In the wake of the COVID-19 lockdown, many organizations are looking to technology to find a solution to the problems of remote working and even diminished staff numbers as the economic fallout from the crisis kicks-in. Automation, or Robotic Process Automation (RPA), though, is not something that can be simply plugged into existing systems with the expectation that it will behave the way organizations need it to behave.

There are many things to consider before automating processes especially in situations where operations need to change and adapt to market conditions quickly. So, what do companies need to think about before investing?

Examine Organizational Structure

Nick Deck is platform director at Chicago-based Catalytic, an AI automation company. He believes that the first thing that companies need to look at is organizational structure even though it is one of the most overlooked factors when exploring an automation strategy. It is important, he said, to understand what elements may hinder or support execution as the company progresses along the automation journey. Identifying these factors up front will ensure that organizations will not find themselves unable to scale in the coming years.

Recent research from Catalytic, The Real State of Automation Progress, shows that in the fact of this challenge, 78% of organizations are taking a centralized approach to automation in which the purchasing and implementation is owned by a single team — usually IT or the C-suite — while only 22% distribute this responsibility across multiple departments and teams.

Interestingly, those that chose a distributed approach said employees were 10% more likely to believe their automations were more successful and scalable compared to industry peers. Choosing to distribute responsibility across the entire organization gives employees a personal stake and greater influence in the success of your automation journey. Even more, it prevents one department from being bogged down with every aspect of planning, implementation and execution which can create bottlenecks that severely stunt your progress.

Without company-wide buy-in, IT leaders risk creating impractical solutions and sabotaging strategy before it even gets off the ground — wasting resources, diminishing employee trust and hurting future initiatives in the process.

Conversely, companies that allow employees to provide input about what they need from the new technology, experience significantly higher success rates. It is also important to identify what kind of tasks your organization is going to automate.

RPA Time Investment

Chris Ellis, manager of technical evangelism at Bellvue, Wash.-based Nintex told us that repetitive tasks, like the processing of invoices, are well-suited to automation and can be a quick win for organizations. On the other hand, processes that involve multiple moving parts in a system, application or data source will require the bot to continuously learn changes, so that is not a good place to start. There are two principal considerations:

Organizations should have a firm grasp on the pain points they plan to resolve with RPA. Too many businesses feel pressure to invest in RPA because their counterparts are doing so, rather than being clear on the problem they plan to address.

It is also important to be aware of the time investment that will be required — from creating bots, to training them to manage exceptions like changes related to errors and sanitizing data. “RPA is no different from any software project when it comes to the beginnings of a rollout of implementation,” he said. “Proving the value of the project can be achieved by a smaller, staged approach or ’land and expand’. Develop a proof of concept for a focus group or particular line of business or function.”

RPA Resources

Clearly, though, the resources available to the organizations in question is a key issue and will dictate how the company approaches RPA. A fundamental difference between mid-market and enterprise companies is the amount of resources, both human and capital, available at their disposal, Wilmington, Del.-based AdPushup CEO and founder Ankit Oberoi, told us.

When enterprise companies go shopping for automation solutions to reduce cost, improve efficiency, or grow revenue, often, they have already invested in building at least some in-house capabilities to address that problem, he said. “This is why cookie-cutter solutions don't work for the enterprise. Large organizations require flexibility in choosing the solutions, ad-hoc engineering support, and dedicated customer service, which together fill the gap between their internal capabilities and business objectives,” he said.

Whatever the use case, when looking for automation solutions for enterprise companies, he believes there are three main factors they need to consider:

Learning Opportunities

  • Does the vendor have a proven track record of delivering success for large organizations
  • Does the vendor have the human resources and technical wherewithal to put together a customized solution for you?
  • Is there a good natural fit between the internal capability that your organization has developed and the solutions offered by the vendor?

Do More Than Just Cut Costs With Automation

In years past, automating to add scale to or lower costs on a process or specific area was a solid justification for investment. Now, more leaders are starting to look at it differently and questioning whether they are too focused on cost savings, Kyle McNabb, SVP of product marketing at Naples, Fla.-based ASG Technologies, told us. “I think we're starting to see more of a shift in the driver for automation to be not only to reduce costs, but also to improve employee experiences, help the organization be more responsive to constant change and support greater business continuity,” he said.

If the reasoning for implementing automation is just to remove costs, adoption is going to be negatively impacted and an organization's brand could be negatively impacted, too. With new research from MIT and others coming out showing how automation can contribute to displacement and inequality, leaders need to ask why they are automating and have an answer that's more than just to remove costs for the firm, he added.

Automating the hard, time-consuming work of people and processes is easier now with more mature technologies. There's more capability today to help automate time-consuming and difficult, but repetitive tasks. Improvements in accuracy and reliability make it easier for leaders to justify applying automation technology to these more difficult areas. “More thought needs to go into what to automate and how to break it into different pieces to ensure organizations make progress and see the impact automation may have on the overall ecosystem of systems and processes, “ he said. “There's too much evidence of failures where companies throw automation at a problem but haven't quite thought through what they're automating completely.

4 Steps To Successful Process Automation

There are four steps that enterprise leaders need to take to ensure successful automation of processes, Chris Huff, Irvine, Calif.-based Kofax's chief strategy officer, added. Those steps include:

1. Determine Which Processes Are Ripe for Automation

First, determine candidate business operations and processes fit for RPA using a proven list of criteria. This list includes diagnostic questions such as:

  • Are the business area and processes prone to errors or rework?
  • Is the workflow/process predictable?
  • What percent of the transactions are exceptions?
  • What’s the transaction volume?

2. Determine Process Complexity

The second step is to take those business operations and processes fit for RPA and determine their complexity. This helps determine how long it will take to design, develop, test and deploy RPA. It also determines the need for complementary automation solutions such as cognitive capture to ingest unstructured data and process orchestration to create automated workflows and case management.

3. Fully Develop Your Business Case

The third step is to build an enterprise business case to determine ROI. In this step, Huff says he has seen success by using a four-pillar approach to create a holistic business case consisting of strategic alignment to the larger enterprise strategy, workforce impact, operational metric impact and financial profile/impact.

4. Build a Sustainable Model

The last step is to build a sustainment model for the RPA program. Most call this a Center of Excellence or a Digital Management Office. Normally this consists of six competencies to include Strategy & Governance, Tools & Training, Operations, Innovation, Change Management and Performance

According tot he experts, following this four-step process allows a scaled program to be built with a high degree of expected success to achieve long-term strategic value.