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Tom Allen: Corporate culture and the case for Robotic Process Automation

Written by Tom Allen, Founder, The AI Journal

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) has many virtues: from improving business processes and freeing up staff for more useful tasks, to cutting costs; improving customer relationships; boosting output and managing marketing campaigns.

But, as we revealed in a recent report published by The AI Journal, it has its fair share of challenges to overcome. Many of these are not just technical, but are rooted in company culture.

This article will provide an overview of the obstacles that need to be overcome within organisations to successfully implement an RPA strategy – the logistics and potential expense of putting it in place, or convincing management that it is a viable business solution.

 

The road to RPA

So, you’ve heard about RPA technology, you’ve listened as people have waxed lyrical about the benefits it can bring to a business, you’ve perhaps even half-persuaded your CEO of its virtues, and he or she has given you a tentative nod to make enquiries.

But before you even think about which RPA provider you’re going to use, whether commercial or open-source, the first question a company needs to answer is this: which processes within your business would most benefit from transformation?

Drawing up a formal roadmap for how your company will proceed with RPA is therefore a must – laying out cost-benefit analyses, detailing how staff will be educated and trained, drawing up a priority list of new processes to which RPA can be applied, identifying stakeholders and project teams and raising potential hurdles.

The starting point then is an internal audit of systems and an assessment of which will fit with an RPA, and – crucially – which areas of the business will benefit the most, offsetting implementation and running costs against savings.

 

Getting the board onboard

This is the juncture at which more in-depth conversations can start happening with internal stakeholders, and probably the leadership team, around why the company should invest. Nothing piques the interest of an FD, MD, COO or CEO more than mention of sizeable cost-savings and a pleasing ROI ratio, so this is probably a good thing to bring up early on.

To strengthen the case for RPA, it also makes sense to sound out a few RPA players most suited to your needs, inviting one or two to demonstrate the technology to your colleagues and bosses. You’ll need to agree with them which of your organisation’s specific processes they will present on, as proof of concept.

Once the board is convinced in principle, you need to set out specific goals, start-up costs, determine who within the firm will handle the various roles and comprise project teams, who will oversee the implementation and day-to-day running.

 

Things to avoid

One thing that practitioners are quick to point out is that newcomers to RPA should avoid soft-testing the technology by applying it to a largely inexpensive and already-efficient process. Nothing is more likely to be met with a shrug from stakeholders than minimal savings on an already efficient and effective system.

RPA needs to be brought in for systems on which they will have a sizeable impact, often around where customers are part of the equation. For instance, building RPA into managing sales processes, from an initial quote through to transaction, can be hugely beneficial, not least because it can take human error and delay out of the customer experience. Alternatively, you may choose to introduce it to handle high-volume processes that are more prone to human error.

And of course, you should avoid bringing in RPA technology to handle processes that are prone to development or change – it is best implemented in established, unchanging systems so as to avoid a constant cycle of maintenance and adjustment.

 

Change management

But from a cultural standpoint, arguably the most vital thing to consider is the makeup of the company itself. People, rather than bots, are what generally drive a business’s success, or otherwise. It is therefore critical to consider this at all stages of your RPA journey. People are also essential to bringing in and successfully running the technology. Every stage of the development journey must therefore be communicated to staff and transparency must be paramount – margins of error, for example, must be understood and prepared for.

Speaking of staff, the HR department obviously needs to be kept abreast of an RPA strategy, especially so if bots are going to become instrumental to sizeable aspects of a business. Personnel professionals will be responsible for reassuring staff that their jobs are not under threat, and potentially where they are, in up-skilling workers so they can take on new roles.

Finally – and most importantly – the company IT department clearly has to be involved from the outset, made aware of the benefits, deficiencies and potential pitfalls of RPA. IT will be central to maintaining and updating the RPA systems, as well as training up staff for roles such as maintenance and quality assurance.

As RPA is bedded into your organisation, both systematically and culturally, and as it becomes more instrumental in driving margins, then it is perhaps worth elevating its stance within the corporate structure. For instance, many large organisations today have established internal teams dubbed Centers of Excellence (CoE), to manage their RPA systems.

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