How does Robotic Process Automation (RPA) really change the enterprise? Naturally, there is a need to seek out the expertise of companies (like IBA Group!) that have expertise in all the main software systems – because it pays to bring in experts when delivering a completely new system, but what about the wider changes that continue after the implementation?
I think this is an interesting question. RPA has the potential to fundamentally change the way that workflows are organised inside many companies and yet I rarely see this discussed in most of the coverage. In fact, most RPA media coverage can be summarised as focused on the size of the market and how automation can replace employees.
Of course, the market size is important, and the potential for automation to replace people is also important – and scary. Many people are getting worried by media headlines suggesting that the robots are about to take their jobs.
Most of this reporting is irresponsible and doesn’t reflect how companies are really exploring the use of automated systems such as RPA. The current debate around RPA reminds me of the lump of labour fallacy. This was suggested by some economists who believed that the amount of work in the economy is fixed, so if you restrict the hours that employees can work then you will reduce unemployment. Work isn’t so simple and the amount of labour is certainly not fixed.
Why is RPA becoming so popular? There are demonstrable benefits that can be attributed to RPA projects. Some of the clear business benefits that can deliver a Return on Investment (ROI) include:
- Faster time to market: products and services can be delivered faster when a part of the value chain has been automated, allowing quicker delivery and an improved time to market for new ideas.
- Productivity boost: more can be achieved with fewer resources, so the same team can boost what they were delivering before automation.
- FTE requirements: if a significant part of your business processes can be automated then logically the number of team members required to process this information can be reduced.
These are the initial short-term benefits. Naturally, the immediate benefits of an automation project will be that the processes work faster, allowing the same team to be more productive, but there are some additional longer-term benefits that should be considered beyond the initial boost.
First is the ability to transform your business. Many industries are experiencing a wave of rapid change at present. Change really is the only constant for almost every traditional business model. Look at banks becoming apps, or news publishers searching for a revenue stream. Many traditional industries are finding that they need to change in order to survive in a very different business environment. If a significant part of your business can be automated then this facilitates innovation in the rest of your processes. It could even be argued that a significant digital transformation project will never succeed if you cannot automate the repetitive processes in your value chain.
Streamlining the processes you have yet to automate is another significant advantage – expanding the scope of automation beyond what you can initially achieve. Once you can see just how much of your business can be automated, there is a strong temptation to increase the processes your business manages using RPA. It’s important to create a period of stability once RPA is initially rolled out, but after that expansion should be encouraged.
Automating many of your systems allows governance checks to be applied automatically by the system and all processes and actions to be recorded. This can help with compliance and governance by removing the opportunity for manual errors and ensuring that a comprehensive audit trail exists for all automated actions.
It won’t be easy to see all the potential benefits from RPA immediately because there are just so many software vendors and no single control mechanism. We are still watching the growth of a market that will transform how companies operate far more than ERP or CRM ever did. But questions remain about how to link RPA into other systems within the enterprise – the Internet of Things for example. Instead of building these links differently for every organisation why are we not building RPA systems like USB cables – able to just plug in anywhere?
RPA will fundamentally change how enterprises are designed in the next decade, but some important decisions will need to be taken along the way. Not every RPA vendor will survive, just as Betamax video was killed off by the market acceptance of VHS. It’s going to get interesting out there as more companies rely on automation to compete.