When it comes to process automation, think big to succeed

Nick Andrews

In a world of RPA tools that’s focused on quick wins, enterprise-scale process automation is hard to come by—but it shouldn’t be

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Photo by NASA on Unsplash

At the recent HfS FORA (the Future of Operations in the Robotic Age) meeting in Chicago there was general consensus that the era of deploying a single robotic process automation (RPA) tool aimed primarily at reducing process full-time employees (FTEs) is over.

Service providers and even technical product providers have, for the most part, realized that deploying RPA alone cannot deliver the scale, the required benefits or even come close to meeting the cost reductions promised by the industry hype.

It was broadly acknowledged that we have already reached the top of the hype curve and many industry watchers are predicting the inevitable downward path. They concluded that the way forward involves the integration of multiple tools and a more holistic approach to process assessment.

From tactics to strategy: A new way forward

For our part, we are delighted that the industry watchers now agree with our long-held belief that the path to process excellence and substantive benefits starts not with an RPA tool, but with the adoption of strategic automation.

For the vast majority of those seeking automation at scale it is simply not possible to achieve this through the tactical deployment of RPA alone. This is partly due to the fact that the business case doesn’t stack up and partly because RPA tools, in their current form, are restricted in what they can handle.

Most organizations’ processes are disparate and involve unstructured paper and other analogue inputs. Similarly even the largest organizations do not have sufficient volume of people whose work can be automated easily by an RPA tool.

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"It was broadly acknowledged that we have already reached the top of the hype curve and many industry watchers are predicting the inevitable downward path." Image: Gartner's Hype Cycle. Source: Wikimedia Commons

As a company, we have happily taken on tactical automation work as a catalyst primarily because it is a necessary step and proves the concept, provides reassurance and funds, and generates momentum for the strategic automation work which follows. But tactical automation should never be the final destination.

With that in mind, here are my six key enablers to derive optimal benefit through automation:

1. Be able to deploy multiple automation tools

Most articles, blogs, tweets and presentations seem to focus on the how and why of tactical automation—namely, applying RPA (or occasionally machine learning tools) to large volume (and hopefully) rules-based horizontal processes where the inputs or triggers are both digital and structured—this being done with the sole aim of reducing headcount.

The reality is that to get beyond the capabilities of one RPA tool, or even to make that tool effective to any scale, you will almost certainly need other technologies such as optical character recognition (OCR) or machine learning (often labelled ‘cognitive’) tools to translate inputs into a structured, digital format the RPA tool needs.

This requires both technical and commercial integration and is not as simple as it may first appear.

2. Have clear objectives before you start

Again, possibly because of the market hype, many projects seem to start with a request for information (RFI) for an RPA tool. The RFI is often released with little thought having gone into the overall objectives of the program.

This is somewhat akin to trying to choose a car without knowing what you want to use it for, what your budget is, how long you want to keep it or even who’ll be driving it.

Don’t be too surprised then if your choice ends up being random and unadaptable to your changing needs—and ends up being something you pay for that you don’t need but are tied into.

Like all successful change programs, an agreed set of clear objectives at the outset provides the necessary foundation.

3. Consider the key business drivers

We estimate that, in over 90 per cent of all automations currently underway worldwide, headcount reduction is the primary goal. This is not a surprise; people are expensive, particularly on-shore, it is easy to identify the candidate processes and results (benefits) can be directly measured.

Read more: Seven change management steps for automation success

In addition, it is what the industry providers know how to market and sell. However, it is limited, one-off and sub-optimal.

Instead, many of the most successful projects we have encountered in the past four years do not involve reducing headcount but have the potential to deliver benefits far in excess of those achieved through tactical automation.

4. Re-engineer, don't replace

In one project we recently completed, it may have been possible to automate the work of up to seven of a team of 14 involved in chasing unpaid or partly paid invoices. Applying automation strategically at the business problem, rather than tactically at the people involved in it, we were able to eliminate the team doing the invoice chasing AND dramatically reduce the amounts withheld from invoices. Our approach was to help solve the business problem rather automate the work of those dealing with it.

It is vital to think of automation as part of the transformation armory rather than getting drawn into the ‘low-hanging fruit’ path of reducing headcount.

This is what we call strategic automation. The main barrier to pursuing strategic automation is often the internal pressure to pursue the quick and highly visible gains in productivity and head-count reduction. Our advice is always to go after these quick wins at the same time as planning for the future when the tactical pool runs dry, which is often very soon.

5. Build your team to build scale

Notwithstanding the earlier points about technology, the real challenge with achieving rapid scale is building a competent team. The process automation market is massively under-resourced and is likely to remain that way for at least another year or two.

Therefore you are limited to:

  • Outsourcing to a ‘scale’ partner
  • Recruiting internally but training externally
  • Building joint agility teams

6. Deploy best practices

All successful transformation programs are built on momentum, control, standardization and deployment of best practice.

The key stages should be:

  1. Early successes
  2. An aligned automation plan and automation team
  3. A proven methodology for scalable process automation

As ever, the key to following best practice is to follow the right best practice. I will explore this in further detail and introduce you to some of the concepts in our VOLT methodology for process automation in the coming months.

Nick Andrews is founder and executive chairman at Virtual Operations and member of the AI & Intelligent Automation Advisory Board. 

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