man looking skeptical peeking from behind a curtain
PHOTO: Gift Habeshaw

Robotic process automation (RPA) offers clear solutions to longstanding business problems. But it’s not a silver bullet, and it doesn’t make sense in all cases.

As someone who works within workflow automation, I’ve seen firsthand how organizations can deploy RPA to truly transformative ends — eliminating onerous and repetitive low-level functions, automating once-burdensome paper-based processes, and augmenting human workflows to allow employees to do more meaningful work in less time.

But there’s an important precondition upon which these success stories play out: Having a strategic RPA plan in place. In the absence of such a plan, robotic process automation can become something that exacerbates problems rather than alleviating them.

Related Article: Busting 8 Robotic Process Automation Myths

RPA Excitement Exceeds Planning

I don’t blame any business for wanting to dive right into deploying RPA technology. Not only are the long-term benefits clear, but RPA systems are also increasingly becoming a standard component of enterprise digital transformation plans — and they are often essential to retaining a competitive edge.

According to a 2018 study of enterprise decision-makers and line-of-business workers conducted by my company, Nintex, RPA sits near the top of the digital transformation priorities lists at many businesses. Of the decision-makers we surveyed, 43 percent pointed to RPA as part of their organizations’ formal digital transformation strategies.

That degree of prioritization makes sense, since many of the workplace problems cited by respondents in a separate but related Nintex study — including a lack of expedient ticket fulfillment within IT departments, shortcomings in time-tracking methods and burdensome performance review methods — are all issues that can be addressed and improved with RPA.

However, two common problems can arise when businesses take steps to implement RPA solutions. The first is a mindset issue: With RPA as the proverbial hammer, every business problem becomes a nail. This mindset leads to the second problem: an impulse to automate every bad process immediately, without considering how RPA can actually slow down human work if you take the wrong approach.

Say, for instance, a company’s leaders decide to do something about a broken invoicing process. They partner with an RPA vendor that advocates opening emails, stripping attachments, performing optical character recognition scans, keying data in to an SAP application window, and raising issues by automating the creation of a new email in Outlook. But then when that system is deployed, it leads to the payment clerk’s desktop getting hijacked by a bot. As a result, the clerk is slowed down and the process doesn’t become more efficient.

Related Article: Robotic Process Automation and Roombas: What Could Go Wrong?

Take a Critical-Eye Approach to RPA

While the impulse to deploy RPA quickly can be tempting, haste is not an approach that yields long-term success. Instead, it pays to take a more considered approach to deploying RPA resources. Here are a few tips that can help tech decision-makers do that.

Double down on process management: Enterprise decision-makers evaluating RPA solutions will inevitably come across RPA vendors that overpromise and underdeliver, which can lead to RPA technology slowing down human work instead of speeding it up. To counter that problem and harness RPA to augment rather than impede human work, businesses should find a process management solution can help them identify, document, collaborate on and manage their processes.

To illustrate the transformative impact of intelligent process automation, let’s turn back to the invoicing example. The right process management tool can enable your suppliers to upload an invoice with accurate metadata through an electronic form. It then will accurately route the invoice to the appropriate reviewers and approvers, who can handle any exceptions and disputes directly with customers. The system will then store the invoice in an enterprise content management system with relevant retention schedules and update the SAP application. And all of that can be done silently in the background, without ever interrupting the flow of work for the payments clerk.

Find the right technology for your specific process problems: Not all broken processes can be fixed with the same solution. In some instances, it might make sense to deploy RPA; in others, business process management systems or custom coding tools might make more sense. For enterprises, the key is to find a platform with a broad set of capabilities to help you manage, automate and then optimize those processes over time.

Establish a center of excellence: Having a center of excellence (CoE) for digital transformation ensures that RPA decision-making leads to measurable results across the enterprise. A successful CoE should include a team made up of thought leaders, process experts, IT experts and business stakeholders, and it should be accessible to everyone else who desires to make a difference at work.

But CoEs shouldn’t just make informed tech decisions; they should also communicate those decisions. By prioritizing transformation-focused education across the board — from the C-suite to the front line — the CoE can help ease the enterprise into its digital transformation.

Organizations can position themselves to see tangible returns on their RPA investments if they take a measured approach, adopt a solid process management solution, act out of an informed interest in digital transformation, and show a genuine commitment to empowering their teams.