Five questions to ask before considering robotic process automation

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Speed. Efficiency. Higher quality. Lower costs. These are the key benchmarks by which enterprise IT has been measured since the earliest days of its existence. These outcomes have always been achieved by some combination of man and machine, but with advances in cloud and digital technology, the balance is shifting away from human labor and moving toward technology-driven solutions.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the rise of Robotic Process Automation (RPA). Software robots are increasingly performing important and onerous tasks that have traditionally been done by humans: taking over work processes, manipulating data, communicating between systems, and processing and recording transactions.

Not surprisingly, RPA can do these tasks at a fraction of the cost of human equivalents, with dramatic improvement in quality and reliability. In fact, in the healthcare industry, one RPA bot – which can be procured at a cost of $10,000 -$15,000 – can process claims at the rate of 5-10 humans working full-time. Not to mention RPA allows businesses to dramatically reengineer and improve key processes.

Even the jobs question is not as sticky as one might expect. It’s true that full-time equivalent savings are essential to the business case for investing in RPA, and this often sets the stage for conflict between those advocating for RPA and those whose positions will be eliminated. However, there is a silver lining found in two essential elements of all RPA implementations:

1. The ability to move humans from routine, rote jobs into higher-value roles with work that is far more engaging increases employee satisfaction and often fills open positions with staff that have “tribal knowledge” that would take new employees years to build

2. Organizations seem to gain a greater appreciation for the importance of organizational change management – the communications, expectation management and planning – that lays the groundwork for successfully transferring work from humans to robots.

So, with relatively little investment and simple implementation, RPA may seem like an opportunity no-brainer – but realizing the real payoff of automation requires some careful deliberation. Here are five questions to ask when considering RPA for the first time:

1. Where are your pain points?

Where in your organization are humans spinning their wheels with repetitive and mundane tasks that take them away from more important, higher value work? Where are kinks hindering the workflow? Where are employees transferring data from one application to another or keying in large volumes of information by hand. Where are errors most likely to occur? Where is your staff not able to meet your SLA’s? Pinpointing these scenarios in your organization will help you create an “automate-ability map,” a picture of the processes that may be easily “automatable” with RPA tools. Start with a small number of these use cases so you can talk about the application of RPA in concrete terms and deliver quick results.

2. What are your priorities for an investment in automation?

After mapping out which processes in your environment are automatable, develop and evaluate the business case for doing so. Estimating the investment and the potential advantages for a particular use case is a smart way to initiate the RPA conversation with leadership. Enterprises across industries – including insurance, banking, telecommunications and manufacturing – are creating compelling business cases for deploying RPA to process invoices for payment or generate weekly reports that once required people to extract data from one application into a spreadsheet and manually save it into another. Estimated time and cost savings, and accurate estimates of what it will take to configure and deploy the automation, should be an important part of the decision matrix.

3. How ready is your organization for change?

Automating business processes with RPA requires more than simply giving people a head’s up that change is coming. The scope, nature and complexity of the processes being automated will determine the requirements for managing organizational change, which impacts the broader culture and operating characteristics of the organization. Managing major change is part art and part science. Before you dive into the RPA pool, determine your organization’s aptitude for change, organizational redesign and transition planning. Also take the time to determine the complexity of the automation scripts you are considering implementing so you know what change management practices will be needed, in which functional areas and across which parts of the business.

4. What is IT’s role?

Even though RPA tools can be implemented by business users and, once up and running, require relatively few IT resources, it’s important to involve IT early on – even as early as the consideration phase. RPA is a corporate asset; if it is going to deliver its full potential in terms of process automation and data integration, it needs to be configured correctly on a secure server in the IT environment and included in IT’s critical processes that support security management and back up/contingency planning. RPA also can be considered a boon to IT, since many times it can be leveraged by business users to automate requests that are otherwise pending with IT, thus reducing the backlog list of modifications and enhancements IT needs to deliver.
5. What are the security requirements for this particular initiative?

IT will need to know how your RPA tools are going to interact with IT infrastructure and applications. Credentials will be required to enable your bots to access network resources and interface with applications and file structures. Remember that bots often have an advantage here – while human workers may browse the Internet, shop and share information across contacts, RPA tools will execute only the scripts or commands they are programmed to execute, making them more secure than many human users. Still, be prepared to have the conversation with IT about how to credential RPA tools and how to govern their access to the network.

Thinking through these considerations upfront can make both the business and the CIO winners. By freeing workers from dull and monotonous back-office processes – and by offsetting the IT work required to support countless applications throughout the enterprise – RPA can set up the business to make higher-order, more creative work happen, all while driving savings to bottom line.

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