Robotic process automation is on the rise

When it comes to business process management, the drive for efficiency is king. Enter RPA to help streamline legacy processes.

Robotic process automation is on the rise

More automation and AI capabilities are coming to business process management (BPM) in the form of robotic process automation (RPA). By automating rules-based business processes, RPA can help streamline business operations. In some ways, however, RPA represents incremental progress rather than a revolutionary breakthrough. Moreover, many RPA tools still rely on significant upfront human effort to identify processes, create business roles and test software.

Still, the upside is compelling. AT&T is one company using RPA to save money in operations. Its outage management team “receives real-time outage information, manages impacted dispatch tickets and provides call information for customers who are impacted by outages,” says Sorabh Saxena, executive vice president and president of global business operations at AT&T. “This project delivers a cost reduction of around $3 million per year.” Moreover, Saxena notes, if this process is handled successfully, it may help increase customer retention.

With benefits like that, increased appetite for opportunities to apply RPA across the business should come as no surprise.

“We are currently working on more than ninety applications of RPA across the enterprise,” says Ken O'Brien, executive vice president and CIO at RRD, which offers business communications services and marketing solutions, and has over 43,000 employees across more than 30 countries.

RPA has already delivered significant benefits for RRD. “In the last 12 months, we have used robotic process automation to create 8,000 employee-hours of capacity across RRD internally in the areas of billing, vendor statements, and reporting,” O'Brien says.

This ability to free up staff for higher-level tasks is the real unsung benefit of RPA.

“We have not experienced any direct job losses as a result of RPA,” O’Brien says. “Instead, we have improved productivity by freeing capacity for employees who were spending part of their time doing administrative tasks to use their skills to resolve more complex issues.”

Revamping legacy processes

At many organizations, RPA is seen as an ideal fit for improving processes in legacy domains.

“We use RPA in depth as a technique to interrogate and interact with the legacy telco ordering/provisioning/billing applications to ultimately feed BPO [Business Process Orchestration] to help with order validate and order create automation,” AT&T’s Saxena says.

The complexity of pricing formulas, discount mechanisms, and late payments make billing and invoice management a prime candidate for robotic process automation.

“There is a critical need for RPA in many finance functions like accounts payable, accounts receivable, generation of bill materials, invoice processing, and purchase order management due to pressures to increase back-office performance,” says Brian Shannon, senior vice president of strategy and operations for the Americas at Serrala. “Automation of simple processing tasks like coding invoices based on historical data or sending reminders for pending actions can be performed by bots. Since these back-office functions are repeatable and predictable, bots are the perfect fit for the job.”

International industrial services company Baker Hughes, a GE company, has put RPA to work in improving its tax processes.

“We implemented RPA in our tax department covering 100 audits and reducing execution time from 30 days to 1 to 2 days. Cost savings is $450,000 for one department. The solution is scalable across all of GE, meaning savings in the millions once deployed,” says Lia Johnson, director of program management for data and analytics at Baker Hughes.

Of course, management still retains responsibility for setting the overall guidance and principles in an operational area as complicated as tax and compliance, but processes themselves can be improved significantly via automation.

Organizations looking to make good on the promise of automation should know there is no single silver bullet to improve your business processes. “We use a variety of tools based on the type of RPA and scope, including Automation Anywhere, Blue Prism, and UIPath,” says O'Brien.

The exact toolkit you use will depend on your organizational needs, but one common theme is ensuring data quality before you automate, as accelerating the processing of low-quality data is counterproductive. Organizations should also critically analyze steps in their business processes to ensure the highest gains can be reaped from automation. For example, if you are digitizing a paper process, you may be able to improve the process significantly. Instead of having a process step like “wait for the inter-office mail to receive approval,” the approval could be built into the workflow.

For many organizations, automation is incremental, with significant legacy systems and processes remaining in place. Baker Hughes, for example, retains legacy processes for data ingestion purposes. “We have various legacy systems with extensive customization,” Johnson says. “Often it is most efficient to create a digital worker that manipulates the user interface to extract data as opposed to ingesting data into data lakes from the back end.”

This story, "Robotic process automation is on the rise" was originally published by CIO.