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By Nate Medoff, managing partner and cofounder of ContinuServe.
The US is experiencing a major labor shortage, caused by a variety of factors, such as the shift toward single income families, an aging workforce leaning into early retirement and higher quit rates, all accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. After many businesses closed and business volumes declined, millions of workers were laid off or furloughed. A portion of displaced workers received unemployment benefits and stimulus checks, creating a cushion that allows workers to walk away from otherwise low-wage jobs for other opportunities — especially those who were in the service industry. Others have left the labor force entirely because their pre-pandemic situations were not sustainable.
As the pandemic continues and companies re-open for business with safety protocols in place, employers are struggling to fill vacant positions as well as retain the workers during this “Great Resignation.”
To help fill this need for workers and to improve productivity, many companies have turned to automation and Robotic Process Automation (RPA) solutions. RPA is software that can be deployed relatively quickly to automate repetitive, rules-based tasks within various corporate functions such as finance, Human Resources, customer service and Information Technology. RPA solutions are also able to use image recognition and artificial intelligence (AI) technology to process unstructured data and automate activities such as invoice processing, responding to emails, and following up on past due accounts. The maturation of the technology has enabled the automation of even more complex tasks, such as resume screening, employment verification and fraud monitoring.
Companies that provide technology and back-office outsourcing services are seeing more and more clients opt for automation. According to a report by The Economist, which surveyed 502 executives across eight countries in a range of sectors, 90% of respondents’ organizations use automation technologies. RPA has proven to be a game-changer in improving back-office efficiency as well as employee morale and staffing, as 73% of survey respondents were “very” or “entirely” satisfied with the automation benefits they are seeing, with increased productivity cited by over half of respondents. Big names like Walmart, AT&T, Walgreens and Vanguard have all adopted RPA to automate tasks like answering customer questions, issuing refunds, and facilitating various supply chain processes. An article by The Brookings Institute listed multiple examples of organizations’ reported benefits of RPA, including accounting firm KPMG’s application of a digital initiative to improve financial invoice processing, which led to cost savings and improved productivity by up to 70%.
While there is a risk that some jobs and tasks could be permanently eliminated, the deployment, support, and management of the bot technology represents an entirely new value stream. When it comes to the human capital conundrum, the idea is not to eliminate valuable staff entirely, but rather replace tedious, transactional tasks with more strategic, value-added work. RPA maintains the potential to deliver on this premise, however, to deliver these types of returns the deployment of RPA technology requires careful planning and proper management sponsorship.
5 tips for effective RPA implementation and deployment
1. Set and manage expectations.
As with implementing any new business strategy, it is critical to set and manage expectations. With RPA, companies can see quick returns on investment, but scaling and optimizing an RPA investment takes careful planning and strategy. Many of the problems companies run into with RPA come from misaligned expectations.
Experts recommend first identifying the processes that should be automated – not just the ones you think would be nice to automate. Engaging expert consulting advice can help an organization prioritize target processes with the highest return on investment. In addition to providing invaluable advice on how to sequence your RPA initiatives to deliver quick wins and build scale, outside experts can also weigh in on how to manage risks such as maintaining compliance and minimizing potential disruption of existing workflows and processes.
2. Understand the total cost of ownership.
Investing in RPA is like investing in any new technology; having a clear understanding of total cost of ownership (TCO) – not just initial investment – will help inform process owners which tasks should be automated first. Costs to consider include but are not limited to:
Most qualified service providers with expertise in implementing RPA will have a usable TCO model to ensure your organization accounts for all of the costs in its return-on-investment thesis.
Experts can also help organizations translate the varying RPA pricing models available in the marketplace. Some vendors offer traditional licensing per installed bot and others charge by the user (and type of user). Some vendors even offer a transaction-based billing option which invoices the customer each time an automated process is executed. Regardless of which model is employed, it is crucial to consider future scalability, the RPA ‘bot’ productivity, and long-term effectiveness within your ROI model.
3. Automate incrementally, not all at once.
Phasing the deployment of RPA across the enterprise gradually has many advantages over trying to simultaneously implement a much larger scope. While it may be tempting to try to amortize the total costs of RPA across multiple processes as soon as possible, this approach can introduce unnecessary risk. Giving your organization time to develop the functional and technical skills to effectively identify, design and manage RPA automation will dramatically lower the risk of each incremental deployment. Taking an agile approach and progressively reducing the time frame between sprints as your organization builds its capabilities can still drive impressive returns while effectively managing the risks of problematic implementations that can sour process owners on this game changing technology.
4. Include your IT team.
While RPA should not simply be delegated to your IT department to single handedly implement, rather, a cross-functional, agile approach will serve your business well. In fact, the technical complexity associated with RPA deployments is likely to grow as more complex activities are contemplated for automation and more complex add-on tools like AI or OCR come into play. IT’s involvement is key for ensuring existing software systems will work harmoniously with new automated processes. Your IT department also has expertise in solving for a positive end-user experience, which would help keep employees working alongside automated systems happy. In short, IT will help get RPA deployment right the first time.
5. Consider the impact on service levels and people.
RPA is often considered solely as a method to increase ROI and cost savings. It is equally as important to view the software as a tool to improve the employee and customer experience. In the case of big box stores, for example, RPA can assist the thousands of customer service agents manning the phone lines to better service customers waiting on hold. On e-commerce sites, this is evidenced by chatbots with virtual agents who are often available 24/7 and can rapidly respond and provide solutions.
In implementing RPA, it is also important to work with internal organizational teams like Human Resources, especially when some employees find disruption to their workflow as a result of robots being introduced as new co-workers. Remember, RPA is there to help make things and processes easier, not create an environment in which employees fear for their job security.
Nate Medoff is the managing partner and cofounder of ContinuServe.
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