Written by Craig Nelson

Written by Craig Nelson

“Business Process Reengineering” is a concept that dates back to the 1990s, when organisational science and process improvement experts sought ways to achieve quantum improvements in operational performance by fundamentally redefining key business functions such as processing loan applications, responding to customer inquiries and paying supplier invoices. These efforts have for the most part fallen short of expectations. Either the technology was lacking, or new processes failed to gain traction, or people impacted by change resisted doing things in a drastically different way.

Today, Robotic Process Automation (RPA) offers the potential to break the impasse. By performing repeatable administrative tasks consistently, accurately and 24x7x365, RPA applications take the transformation opportunity to a new level. RPA enables different processes and sources of data to be brought together, analysed and rapidly and accurately adjudicated. But even the best technology, applied ineffectively or in a vacuum, won’t drive meaningful results. What’s needed is a holistic approach that addresses organisational change in the context of how people, process and technology interact.

One key to effective RPA is to reorganise the converging world of humans and robots. RPA will drive fundamental operational and organisational change, and RPA sponsors must respond accordingly with effective management. Successful RPA implementations require leaders who can think differently and consider new ways to repurpose talent to perform higher value-adding activities. Finding these new roles is critical to balancing disruptive change and to optimising benefits from RPA.

Inevitably, some employees and some business leaders will resist disruptive innovations such as RPA. Articulating how talent and resources can be repurposed to take advantage of RPA is therefore imperative to win over the skeptics.

RPA advocates who fail to define the new organisational structure and its likely impact on people before they introduce RPA will encounter significant resistance, which will result in slow and unsteady implementation. An automation strategy should allow people to rethink how work gets done and then demonstrate what the convergence of human and virtual workers will look like. In practice, this means communications regarding RPA should only commence once the organisation understands what’s at stake and embraces this truly disruptive innovation. While the robots won’t care, the humans impacted by this shift in thinking and working will be keenly interested.

A second imperative is to reengineer processes that are leveraging automation. A key concept to consider here is the difference between knowledge and information and their convergence in the future of thinking machines. Traditionally, information and the knowledge of how to apply it has resided in employees’ heads. Today, this information is increasingly being digitized, stored and applied through automation.   By capturing, documenting and digitizing process know-how and enabling its virtual execution, RPA now offers the capability of extending automation into processes that utilize systems and applications.

This dramatic convergence of human and virtual workforces requires leaders to evaluate the challenges facing their business units within the broader context of the enterprise and to create new solutions and opportunities. Traditional process reengineering and six sigma lean problem solving methodologies, while still useful, lack the creativity and experimentation needed in the organization of the future.

The key question emerging from the convergence of humans and robots is, “What will the new operating model look like and where do people fit in the new model?” By creating a Robotics Operating Model (ROM), enterprises can define critical roles and interfaces regarding roles and responsibilities for managing RPA. The ROM can help RPA sponsors ask the right questions about which processes may be optimized; observe the organizational capacity and capability to embrace RPA; and network among BU managers, IT leaders and functional administrators and promote experimentation by piloting new RPA initiatives

Collective questioning, observing, networking and experimenting are critical to managing the convergence of human and virtual workforces and to understanding how work gets done and how customers are served in the new operating environment.

Without the correct ROM structure to interface among the operating stakeholders and to manage the virtual workforce, organizations will struggle to realize the full benefits of automation. When a process is definable, repeatable and standardized, RPA tools can automate that process from end-to-end.

The role of IT must also be considered. While viewing itself as the bastion of technology innovation, IT has traditionally been responsible for enabling business processes rather than defining business processes. While RPA changes these roles and disturbs the status quo, it has little impact on underlying systems, applications, login or security. That said, IT should be involved in vetting any RPA solution; as such, IT and functional interfaces will need to be redefined. These new boundaries are not easily drawn and must address a host of barriers and issues that require cross-functional cooperation. Organizations that understand and appreciate the unique characteristics of their operating cultures will be better equipped to capture the value of RPA and leap frog their competition.

A third component of an RPA strategy is to re-prioritize technology innovations to articulate the business case and benefits. Consider, for example, a business unit executive who hopes to leverage RPA to address cost, quality and efficiency challenges. One potential obstacle is the fact that most organizations already have a full plate of technical innovations, enhancement requests and other competing initiatives. Moreover, the prospect of adding another technology project to the already overburdened IT project stack will likely be met with resistance. Without the combination of C-Suite support and operational skills to realign and reprioritize IT demand management, organizational barriers will likely delay the program, nullifying competitive advantage and benefits.

Successful RPA innovators force themselves to cross borders. Disruptive technologies require that cross-functional teams operate in the bustling intersections of new opportunities and ideas. This will invariably force organizations out of their comfort zones and prompt some key questions regarding how areas such as innovation, security and compliance are managed.

To take RPA into the mainstream, leaders must be allowed to reexamine in-flight projects and related factors and create an updated and constantly evolving plan that reflects the new business as usual going forward. This will allow for updates in mission, vision, scope and budgetary realities to achieve a successful outcome. Since automation should be viewed as an enabler of enterprise-wide operational transformations, quantitative ROI should not be the primary objective of a strategic automation implementation. A successful project should be measured by broader metrics, such as improvements in operational efficiency, customer satisfaction, improved compliance and auditability and long-term revenue growth. However, traditional ROI can be a good enterprise benchmark for understanding which business units are succeeding in their evaluations and implementations of RPA and why, as well as seeing who still has a way to go.

RPA is not just about technology but about cultural transformation. Businesses should approach implementations as a combination of complex change management disciplines, process selection and RPA design efforts that includes transition planning and management, automation tool selection, organizational redesign and workforce management.