Is your organisation still spending time doing tasks manually, despite living in a world of digitisation and automation? 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. Some companies reject automation as a solution because they think automation is going to be too difficult. It is not, and here is why.
First, let us do a little test. Do any of these examples sound familiar?
- 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, does it not? We live in the 21st century, but there are still companies completing critical processes in very manual ways. And it is not just a few companies here and there, but the majority of them. If after reading the examples you feel your organisation might be among them, this article is for you.
“Unless you are able to automate, you are digging yourself into a hole.” Forrester’s 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.
Robotic Process Automation brings a host of benefits to SAP users. Find out more!
Robotic Process Automation is a way to automate without big system changes
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: in sales, marketing, production, product development, finance, purchasing, human resources (HR), and IT, for example.
How to get started with Robotic Process Automation
The greatest thing about 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 organisation, it could be hard to prioritise 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 that are standard and predictive, have low variation, have high transaction rates, and are already matured in the organisation.
However, I don’t advise starting with the largest and most complex processes. Instead, I would 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:
- Prepare for automation
- Analyze and design automation
- Implement and test the automation
- 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 and 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 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 organisation: 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 could you automate in those departments? Let’s find out!
For nearly two decades, author 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.