What You Should Know About Robotic Process Automation to Get Started

Companies all know the benefits of automation; software replacing human labor, allowing organizations to produce more effective and efficient services or products at a lower cost. Nothing new so far, right? But automation comes with challenges that are sometimes underestimated.
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We sit down with Tim Collombon, Manager at Accenture Netherlands, who specializes in Robotic Process Automation (RPA), to find out more about how organizations anticipate and, if necessary, solve potential setbacks.

‘I could write a lengthy article about the many pros and virtually no cons of implementing automation in an organization’s workforce. I could harp on about the great cost reductions, increased time efficiency, improved customer satisfaction and minimized day-to-day errors. We’ve all come across at least a dozen articles praising automation and hailing it as the way forward, but there are significantly less pieces detailing the challenges that organizations face throughout the automation process.’

Robotic Process Automation: Unpacking the Ins and Outs

‘For the sake of clarity, let’s get definitions in place first. When we talk about “automation”, we mean low-end robotics. Low-end robotics refers to simple chatbots or automated applications making use of previously identified scripts. On the other hand, high-end robotics are self-learning digital assistants that are capable of engaging in dialogue with users - when asked certain specific questions - and are able to track information from systems, or perform certain transactions. Robotic Process Automation isn’t a new concept; it’s been around for more than ten years.

‘In the last few years, automation has developed rapidly and drastically. It has outgrown many of its faults and matured excellently.. Coupled with the aforementioned benefits, it’s a no-brainer that most companies want to take the plunge and dive into the world of automation.’

Implementing Robotic Process Automation: What Are the Problem Areas?

Essentially, incorporating robotic process automation isn’t actually that foreign to most organizations, and starts with the induction of a virtual workforce. This virtual assistant – or “robot” – is software that forms part of the workforce and takes over labor that was usually carried out by a “real” employee. Many organizations have already “employed” a virtual workforce. For instance, when you “chat” to your insurance company online, you’re actually chatting to a robot. The execution of operational processes via automation is the logical next step. 

"Organizations should not be put off - the pros far outweigh the cons."

‘That said, the number of Dutch companies that have fully undergone the automation process successfully can still be counted on one hand. Low-end robotics is the perfect gateway to the next level of automation. But while this introductory phase most likely will present some teething problems, organizations should not be put off - the pros far outweigh the cons.’

Challenge #1: Robots Don’t Have Passports

‘For instance, let’s take a typical dilemma that arises when you introduce a virtual workforce to an HR department. Keep in mind that a virtual assistant essentially needs the same facilities as its physical colleagues – not the toilet or the desk, of course, but a laptop, an account, log-in details and case registration, etc. This leads to a bit of an issue: in order to get a laptop or authorization, one needs an ID number or copy of an ID document. Ever come across software that has a passport? The robot isn’t really compatible with the world it was introduced to.’

Challenge #2: Whose Responsibility Is This Guy, Really?

‘Another hurdle organizations often face revolves around security issues. Many organizations have built-in prevention measures and monitoring processes to detect fraud. These refer to several types of “checks” that identify whether you are actually dealing with a real person. Think of checks to monitor the number of transactions a human being can realistically execute (and what is defined as “human”); checks to ensure that users can only login once; and checks using visual verification, as just a few examples. When robots join the physical workforce, do these measures still uphold? Should the organization find a way to bypass monitoring, remove them or should they be audited on their accuracy? Also: who is responsible for managing this new “co-worker”?’

‘At the end of the day, dealing with these obstacles often takes up just as much time as installing the technology to get the robot to perform its tasks. Is it a waste of time? Absolutely not. Is it necessary? Definitely. After it’s been solved, does it make life easier? Unquestionably.’

Challenges Will Always Occur

‘Even if a process ticks all the boxes and turns out to be 100% suitable for automation, practical challenges will always pop up. Basically, as an organization, you just need to experience it once, deal with it and solve it effectively.’

‘What can organizations do to prepare themselves? Well, there are some questions that will, undoubtedly, come up:Does this mean we all lose our jobs?and ‘How do these robots fit in our workforce?’, for instance. To a large extent, these questions can be dealt with prior to implementing the automation. Involve the Board of Directors; make sure everybody knows what’s happening, and try to tackle as many queries before implementation has even started.’

Scan a Process on Criteria

‘In order to establish whether a process is suitable for automation, the following criteria must be taken into consideration:

  • Does the process involve customer interaction? If so, is it okay if that contact is handled by standardized software in the future?
  • Is the process itself standardized? Or is it adaptable; for instance, due to changing legislation, does the process need to be adjusted every time the law changes, too?
  • Is the input and output of the process standardized? For example, when the input takes the form of an email, can it be sent in any format and from different email addresses? Additionally, factors like correct interpretation and possible typos are difficult to regulate.

These conditions generally apply to processes in all types of organizations, whether an energy supplier, an HR company or a financial institution. It’s the ultimate go-to guide.’

All Great Things Start Small

‘Lastly, our advice is to start implementing automation on a small-scale level, applying only low-end robotics. This way, the above-mentioned problems will be small-scale too, making it easier to deal with them swiftly. As soon as you have unpacked the various aspects of the implementation process and established solutions and additional frameworks, your organization is fit for further robotics. Afterwards, you can go wild: low-end or high-end, installing only 1 or 750 robots – you’re good to go.’

Would you like to know how RPA has been implemented at Obvion? Read the (Dutch) interview (ITExecutive.nl) with Obvion CEO Ronald Touwslager.

Authors: Inge Abraham Tim Collombon