5 Ways You'll Change Your Mind: Robotics Process Automation (RPA)

Whether it’s Hollywood films or eminent physicists, advances in technology – particularly in regard to Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence (AI) – are being explored all the time. Stephen Hawking, for example, recently said that, “computers will overtake humans with AI at some point within the next 100 years,” and that when it happens, “we need to make the computers have goals aligned to ours.”

We have, however, got a long way to go before we’re at the peril of real-life, walking, talking robots. For now, Robotic Process Automation (RPA) – robots which allow enterprises to automate repetitive, mundane tasks once undertaken by humans, freeing them up to work on more strategic tasks – is set to change the business landscape. It’s important to reiterate that when we say robots, we don’t actually mean robots. For now, computer coded software is what drives RPA.

To get a better idea of the RPA landscape, we surveyed our audience of senior shared services professionals to see how their companies are approaching automation. Below you will find the five most important trends that came out of that data.

1. The majority of companies haven’t implemented RPA yet

Deloitte has ranked increasing automation as the second most important strategic priority for shared services. Despite the hype, 58.6% of our participants had not implemented RPA. This number, however, has decreased considerably, even within the last six months. In December 2015, 69.9% of companies had yet to implement RPA (according to SSON's State of the Shared Services Industry Survey 2016), demonstrating that many more companies are now entering the testing phase of their RPA deployment.

If this rate of adoption were to replicate, it’s likely that RPA – across all sectors – would become more prevalent.

According to our data, governmental organisations, not-for-profits and SMEs are furthest behind. Just 8.3% of not-for-profits had implemented RPA, compared to 20.6% in companies with revenues over $10 billion.

2. RPA optimism rises once implemented

Companies seem to fall more in love with RPA the further down the line they get. Just 3.1% of organisations which hadn’t implemented RPA believed that over 60% of their processes could be automated. The vast majority deemed RPA’s potential as more limited, with 76.5% stating that automation would affect just 0-40% of their business.

Those in the testing phase are of a similar opinion. The lion’s share, 91.7%, saw RPA influencing 0-40% of their processes. Again, just 4.2% of respondents saw it affecting over 60% of their business.

Once RPA has been implemented, however, companies wake up to its potential. Our data shows that 36.4% of companies at this stage see RPA touching over 60% of their processes, a dramatic increase from those at the testing phase. This would imply that RPA’s true value is only delivered post implementation.  

3. Purchase to pay and accounts payable functions most likely to benefit from RPA

There was a divergence of opinion between the companies that hadn’t implemented RPA, those at the testing phase, and those post-implementation, throughout the survey. This was no different when it came to the functions they believed would benefit most from RPA.

Those pre-implementation felt that purchase to pay would profit most from automation, with 28.4% of respondents highlighting it as a priority. And while it remained high on their automation list for those at the testing and post-implementation phases, accounts payable overtook it.

Interestingly, just 1.5% of companies pre-implementation saw the order to cash function as one which would benefit most from RPA. This changed considerably post-implementation, with 18.2% highlighting it as the most automatable function. This, again, would imply that companies discover extra value in robotics once they have implemented it.

There were, however, functions whose potential to be automated decreased as time went on. The record to report process, for example, was highlighted by 9% of companies pre-implementation as the function which would benefit most from robotics, yet at the implementation phase this had fallen to 4.5%.

4. Standardisation the major challenge 

There was a consensus among all companies, irrespective of their positon in their RPA strategy, that standardisation was the key roadblock.

Until we’re at a stage where RPA programs can think for themselves, they remain a slave to their algorithms. And while accuracy is RPA’s main advantage, it can quickly turn sour if an external or internal business process isn’t aligned. This requires meticulous planning, and extensive communication within a strong governance framework.

For those that had implemented RPA, 45.8% saw standardisation as the main challenge, with resource allocation and FTEs fearing job losses at 16.7% and 4.2% respectively.

Concerns surrounding job losses is often considered the main challenge facing RPA adoption, with science editors at major newspapers writing articles imploring the human-race to find new meaning in their lives, with robots likely to make even the most cognitive tasks defunct in the coming decades.

It seems, however, that FTEs are starting to wake up to the fact that automation’s end-goal isn’t to damage workers, but to make their lives easier.

5. The RPA implementation process can’t be done overnight 

Companies pre-implementation agree that the RPA implementation process is going to take more than 12 weeks, with 61.3% stating that. This was an assertion also shared by those at the testing phase and post-implementation, with 40.9% and 53.3% highlighting this.

This demonstrates that companies must be prepared to wait if they’re to implement RPA successfully.

This data was collected from 130 shared service practitioners. They operate in a number of different industries, with the most represented being banking, manufacturing and construction.  You can view the full dataset here. 

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