Despite living in the 21st century, in a world of digitization and automation, your organization is probably spending a significant amount of time doing tasks manually. The following are some real-life things that are likely going on in your organization:
- At the beginning of each month, your finance department manually collects data from several independent systems and puts the data into Excel files—which the team then uses to compare figures and make necessary edits by hand.
- When a service or product is updated, the person responsible for product information migrates the updated data by transferring it field by field from the source file into your enterprise resource planning (ERP) software, using the tried and tested copy-paste method.
- If there is a new employee starting her career at your company, all her employment-related data is copied manually from your human resources (HR) system into all other solutions she will need in performing her everyday tasks.
- When your sales team acquires a new client, they move the necessary customer data from your customer relationship management (CRM) system into your ERP via the clipboard – manually, of course!
- When you are ready to deliver a product to a client, you carefully fill an Excel sheet column by column for your logistics management, only so that in a couple of days’ time you will receive an updated version of the same Excel sheet which you then bring back to the ERP. (Yes, you guessed it—by hand!)
This tedious list could go on and on. It sounds truly incredible, doesn’t it? We live in an age of digitalization and automation, but we have companies operating like this! Completing critical processes in very manual ways isn’t an issue at just a few companies, but at the majority of companies—very likely the one you work at as well.
Our corporate world is chock-full of inefficient business processes that stem from obsolete practices, inflexible systems, failed transformation projects, and projects that never even began because of their exorbitant price tags. These inefficient processes result in people using valuable hours every day to perform tasks that could quite easily be automated by using suitable technology.
Some companies reject automation as a solution because they think automation is going to be too difficult.
Systems against automation?
So, what exactly is it about automation that makes some people concerned it will be burdensome? Let’s go back to our first example. How did your company drift into a model of working that requires so much manual labor?
To remain competitive in today’s competitive landscape, companies must adapt to changes arising from various factors including customer behavior, evolving markets, innovative business models and services, corporate mergers and acquisitions, and regulation and legislation. For a company to survive, it needs to react to these changes—and do so quickly!
Even though a company might have well-defined processes, a highly-educated staff, and problem-free information technology (IT) systems, the constant change in the business’ environment keeps pushing the goalposts. While business processes and staff might adapt and evolve relatively quickly, system changes tend to take time.
Changes in IT systems are tricky because they require alterations to both internal aspects in the system and to integrations with external ones. Additionally, legacy systems pose a challenge by being difficult to adapt and integrate with newer systems.
Even modern, out-of-the-box solutions tend to require a significant amount of planning, building, testing, and resources to get the process working in the desired way.
We don’t live in a perfect world. Even if a system change is possible, its costs are not astronomical, and it doesn’t take too much tailoring, changing systems can still be too time-consuming. Other times, the surrounding business environment changes again before the system change reaches its goal.
The “automation first” era is here—RPA brings agility
“Unless you are able to automate, you are digging yourself into a hole.” Forrester’s recent 2019 predictions report on business automation echoed the same sentiment: the report makes it clear the automation first era is now and predicts numerous ways automation will continue to drive new business value.
If you find yourself thinking, “yes, we tried automation but the systems prevented us from succeeding,” you’re not alone. Fortunately, there is a way to advance automation without major system changes.
According to the smart folks at Forrester, Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is the key to achieving much-needed agility in automating business processes. In practice, RPA means automating a business process (or a part of the process) via software robots.
RPA allows businesses to automate a recurring, manual process so that building and maintaining the process is both easy and cost-effective. In my opinion, the biggest benefits of RPA can be found in those situations where a manual process has never been automated at all.
RPA is not system-dependent, which enables companies to automate their processes in an agile and efficient way—and most importantly at a speed that is up to the velocity of business.
RPA is the right fit for operative processes
Even though RPA brings a multitude of benefits, it is no magic bullet. If a process is not 100% electronic, if it cannot be standardized, or if it requires contingent decision-making, RPA alone may not provide a complete solution.
RPA truly shines in processes that are predictable, constant, mature and repeatable. In my opinion, the process needs to be fully electronic and manual, and it helps if it has a sufficient number of activities. In practice, this encompasses a wide variety of operational processes in a company: for example, in sales, marketing, production, product development, finance, purchasing, human resources (HR), and IT.
How to get started with RPA
The greatest thing around RPA is that it is not rocket science. Not even close! Implementing RPA is very practical and pragmatic.
Typically, choosing where to start and which processes to automate first are some of the hardest decisions. There can be so many important manual processes throughout an organization, it could be hard to prioritize which of those processes should be automated first.
‘Low hanging fruit’ is often the best place to start when selecting which processes to automate—e.g. processes which are standard and predictive, have low variation, have high transaction rates, and are already matured in the organization.
However, I don’t advise starting with the largest and most complex processes. Instead, I suggest selecting smaller and simpler manual processes to start testing RPA implementation. Keeping a backlog list of process initiatives is a good way to start managing the automation roadmap.
After the first processes to automate have been decided, in my experience, implementation follows this approach:
1. Prepare for automation
2. Analyze and design automation
3. Implement and test the automations
4. Deployment and production startup
In the first phase, things such as assigning process subject matter experts (SMEs), gathering process documentation and user guides, setting up credentials, and initializing the robotic environment are executed.
The second phase concentrates on walking through the processes, replicating the process execution, identifying process changes necessary for automation, clarifying and listing process deviations, and documenting the plan for automation.
In the third phase, automation is implemented, errors/deviation conditions are settled, the process design is updated, implementation is properly documented, and integration and acceptance testing are carried out.
The last phase activities are related to the deployment and production startup such as training users, communications, production assurance, operational models, and early-life support.
Finally, the robotic production startup is executed.
Depending on process complexity the whole chain can take a few weeks, but the rule of the thumb is that the first implementation (a pilot) should take less than two months.
A small step for RPA, a giant leap for…everyone!
I have had the chance to discuss the possibilities of RPA with many of my clients. Most of them see the possible benefits of RPA, but occasionally I face skeptics.
Most of the RPA skeptics I talk to can be divided into two categories: on the one hand, IT professionals sometimes feel that RPA is a “dirty” way of achieving integration, and on the other hand, some business decision-makers feel that RPA can only be used to automate Excel sheets in accounting.
Contrary to those beliefs, I’ve seen first-hand how RPA can play a major role in automating processes that have been built on legacy systems. RPA is beneficial during transition periods when a company is moving from an old system or process towards a new one.
This example is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the areas where RPA is useful! The real payoff lies deeper: in the business itself.
Just think about the different overlapping tasks that occur across various departments within your organization: in customer management, product management, ordering, delivery, vendor management, invoicing and reimbursing, purchasing, logistics, reporting, accounting, and employee management.
How many manual copy-paste tasks can you find in those departments?
About the author
For nearly two decades, Jussi Vuokko has helped companies of various sizes modernize their working methods, increase automation, and improve customer experience. At Sofigate, Jussi is in charge of the Intelligent Automation and Robotics business.
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