you are automating and why, their role in the change, and expected outcomes.

Having the wrong people demonstrate the process: Once you’ve identified a process for automation, you have to show your developer how it is done so they can build the automation. Process documentation is a hands-on, get in the weeds exercise. A high-level interpretation of the process simply won’t do. Your developer has to see exactly how it gets done, step by step, from the person who does it every day. When management attempts to demonstrate a business process, it usually only highlights how far removed they are from the reality of daily operations, which can lead to the third pitfall.

Reinventing the process mid-automation: Most companies don’t have the luxury of regularly studying and optimizing daily processes. Thus, those processes devolve quietly over time. Broken processes may not get noticed until they become automation candidates. There is no shame in needing to reengineer a business process. Just don’t try to automate it at the same time.  

Reimagining your workforce

If you have legacy systems and high-volume, repetitive tasks, RPA can probably save you time and money. But there are some things you should never automate. Chief among them is your core competency, the thing your company does better than anyone else. Automation should augment your human workforce, not replace it. RPA liberates your employees from monotony so they can build the value that makes you unique in the marketplace.

Research sources:

Oct. 2020 edition of Information Today Magazine: https://www.infotoday.com/it/oct20/index.shtml

Sept 2020 Gartner’s RPA Market Stats: https://www.gartner.com/en/newsroom/press-releases/2020-09-21-gartner-says-worldwide-robotic-process-automation-software-revenue-to-reach-nearly-2-billion-in-2021

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