Businesses continue to face a period of rapid and unprecedented change and there is no doubt that COVID-19 has reconfigured the commercial landscape. Few business continuity plans (BCPs) were designed for a scenario where teams would have very limited or no access at all, to a commercial office.
For many, the duties performed by employees who are equipped for remote working have continued without significant interruption. However, processes executed by employees who are dependent on office desktops and landlines have been heavily impacted.
In the ongoing pursuit of improved business continuity and organisational efficiencies, many are considering the benefits of robotics to automate business processes. Nigel Morris from BDO’s Technology Advisory Services (TAS) team investigates how robotic process automation (RPA) can improve resilience and productivity for an SME or mid-market organisation.
What is Robotic Process Automation (RPA)?
Historically, when a business wanted to automate a process it would update software applications, adding new functionality to reduce the need for employee involvement. This would require investment in software development or the purchase of new software modules, where the business process logic is programmed into the updated application.
RPA takes a different approach. Instead of building or buying new application functionality for a specific business process, an RPA tool is deployed to interact with existing business applications exactly as an employee would. This could be through:
- Executing key strokes,
- Interpreting User Interface (UI) forms and messages, and
- Making decisions based on pre-defined scripts that follow business rules.
The RPA tool is configured to execute the business process logic. Scripts are built and updated by copying existing employee actions, without the cost and risk of engaging software developers. RPA tools are extremely flexible and can be configured to perform multiple business processes. They can integrate multiple applications across a range of technical platforms and data sources.
Where would RPA add value?
RPA delivers maximum benefit when it is used for repetitive, high-volume, labour-intensive, rules-based business processes.
- Purchase invoice processing – Capturing purchase invoices across multiple formats (PDF, Word, email, etc.), reconciling them against purchase orders and arranging payment
- Sales orders – Capturing orders, ensuring data consistency across enterprise systems, triggering production, delivery and invoicing
- Accounting reconciliation – Extracting data from multiple sources and reconciling from purchase order to delivery note
- ERP data entry – Automating data gathering, processing and validation
- Data consolidation and validation – Retrieving data from multiple structured and unstructured sources for comparison, validation and reporting
- Payroll – Extracting and combining static and transaction data from multiple sources, processing according to in-house contracts and local laws, delivering documentation and payment
- Processing staff joiners and leavers – Capturing data from multiple sources, activating or de-activating user accounts, disseminating information and logging activities
In short, RPA replaces or enhances business processes that are conducted by a kiosk or task user, but is less likely to be able to replicate the activities of a knowledge or power user.
What are the benefits of RPA?
There are many benefits to implementing RPAs in businesses, and they perform at their best in environments where legacy systems and convoluted workflows can cause employees to make mistakes.
Increased speed of business process execution
- Even with modest hardware, an RPA tool can process repetitive business transactions far quicker than even the most skilled and dedicated employee
- An RPA tool works 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year
- Once an RPA script has been created, the business process can be executed repeatedly, without the need for employee intervention
Lower execution costs
- A single RPA can automate multiple business processes and integrate multiple applications
- RPA scripts can be created by non-technical staff and can be modified as business processes change
- RPA tools interact directly with applications, and do not require multiple employee workstations and associated office space
- RPA capacity can quickly flex up and down to adapt to business circumstances
A reduction in errors
- An RPA tool will always execute the business process as instructed
- Any errors will continue to be repeated until discovered, which makes for easier diagnosis and correction
- Due to the speed of execution, a process may be repeated following more than one path, to cross-check outcomes
What are the disadvantages of RPA?
RPA can be beneficial to many businesses, yet they can be detrimental in environments where systems are in flux, user interfaces are changing or human-assisted automation is already embedded directly within applications.
Sensitive to instabilities
- RPAs interact with existing applications through a user interface, rather than being embedded within them
- As a result, any changes made to user interfaces or workflows, or any instabilities, however minor, can cause RPA routines to break.
- Whereas, employees would simply adjust their behaviour to remedy the situation, an RPA cannot
Deployment and maintenance costs
- Deploying an RPA tool requires specific skills and takes time. There can be a steep learning curve, therefore upfront costs and the implementation lead time should not be underestimated
- When an RPA solution is up and running, maintenance will be required, particularly when associated systems and applications are updated regularly
Expectations must be managed and teams need to be reassured
- RPA deployment requires a deep understanding of the business processes being automated
- RPA is still a relatively new field and may be seen by employees as a threat instead of a benefit, causing disruptions within the workforce
- However, RPA implementations allow employees to focus on less repetitive, more creative tasks enhancing job satisfaction
Should you consider implementing RPA?
RPA is a rapidly expanding field, in terms of the range of suppliers, the quality and capabilities of the RPA applications, and the number of businesses implementing and benefitting from the technology. Undoubtedly, there are significant benefits to be derived from implementing RPA, but companies need to be clear that the business processes must be well-suited to automation.
It is easy to underestimate the cost of implementing and maintaining an RPA configuration. Consideration should be given to both the cost of the software licencing, and the cost of consultancy from experienced and qualified third parties that may be required to achieve maximum benefit from the implementation.
RPA pricing is complex, and does not lend itself to a simple, direct comparison with the cost of single or multiple employees. However, the potential benefits in business continuity preparedness and operational efficiency justify further investigation.
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