Robotic process automation (RPA): three things you probably didn’t know

Martin WeisAn introduction to robotic process automation (RPA) by Martin Weis, Finance Performance Improvement Leader Switzerland, Robotic Process Automation Champion EMEIA, EY.

Contrary to many people’s belief, robotic process automation (RPA) has hardly anything to do with human-lookalike robots walking around in the office fetching things for you. RPA is more about intelligent software robots that simplify processes and eliminate repetitive manual tasks or, in other words, RPAs can help us take the robotic tasks out of us humans.

These robots are intelligent enough to mimic human behavior and automate replications, without altering the infrastructure. The benefits? Improved productivity, decreased cyber-attacks, better security and better compliance.

RPAs can effectively imitate human tasks

Currently there are three RPA types: those executing basic transactions by processing structured data, those that can handle unstructured data as well, and lastly cognitive platforms that are able to execute tasks that — as traditionally assumed — can only be executed by humans, like customer service. An example for the latter would be the tasks of a clerk at the bank’s back-office that feeds credit card application data into the computer, does background checks and sends an update of the application status to the customer. All this can be automated by a software robot – including the background check and the mail about the status of the application.

But where there is change, there is resistance

The new technology described above can lead to a dramatic shift in the employment situation. And it is usually the functional teams that are reluctant to the idea of automation, which makes change management very important. Without gaining the trust of the concerned teams and a clear change management strategy, organizations won’t be able to move forward successfully with RPA.

How companies make sure RPAs are leveraged to their fullest potential

Having mentioned the downside of RPAs, there are a few thoughts companies need to bear in mind when considering to implement them, to make sure the potential is used and any negative aspect is avoided:

  • Don’t just do anything, do the right thing: Many employees in today’s organizations spend a good amount of time doing repetitive tasks. Employees even quit, being fed up with the boring nature of their jobs. When the repetitive tasks are automated, employees can focus on what matters to the company and what’s good for their careers — reporting, analytics, interpretation of data, etc. This increases efficiency, improves employee satisfaction and, ultimately, retention rates. The change management process needs to touch on this point, making sure employees understand their new role and how they will be able to add value in the future. CIOs can clearly contribute helping employees to focus on what matters by defining a company-wide automation strategy.
  • Robots can get better with time: With RPA, accuracy is very high and errors are few; every step is documented. And when an error occurs, it is usually because the robot has encountered a situation for which a rule has not yet been defined. When this happens, the exception handling team would have to step in by adding a rule for handling a new scenario. In other words, we are training the robot on how to handle this new exception. And the error will never occur again. Hence, there is no need to kick-off with a perfect RPA implementation. The CIO’s task will be to facilitate the RPA implementation by enabling the functional teams to improve the robots in the course of time with their input regarding automation expertise and methodology.
  • Still, your robot won’t outsmart you: Exception handling teams in RPA should consist of the most experienced resources in the team – the ones well-versed in the actual process that shall be automated. Since this means employees moving from execution to control, some amount of investment in upskilling might be required. Today’s education system produces generalists more than specialists. In the coming decades, with the increase in the number of jobs related to RPA, the need for specialist employees will be on the rise. Bridging this demand-supply gap requires collaboration between industry leaders and educational institutions. CIOs will advise on training needs and will play a key role in upskilling people. In addition to this, the CIO function can act as an RPA center of competence.

There is gold at the end of the journey

For RPA and everything associated that can automate human tasks, the future is bright. What will be high on the radars of the leaders of the future, including CIOs, will be managing the transition to automation and those affected by the change responsibly.

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