While there were a number of early adopters when robotic process automation (RPA) came onto the tech scene years ago, many people still fear that machines are here simply to replace humans within the workplace. So, to cut through the media scaremongering and the industry buzzwords, we’ve invited a robotics expert and friend of Vapour to author this special insight piece.
Tom Davies, CEO of Robiquity, over to you…
“Give me 30 seconds on Google and I could find 30 different scaremongering studies prompting fear that ‘the robots are coming’. Most usually centre upon the fact that the ‘job stealing robots’ are here to make people redundant, and I even read one at the start of the year which suggested that robots are here to manage humans and make their work more gruelling!
Surely, it’s far more helpful to understand what robots are capable of and where they can add value.
So, back on planet reality, what exactly is robotic process automation (RPA), where does it fit into the modern organisation, and what are the true benefits and risks? To strip everything back so that any business can benefit from RPA, it’s important to focus on 8 key points:
1. Don’t blame the robots!
Of course, some organisations may deploy robots carelessly with little thought for their people, just as certain firms will look to unethically exploit AI for immoral gains. But the leaders of such businesses are the ones that should be under greater scrutiny, not the robotics.
Because, in truth, RPA has the ability to transform not just the productivity of organisations, but also the morale of employees and the level of service delivered to customers. And such a transformation can be experienced in organisations large and small, almost irrespective of sector.
2. Shift the agenda
Despite RPA being around for a number of years, only 13% of early adopters have scaled their programmes beyond 8-10 software robots. One of the key factors holding even these innovative thinkers back, is that the majority of robotics deployments to date have focused on low value, back office tasks alone – rather than complete processes.
But the robotics agenda has changed – it’s different now. People – and not just early adopters – realise that RPA is a real strategic enabler. It can be used throughout the contact centre, shop floor, supply chain and more. It can read information, input data, source insight, produce reports and analyse the findings. It can collaborate with and complement the human workforce.
This mindset shift is key to realising the true potential of RPA, at the coalface.
3. Recognise the needs of colleagues
While for some people a job is a necessity to pay the bills, for others – not least the so-called Generation Z candidates now entering the workforce – a career should be engaging, fulfilling and rich in future potential.
The youngest generation of digital natives now entering the world of work have been particularly recognised as seeking security and stability from their employment, but hungry for opportunities too.
They will expect technology to complete mundane tasks, as standard, and will confidently question inefficient ways of working. These colleagues certainly won’t fear the ‘robots’. And the same can be said of so many of their peers in the workplace, of varying ages – particularly if the role of RPA is explained to them.
In short, if it is made clear that RPA is there to rid employees of the mundane, laborious elements of a process that would otherwise drain their time, leaving them to concentrate on what they’re good at, and even utilise newfound capacity to learn and develop, robots will be welcomed not feared.
4. Recognise the needs of customers
This all naturally equates to an improved level of service delivered to customers too, and not just because employee morale is boosted.
A machine agent can answer a call for example. It can capture must-know information when the individual would otherwise just be on hold. It can direct the caller to the human best equipped to help them and can provide that agent with the background information they need to complete the more empathic elements of the conversation the robot can’t.
Even this one example shows that RPA isn’t here to replace the human, but instead to cut out the ‘noise’ that may otherwise get in the way of businesses delivering the quality of service they want to be known for. In doing so, the employee can speak to more people, sell more products and services, solve more problems, reassure more callers, and so on. In today’s pressured economic environment, this slick way of working is arguably more important than ever.
5. Define what you want to automate
This sounds like a blatantly obvious tip. However, so many organisations who do consider RPA typically concentrate on the quick fix ability to automate individual tasks, not entire processes.
Of course, the theory of marginal gains tells us that even small ‘wins’ throughout the business have the potential to pay dividends. But the benefit of RPA really comes to life when it is evaluated in the context of the bigger picture.
So, start by looking at an entire process, and all the component parts – people, systems, tasks and actions – that make that process happen. Map out the workflow and think about triggers that would enable the process to be completed quicker, with less room for error, encountering fewer compliance risks and so on.
This will make it far easier to see where a robot will add value, and where a human will add value.
In the world of corporate insurance, for example, this wouldn’t render the human redundant. But RPA could action some of the admin-intensive tasks that typically slow the process down, and it may soon become possible to make 80% more policy decisions, in minutes, not days.
Elsewhere in automotive retail, RPA enables car buyers to find their dream car online, compare deals and book a test drive, ‘out of hours’, without even having to speak to a salesperson. This doesn’t mean the salesperson is redundant – instead it means they have more time on the forecourt with people who would rather compare vehicles ‘in the flesh’ with the help of a human to guide them through, instead of replying to emails or live chat messages from a customer who would rather have confidently gone through the process alone, and at their own convenience.
6. Do the maths
Early adopters of RPA typically focused on the ‘headcount maths’ – in other words, while someone may be paid £30,000 to hold a role full of ‘low value’ tasks, and an outsourced alternative could cost the business just under £20,000 per annum, an RPA solution could achieve the same outcome for only £6,000-8,000.
But in this example, the focus is streamlined task execution, not the enhanced customer service delivery outlined above.
To build a strong business case for RPA, it’s important to think about the productivity gains, the progression of otherwise lost opportunities, the benefit of staff retention and lower absence rates, and so on.
7. Don’t dip your toe in
This sounds like an odd statement to make – especially in a complex arena fraught with misconceptions. However, picking one small process and ‘having a go’ is a bear trap. It may be low risk, yet because it doesn’t cost much, it probably won’t require board approval, and therefore may not have management buy in. If it goes well, great, you receive a pat on the back at best, while if things go a little awry, it’s easy to sweep it under the carpet and say RPA isn’t for you.
The right way to onboard RPA is to make a start and iterate. Develop a plan – a roadmap, with milestones, which forms part of the strategic agenda. Involve people and skill-sets who will prove crucial to successful delivery and seek the input of specialist external experts, where budget allows.
This way, RPA isn’t a one-off project but a ‘way of doing things’ that naturally fuels ongoing improvement.
8. Create an automation centre of excellence
If an RPA-ready mindset can become the norm in your organisation, you’re far better equipped to respond to the ever-evolving external pressures that businesses now face.
So, try to become an automation centre of excellence.
Consider appointing at least one RPA – or innovation – champion, and encourage them to lead on engaging with internal business units. Encourage them to question the norm, and help them identify how to define their automation potential, drop RPA into their plans and deliver the change.
If you teach people how to fish, they will naturally start seeking out their own automation opportunities, and an agile development mindset should ensue.
In three or four years’ time, we will see robots on organisational charts, so for businesses who labour the point that ‘the robots are coming’ – they’re absolutely right. In fact, they’re already here. But these robots aren’t planning on stealing jobs. Instead they’re here to clean up the bits we all moan about and show us how good our roles could actually be.
Want to explore how tech can work harder for your business? Get in touch.