Recent reports estimate that the RPA market is expected to reach almost $4bn by 2025 as technology providers continue to explore automation in new markets and look beyond back office functions for front office applications.
The rapid adoption of this technology is generally down to the low cost of entry. However, licensing is only a small fraction of the total cost of automation and in part, reason as to why so many RPA projects only scratch the surface of its potential or worse, fail to deliver the benefits anticipated.
Issues in RPA
Most technology projects typically rely on a set of base assumptions that can be used to outline the overall cost of investment and benefits once the technology has been rolled out.
However, RPA implementation is different and should only be considered as the first step in extracting full value of the technology. Unlike other technology projects, the resource and time cost to implement, maintain and govern tends to be disproportionately higher than the initial outlay but with the upside of uncovering further benefits with each process automated. In addition, what is often overlooked, is the resource and time taken to build a culture of continuous improvement within the business by leveraging this technology.
For RPA projects, the cost to resource is largely a function of the process complexity and the ongoing management of automated processes. As such, each process identified for automation can incur a higher cost to automate than expected. The root causes are outlined below;
Processes are not optimised prior to automation
Of course, most processes can be automated, but why would you automate a non-optimised process? Once stakeholders review the process in detail, they often find there are some tweaks that could be made during implementation that improve the value that automation can bring. This is the right thing to do and will ultimately improve the overall benefits, but the time taken to ‘fix’ or ‘optimise’ the process is not factored in. The cost to resource both from the automation engineer and SME is often overlooked.
Tasks rather than processes are being automated
The benefits of automating arduous and voluminous tasks may become apparent during discovery, and the return on investment in terms of FTE may also be evident. But the cost-saving realised at a department level (typically the case when a task is automated) may just result in a growing work stack downstream (thus no positive effect on the outcome) or additional resource being spent to reduce the backlog. Delivering automation that is disconnected from achieving a better business outcome ultimately leads to stakeholder dissatisfaction and further review.
The amount of maintenance and governance oversight is overlooked
Humans have the cognitive ability to react and respond to subtle changes and make the appropriate adjustments to a process to maintain the quality of outcomes. For example, a software update may have resulted in a change to how information is displayed on the user interface. From a human point of view, the process has not changed, and is unlikely to influence the outcome. However, this a physical change in location for any inputs and will cause the RPA bot to fail. This requires resource and time to fix.
In addition, many businesses fail to consider the time and costs associated with correcting or realigning bots to match infrastructure changes to operations or activities. Proactive alignment of bots will minimise the resource and time cost, but this alignment is rarely conducted proactively.
Finding the optimum configuration that maximises bot output takes time
Unattended RPA bots execute processes and interact with applications independent of human involvement. Unattended bots can be triggered by events and they can be scheduled. Although it is tempting to leave the bots to work in the background, to truly exploit the full potential of the bots, time should be spent optimising the configuration of bots and processes to meet SLAs and priorities. These SLAs and priorities should be regularly reviewed, with the power of the automation at your fingertips, do the SLAs agreed with the business still make sense? Can more value be extracted if they were tightened or can this process be relaxed, and other processes be prioritised?
The Importance of Strategy
As Equantiis CEO, Alistair Sergeant mentions in his post, “There’s no such thing as an IT” project”, each project that is executed by the IT team has to be aligned to delivering business value and that must be understood by everybody involved. The use of RPA is a prime example of how this mis-alignment would lead to sub-optimal returns or worse, a failed venture. Maximising the value of RPA requires stakeholders to see the technology as a strategic lever that enables a business to continually improve. This journey can only be started with the understanding, that RPA works best if there is a sustained focus to not only maintain existing automated processes but also to review, identify and automate new processes.
The first step in this journey is to treat bots as an OPEX cost, one that drives continuous improvement behaviours and is owned by operations. Like human staff costs, businesses should focus on investing the time and resource to ensure that the ‘digital’ workforce are happy, engaged and challenged to get the best out of them.
- Keeping bots effective by ensuring processes remain robust and process inputs remain fixed
- Keeping bots engaged by identifying more processes for them to automate
- Keeping bots challenged by frequently reviewing SLAs and priorities to deliver the best outcomes.
RPA has the potential to revolutionise businesses, yet this potential is rarely harnessed because the technology is treated as an ‘IT’ project in the way it allocates resource, time and the measurement of benefits. To maximise the potential of RPA, embed bots into your workforce and invest the time and effort to maximise the value. This approach requires sustained investment to maintain, optimise existing processes and to identify and automate new ones. The flip side is that the benefits outlined in the business case are only the start.