With any new technology, half the battle is figuring out what you can do with it. While it took centuries to find any practical applications for electricity, for example, these days things move a little faster.
RPA (Robotic Process Automation) has gone in just a few years from new kid on the block, to being over-hyped, to what Gartner in its annual hype cycle calls the “plateau of productivity”. It means businesses are now finding that RPA delivers on its promises.
But just because there are lots of case studies out there showing RPA working for other businesses, doesn’t mean it will work for you.
Every business, every department, and every process is different. Identifying the opportunities in your own business means embarking on a journey of discovery. While it will hopefully be a worthwhile journey, it doesn’t have to take long, and you don’t have to undertake it on your own.
What’s called for is an expert guide who knows the full capabilities of the technology and can assess which areas of your business would benefit from it, along with some quantitative and qualitative predictions of the impact of doing the work.
Here’s an outline of what that journey looks like with Sherpa Works. (There’s a reason we chose that name.)
Step 1: Understanding what RPA can do
RPA is using software robots to fully or semi-automate routine and repetitive computer processes that otherwise humans have to do. Examples include copying data from one system to another, processing orders and transactions, gathering and checking data for reports, collating and sending information from one place to another, preparing and sending documents, and the thousands of other small, daily tasks that keep the gears of business turning.
The idea is not to replace human beings but to free them up from this type of tedious ‘unthinking’ work, which computers do much faster and more accurately. Instead, your people can apply their powerful minds to other tasks that computers don’t do so well, such as problem solving, relationship building, and creative thinking.
RPA robots work with an organisation’s existing software and systems, accessing them and using them in much the same way your human staff do. Which means you don’t need to change a line of code in your existing software or replace any hardware.
Step 2: Discovery kick-off meeting
The RPA discovery journey with Sherpa Works starts with a kick-off meeting with your executive team. The purpose of this session is to establish a number of important principles. Firstly, a project of this transformative nature is only going to work if it has the full support and sponsorship of senior management.
Secondly, we need to find out what the executive team’s broad business objectives are. Are they, for example, looking to cut costs as much as possible, free up staff for higher value tasks, extend the lifecycle of legacy business systems, or grow the business by enabling new and faster ways of accomplishing things?
Finally, the discovery process will only uncover the best time and money saving opportunities if we are allowed unfettered access to the business, including the frontline staff who currently perform the tasks that end up getting automated.
For this to happen the senior management team as well as line managers and team leaders need to be comfortable with us having that level of access. What’s more, everyone involved in the consultation needs to understand that the RPA robots are not intended to replace them but rather to save them time so they can focus on more productive and interesting work.
Step 3: What do you hate doing and what would you rather do instead?
In our experience, executive teams are focussed on their large-scale business challenges and upcoming initiatives. They do not necessarily know exactly what is happening on day-to-day basis at the level of basic business processes. Even frontline managers, because they are one or two steps removed from performing these tasks themselves, do not understand processes down to the level of every mouse click and keyboard input. However, because replicating every mouse click and keyboard input is effectively what RPA is, we need that level of detail.
So once the initial higher-level meetings are done, we will sit down with team leaders and frontline staff to understand what they do, and ask them questions like: What do you hate doing? What tasks take up too much of your time? What do you really want to do with your day?
Armed with this kind of information we can identify the routine and repetitive work that staff feel is holding them back from being more productive.
We spend around 10 to 15 hours on site with the aim of identifying at least 10 business processes, across different business units, that are prime candidates for automation.
In this step we are not only led by the executive team’s objectives, and by the experience of frontline staff, but also by our own experience of knowing which standard processes can generally be automated.
Step 4: A comprehensive report
The fruit of all this labour is a report that identifies the candidates for RPA across the business. Much more than that though, this document lays out the business case for (and against) automating each of the identified processes, including the expected ROI value and timescale. After all, one of our main objectives is to ensure clients at least get their money back in a reasonable timeframe from every initiative.
For many executives, reading this report will be the first time in a long while that they’ve understood how things work at the most basic, granular level of the business. Over time with all legacy systems and processes, workarounds and hacks get built in and, even if they were only ever supposed to be temporary, without proper outside review they can easily become just part of the way things work. Senior managers will not even be aware of them, and frontline staff can’t really be blamed as they are just trying to get the work done.
Looked at this way, the RPA discovery process is as much about driving cultural change in the business as it is technological transformation. It’s not uncommon, upon reading our discovery report, for executives to have an OMG moment when they see quite how many opportunities there are to re-engineer and automate things that should probably not be happening anyway.
Step 5: Unleashing the robots
What you’re left with at the end of the discovery process is a report that gives you a menu of automation options, along with information about what impact each one has on your business, including your staff’s time and productivity, your bottom line, and your ability to serve customers.
We do not recommend automating more than a handful of the 10 or so identified processes to begin with so that you can carefully assess the impact of each one. The report also comes in handy during the piloting and rollout phases as you can keep referring back to it to check whether its assumptions were correct, updating it as you go to give more accurate estimates for the other candidate processes.
Step 6: Developing a culture of innovation
It’s also important to understand that automating existing processes to save time and money is just one aspect of what RPA can deliver. So, the discovery process can also be the start of a process of innovation. As you become more familiar with the technology, and as Sherpa Works comes to understand more about your business, it should be possible to identify entirely new applications for RPA that help your business to serve customers in new and more profitable ways.
About the Author: David Barlow, Co-Founder and Commercial Director, Sherpa Works, is passionate about helping SMEs and Mid-Market companies experience outrageous success with their software robot workforce.