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How Rabobank turned employees into bot-creating ‘citizen coders’

Rabobank has embraced robotic process automation technology, in the process turning many of its employees into so-called “citizen coders” who design bots to automate their least-favorite tasks.

So far this year, they’ve delegated 500,000 hours worth of routine chores to the bots. It's the result of a three-year effort led by Steven van Uffelen and Bart Groenewoud at Rabobank, who collaborated on robotic process automation tech using software from Kofax.

At first, they feared employees would be hesitant to embrace the idea due to fears it might eliminate their own jobs. Ultimately, however, it let employees focus on more important tasks.

“They quickly saw it as a way to free themselves from tedious, repetitive work,” said Groenewoud, Rabobank's IT delivery and solution architect. “We quickly found out that we were actually creating happy people because they can turn back to the extra expertise they are educated on and not all the tedious jobs and activities that were created alongside of it. We saw that it's not killer robots, but it's more assisting robots that help people do their job better.”

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Robotic process automation is being widely used throughout finance, including at the largest banks, but few want to discuss it, likely fearing it will lead to accusations they are giving jobs to machines over people. But Rabobank says that idea is incorrect, and appears bullish on the technology.

How it started

For van Uffelen, head of Rabobank’s Robotics Centre of Excellence, the goal was efficiency.

“We had great ideas of becoming more efficient, but eventually we always had the challenge that there were a lot of IT backlog items with high priorities,” he said.

About three years ago, van Uffelen heard about robotic process automation software. He initially sought help from a consulting firm that offered to set up a center of excellence that would cost a significant amount of money.

“We wanted to start small and not spend that much money at the beginning,” van Uffelen said. “So I was in search of a partner who could help me with this issue.”

An internal search turned up Groenewoud, who was then working in the bank’s document management department and was responsible for physical and digital document generation and archiving. He had recently asked a vendor he was working with, Kofax, to show him more of the company’s portfolio and was shown its robotic process automation capability.

Van Uffelen and Groenewoud decided to launch some proofs of concept and pilots (they call them “pressure cookers” in the Netherlands) of the RPA software.

“By the end of 2016, we had done these pressure cookers and also started small with one process and put it into production to actually show that it was worthwhile,” Groenewoud said.

They then formed a focused robotic process automation team to give the projects dedicated attention. Today that team has 20 people on it; it’s a combination of robotics engineers and business operations people.

While defining governance and how the team would work, Groenewoud and van Uffelen realized that the knowledge of the bank’s internal processes lies within the employees who do the work.

“We decided we really want to use the knowledge of our business users to create virtual employees or robots themselves,” said Groenewoud. “The citizens coding concept is pretty hot if you look at all the trends within Gartner, Forrester and all those research companies. So I think we were lucky to define a good approach and it's proven to be very successful up until now.”

Citizen coding

Citizen coding requires a degree of central management, said Reynolds Bish, CEO of Kofax, whose robotic process automation software is also being used by MUFG and ABN Amro.

“When companies roll out the use of RPA, they rapidly came to the conclusion that they can’t have it done in an ad hoc manner by individual users because as they did other system upgrades, the robots could break, then you could have less confident transactions and decisions being made,” he said. “So they want to be able to do it in a more centralized manner.”

Kofax’s bots run on a central server, rather than on each user’s device.

“They are centrally governed and managed, which lets a bank or other institution maintain a lot more control over their deployment,” Bish said. He also noted that the market with the highest use of RPA is Japan, where there’s an aging work force and a decline in birth rates.

Other RPA providers, including UiPath, Automation Anywhere, and Blue Prism, also offer centralized monitoring and controls.

Rabobank’s first year of using process automation was consumed with investing, testing, training, and working out impediments.

“The second year we saw that this way of working was really, really great,” Groenewoud said.

In the third year, results increased to the point that at the end of 2019, they expect the RPA will complete 500,000 man-hours of work.

In one example, bots automate an aspect of customer service. About 1,500 times a week, clients call to receive information on paper — email won’t do. Bots were created to gather the information and print and mail the letters to clients. Each time a bot does this work, it saves about 20 minutes.

Rabobank is also using bots to help with Know Your Customer obligations. The bots automatically gather information from external sources and verify data.

In addition to having employees build their own bots, the bank’s team of robotic engineers help build, maintain and monitor the bots.

“The responsibility remains at the business and we help them out if capacity is a problem,” van Uffelen said.

This division of duties helps keep the costs for the center of excellence low, he said.

“In the old-fashioned way, I would have hired five or 10 people to build robots,” van Uffelen said.

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