RPA’s time has come. What it is and what you need to know.

RPA is becoming a popular term. It’s entering our business consciousness, showing up in speeches, articles, blogs, and online searches. As RPA enters our business lexicon, business leaders should know what RPA is and what it’s good for.

What is RPA? RPA stands for robotic process automation. It’s a software bot (hence the robotic part) that conducts routine tasks (hence the process part) automatically (hence the automation part). Work is completed faster at a lower cost and with fewer errors, and people are free to conduct activities that are more important for your customers and your business.

One example is invoice processing. Without RPA, when an invoice is emailed from a vendor to an Accounts Payable department, a human must open the email attachment, read the attachment, enter invoice data into a ledger and set-up or process a payment. Often, these accounting systems are accessed through a browser.

This task is repetitive, because for every invoice, the same information is taken from the same type of email attachment and entered onto the same form in the same software or web portal. But, it has been hard to automate because the process “jumps” software applications, in this example jumping from a PDF or excel invoice to a browser. This task is no longer impossible to automate, thanks to RPA!

What is it good for? The best RPA use cases are when the activity is routine, frequent, and “jumps” software systems.

What are the benefits of RPA?

·       RPA allows people create more value for your customers and your business by focusing on more important activities. Automation lets salesmen meet more people, automation lets analysts dive deeper and draw more powerful insights, and automation lets staff service more customers.

·       RPA accelerates the completion of a task. In one case, the process to onboard a new customer fell from days to minutes!

·       RPA also reduces errors, which can approach 10% of transactions in some processes. Errors generate re-work, which is a hidden cost in most organizations, and errors can also result in lost sales and unhappy customers.

What are the key success factors? Streamline before automating. A process with more steps or more complexity will require more RPA and more computing power. This may not matter in the first few automations, but scaled up across a company, it can require more software bots, which carry their own cost and complexity, and can slow down servers, negatively impacting other users.

Be agile. Adjust and adapt. Start with a minimum viable product, test it quickly in primary use cases, and adjust and adapt to feedback. Repeat this agile process and scale up use cases simultaneously. Each time you iterate, include more users and use cases.

Start small. Do not try to boil the ocean or build Rome in a day by starting off with a complete automation of everything that can be automated. Rather, start small, keep open communication channels, and adjust and adapt as you learn. Before scaling up RPA across the firm, let the organization learn how RPA works and see the benefits from early wins.

Be analytical. Analytical rigor will be needed to determine which processes are a fit for RPA. Some activities should be automated first, some last, and some not at all. Some processes make sense to be automated… but they need to be streamlined first. These conversations and decisions should occur in a comprehensive framework and should be supported by data.

Beware the change monster. Like any change, RPA will require adroit business leaders to navigate the tricky terrain of change management. To fully enjoy the benefits of RPA, a business will need to implement RPA with best-in-class change management culture and capabilities. Staff will wonder “what do I do after RPA automates these activities”, and business leaders will need answers before RPA begins. That requires strategic thinking about how best to use your people’s time and energy and enthusiasm.

Sean McCoy is Vice President at Stonehill. Sean is an expert in strategy, marketing, and operations and is passionate about driving change for his clients. Connect with him on LinkedIn or at smccoy@stonehillinnovation.com.