For many firms, the adoption of robotic process automation (RPA) is no longer an option but rather a necessity, given the savings it offers in employee-hours. This is especially the case for finance departments.
Numerous companies are still trying to figure out the best way to approach the new technology and how to keep any negative disruptions to a minimum. While some are in their RPA planning and evaluation stage, others have already rolled out the technology in multiple departments and for many processes.
For those yet to take the plunge, here are a few suggestions of ways to begin the journey, from those who have already started it and those championing the technology.
Given the time it will take to create an experienced in-house RPA team, it might be better to initially work with an RPA vendor to get some quick results and expertise under your belt. There are dozens of RPA vendors, according to Gartner, including Automation Anywhere, Blue Prism, and UiPath, with each offering custom services and training.
Guy Kirkwood, chief evangelist for UiPath, suggests organizing a hackathon, where you identify three to five processes of varying complexity and invite several RPA vendors to compete with one another to provide software solutions, revealing only at the last moment what they will be working on. “Very quickly you can figure out which technology suits you,” he said.
Do your homework
Kirkwood also recommends downloading the free trial versions of available software, which are identical to the paid version, and getting a copy of Everest Group’s Smart RPA Playbook. “It outlines where to start, how to start, and then how to scale up,” he said. “It includes everything you need, from the technology through to the business change, which is very important to relationships with IT departments.” At the same time, it is technology-agnostic, so it does not favor any particular RPA providers.
Decide where to begin
The next step is to identify the process or processes you want to start with. “One of the biggest things is choosing the right process to automate,” said Gabriel Mocan, head of digital technology and innovation at Romania’s Banca Transilvania, which began its RPA journey two years ago.
Most finance departments start with something that happens every day — such as accounts payable, or accounts receivable — aswell as activities where finance teams are moving information through and between multiple systems. This is useful from an operating point of view, and also in allowing companies to get a few early results. If you start with monthly expenses, it will take far longer to see results.
While most companies target low-hanging fruit to notch some easy victories, others have tried to prove the value of RPA straight off the bat by targeting more complex or challenging operations. “We tried both,” Mocan said. However, it is important for an RPA team to get some early results. “It’s going to give you the courage needed to approach more complicated processes,” he said.
Banca Transilvania targeted verification processes for both current and prospective customers, which involved multiple applications and data acquisition. It found that using robots that processed in batches, the time taken dropped from 10 minutes to just 12 seconds.
“We had 1,000 employees who were supposed to do some sort of verification. After RPA, those 1,000 employees have one task less to do in their daily job,” said Mocan. “If you take it task by task and automate, it’s a big time reduction.”
Get everyone on board
Companies that have taken the leap into RPA invariably point to the key task of getting stakeholders on board from the beginning.
Management may be resistant because of the expense or the disruption to systems that have functioned adequately for years. Employees in finance departments and elsewhere will likely fear that their jobs will change significantly overnight or disappear with the arrival of automation. Those working in IT departments may already be invested in alternative technologies and solutions, or worry that the burden of implementing RPA and dealing with teething issues will fall on them.
“You have to get IT onboard from the start because they’re the ones that are going to provide you with the infrastructure necessary to run your robots,” said Kirkwood, adding that in the past many companies’ IT departments saw RPA as either a distraction or a dirty fix.
You also need to communicate with all of those whose jobs will be affected by the change, as well as have management support.
“From the very beginning nobody embraces robots,” said Marius Alexandru, manager of finance transformation and special projects at Telekom Romania — which has successfully automated more than 60 processes within its finance department — and finance director at NextGen Communications. “In terms of convincing the management, we went for the numbers, but we also gathered everyone from finance and did a demo with a robot,” Alexandru said. He recommended a combination of workshops on awareness and communicating so that people know the value the technology can bring, both to the company and to themselves in terms of reducing their workload.
“We showed them behind the scenes how it works and also had a competition of ideas for the future for the robots,” Alexandru said. Through this approach they gained a pipeline of around 90 ideas.
However, you also need to be tuned in to your workforce and listen carefully when people inevitably tell you why the robot will not work in their department. “You need to understand what is just opposition and what is a real challenge for the project,” Alexandru said.
After some initial successes it is easy to reach a plateau, where you have a number of tasks being done by RPA but are not investing in potential new avenues or expanding it across the company.
“Where we find that most organizations stall is where they’ve done a full-scale pilot, found it successful, spread it out through a number of departments or process areas, and it doesn’t have that executive sponsorship, or they haven’t set up their center of excellence,” said Kirkwood. “All organizations tend to stall at about the same point, either because they don’t have the skill internally or because they are seeing RPA as part of a much broader digital transformation and are using the savings from the initial RPA to fund something else.”
The establishment of a center of excellence or — depending on the company’s size — a core group of people tasked with pushing RPA adoption onward will be key to whether RPA becomes a core component of your business or just a small addition that offers some useful savings. However, that can come later. For those just beginning their RPA journey, the first step can be as big or as small as you like. “You can start with one single robot,” Kirkwood said.