Two types of RPA Automation and how to choose

With all the hype, it may come as a surprise to you that there are multiple types of Robotic Process Automation (RPA).

There are two ways a process can be automated with RPA – with an employee initiating it or run completely without any interventions.

Let us look at these types of RPA and how you can go about choosing what is right for your use cases.

Types of RPA Automation and how to choose

There are mainly two kinds of RPA automation based on how the software helps you automate. One of them is like an assistant that you call upon to help you complete the tasks and the other kind of automation is mostly for back office work. What does that mean?

Attended automation

These are the assistants that run on your computer and help you complete a part of the tasks that you are performing. For eg., if you usually search and copy paste data from one application to multiple applications, you can invoke an attended RPA to take over just these set of activities. The control is then returned to you by RPA to carry out the next set of tasks. This type of automation usually helps agents at call centers.

Imagine – with this, the long, repetitive processes are replaced with single clicks! This greatly reduces the time it takes to train your representatives. Attended RPA can hence reduce the average handling times improving your customer experience.

👉 Tech tip: Attended automation solutions are installed on individual workstations. Many times, these desktops differ in terms of resolutions, display settings, and even Graphic cards. This may lead to failure in the automation on a desktop while it was working well on another one.

🗨️ Comment: Blue prism considers this type of automation as Robotic Desktop Automation (RDA) which they say has a higher TCO (Total Cost of Ownership). They consider unattended automation as real RPA. They still have a way to do Attended automation through a partnership.

Open Span (now Pega) though thinks attended is a better form of automation. Their founder pushes for one bot per employee concept.

Unattended Automation 

If you do not need a representative or worker interaction during the execution of the process, you can run the complete process on a back-end server. This is what happens in Unattended automation.

In this type of automation, workflows are self-triggered and run on servers. They run to pre-determined schedules or real time and are available 24 x 7.  In the case of unattended automation, all you would see of an automated task would be the outputs.

For eg. For invoice processing, all you would see is a report indicating the invoices that could not be processed automatically. You can review the report and only work on the invoices that need your intervention.

The automated tasks can be scheduled or started through control rooms. You can allocate tasks, adjust priorities, manage queues and intervene in case of performance issues through the control room.

🗨️ Comment: UiPath and Automation Anywhere have attended and unattended automation. UiPath thinks that attended automation would overtake unattended in 2019. Blue Prism is big on Unattended Automation and calls it “Enterprise RPA”

How to choose – Attended vs Unattended?

So as you may have gathered, you would use Attended bots if you like them to operate under your direction. You would use Attended bots for:

  • Tasks that need real-time human-system interaction
  • Augment your employee day to day work, enable them to do it faster and better
  • Help your employees understand and embrace automation

Usually, unattended automation gives you more control and also more bang for the buck. They follow your rules to complete a process automatically. You would use unattended automation for:

  • Tasks that are structured and can be fully mapped
  • Replace entire roles where possible
  • To gather, sort, analyze and distribute large amounts of data
  • Where you have Desktop differences and unattended may be a challenge

You can use both unattended and attended automation either by themselves or together to give your business a distinct advantage.

So there are multiple types of RPA and it is important the right one for your use.

I would suggest that you have these different types of RPA as well as other technologies as part of your Automation tool kit. I think it is important to start with the Business problem that you are looking to solve and then select the right tool for that use case.

Top Seven reasons why Robotic Process Automation (RPA) has been difficult to scale

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) has its fair share of challenges that we need to be aware of and take steps to overcome.

Some or all of these challenges have resulted in organizations stopping their implementation after the first wave of bots. Being cognizant of these challenges and addressing them ahead could help you be one of the RPA-AI scale champions.

Just as you understand the benefits of automation, and have secured management approval to invest, it would be wise to understand the possible challenges.

Employee resistance

This is one of the biggest challenges I have seen to implement RPA. We have real benefits but people at all levels fear job loss and its impacts. A proper Change management plan with education and frequent communication is crucial. It should keep the employees informed right from the POC/POV stage. This is essential to successful adoption.

Tool Limitations

Let us face it – RPA is still an emerging space and the tools do have their limitations that you discover as you get into the weeds of implementation:

  • Many use cases are hampered by the inability to handle unstructured formats reliably. Optical Character Recognition (OCR) is improving especially with AI/ML but still has challenges. eg. complex formats, handwritten documents, etc.
  • Intelligence (AI/ML) is starting to get incorporated into the tools. We may still need to wait some more time before we see truly cognitive automation. AI could remove a lot of RPA limitations (including OCR) in the near future though.

Process variation and Complexity

RPA is simple but not easy. One of the biggest problems crops up when the teams discover that the processes are more complex than expected. This is generally caused by multiple exceptions and system variations. Unfortunately, this is not understood until the Process discovery or even the definition phase.  It is important to understand the processes, look for ways to Consolidate, Standardize, Optimize and then Automate.

Strategic Direction

Many organizations go with the hype and jump in only to be disappointed later. It is important to have sponsorship and executive buy-in on the RPA journey and Roadmap. All the stakeholders should jointly own the results. This is easier if this is a strategic direction and everyone is rowing in the same direction.

I like to say that there should be a “Pull” from each of the business groups involved rather than being a “Push”. It’s much easier that way.

Bot Ownership

RPA is a business tool and ownership should be with the business with IT involvement. If IT considers this as another software tool and goes through typical evaluation cycles, the Business benefits may be delayed or even be a non-starter.

This is a major mindset shift and probably the most important one for successful RPA implementations.

Right stakeholder involvement

It is important to ensure all Stakeholders are involved right from the beginning. Key stakeholders include:

IT: IT’s role in RPA implementations is to ensure proper technical governance (eg. Hosting, Security, etc.). If you do not involve IT early, you could have issues when it comes to IT architecture, infrastructure, and security.

Procurement: Procurement needs to be involved to understand the benefits of RPA and be co-creators of business value.

Audit/Compliance: It is advisable to have compliance teams be involved from the POC/POV stage so that they are onboard and help nip compliance issues early.

Interacting Platform Changes

RPA works through existing interfaces – mostly screens – which can change as the application is upgraded or enhanced. This could break the automation if the RPA tools or the interacting application do not provide the necessary flexibility. The best solution, for now, is to ensure proper coordination with application development teams or vendors to take care of such changes ahead.

RPA thus has multiple benefits and also has a fair share of challenges. It is important to navigate the challenges to realize the complete benefits.

Top 3 Benefits of Robotic Process Automation (RPA)

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) promises to take away manual, repetitive and mundane work. RPA is an opportunity to automate all the unexciting work you have been doing and go do some exciting work!

You can now gain time to spend on uniquely human activities of connecting and delighting your team, boss and customers.

Here are a few benefits I have seen with RPA.

1. Real Savings

RPA delivers better productivity at much lesser costs.

1a. Improved Productivity

You can usually automate 60% to 90% of the effort of a typical process, which leaves the remaining 10% to 40% exceptions to be dealt with by Employees. Overall the automation will increase the output for each of your employees.

1b. Rapid Results and In-year benefits

This is a key promise of RPA as the tools are usually low code platforms and so the time taken from conception to deployment is in weeks.

Typical Agile Bot implementation can be completed as early as 2 weeks to as much as 8 weeks. Having pre-built components and bot stores also enable faster implementations.

1c. Low start-up costs

Each of the bot licenses can cost between 5K to 12K and the bot can perform the work of about 2-3 FTE depending on the complexity. Considering an agile build process and quick implementation, the start-up costs are low.

1d. Reduced Processing costs

The costs of processing are drastically reduced – the bot costs around 1/3rd the cost of an Offshore FTE and 1/5th the cost of an Onshore FTE.

 

2. Improved Operations

You can complement existing operational excellence programs with RPA.

2a. Improved Quality and Accuracy

Manual errors are reduced for the automated processes. The bots perform the work with 100% accuracy leaving only a few errors in the exception scenarios performed by people. Since the errors are reduced the cost of fixing them (Rework) is also reduced.

2b. Improved Compliance

RPA allows businesses to take control of executing their processes internally in place of outsourcing and offshoring. The RPA activities are saved in a log where they can be reviewed and monitored at any time. This means that you have a greater degree of oversight and control over your operations. You are therefore ready to deal with compliance issues more easily if and when they arise.

2c. Improved Service Delivery

RPA allows for improved service delivery performance by removing common service delivery risks like sickness and rework.

The bot is also able to switch from process to process depending on the demand. You can also add or reduce the Digital workforce as required to meet demands. This brings flexibility to manage service delivery.

 

3. Motivated Employees

Keep your team motivated to address business challenges and ensure customer satisfaction.

3a. Improved Customer Service

RPA can reduce demand for your service representative by taking over avoidable contacts like queries and follow-up.

RPA also allows reps to spend less time updating information across several systems ensuring that no system will be missed when adding new customer information.

RPA also works 24 X 7 without holidays or breaks allowing for longer processing hours.

3b. Reduced Monotonous work

You can free your staff from rules-based, repetitive tasks and move them to more stimulating and satisfying jobs. These higher level jobs are more rewarding and motivate your people to innovate and improve your business.

 

These were a summary of benefits. Note that these benefits are subject to proper implementation and ensuring proper change management. There is initial resistance and if that is not addressed, you may not be able to demonstrate the benefits.

I have come across this and other challenges as we went about implementing RPA. I shall address them in another post.

 

History of Robotic Process Automation (RPA)

When we started a few years back, Robotic Process Automation (RPA) was an emerging technology. We had to explain to people what RPA was. It’s still emerging today however, I can see that lot more people know about RPA (and the hype). RPA is certainly driving computer-based automation in multiple industries, companies of all sizes and across every geography.

RPA as I see, is a continuation of Computer-based automation that has evolved over the ages. 

Process Automation History

We have gone through multiple waves of process automation since the advent of the Information age.

Computerized Automation (1970 to 90)

In this early phase of the Information revolution, we saw computerization of lines of businesses in many organizations. This was lead by Management Information Systems or MIS groups within each organization. This phase of process improvement included Quality management (TQM) and continuous process improvement methods. As organizations embraced process-centric approaches to improve business results, they looked to re-engineer and manage the Business processes better. 

Business Process Management (90+)

Business Process Management (BPM) uses multiple methods to optimize end to end business processes. As the Tech companies of the nineties (including IBM, Oracle) came on board this bandwagon, they brought in multiple automation technologies. This technology enabled the automation of business processes and was called Business Process Automation (BPA). BPM continues to be a driving force today and RPA is considered an emerging field within BPA.

Robotic Process Automation (2000+)

RPA emerged in the 2000s – Blue prism released their first product in 2003, UiPath and Automation anywhere released their automation libraries around the same time (all companies were founded a bit earlier). 

As per Alastair Bathgate, CEO of Blue prism: “We started focusing on the BPO space as a route to market.. .”. UiPath also started seeing traction for their product with an Indian BPO company. So RPA started off as a way to reduce costs in Business Process Outsourcing and moved to Shared Services, IT Outsourcing, and other Business areas. 

Outsourcing reduces expenses by moving lower-level manual tasks and processes to cheaper labor. They were looking at different levers to continue to deliver annual cost savings to their customers. In an effort to continue to reduce costs, RPA started out improving the repetitive processes carried out by these Outsourcing providers. 

History of top 3 RPA tools

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) has resulted from the use of multiple technologies to solve business problems. It started by using the humble legacy technologies like screen scraping combined with the Automation workflow software. With the advent of Artifical Intelligence (AI), the cognitive aspects also have started showing up in RPA tools.

Different RPA providers have taken different paths technologically and have evolved into AI unicorns that we see today. All companies have worked with early customers to improve their Digital workforce or bot offerings.

Blue Prism

Blue Prism started off to create an “outsourced workforce” for BPOs.

They claim to have coined the term “robotic process automation”. As per Bathgate, “We were doing robotic process automation before it was called robotic process automation..”

Blue Prism was focussed on creating a Digital workforce from the beginning – they were thinking towards solving the problem of doing things an outsourced robot would do including doing the work and scheduling them.

Blue Prism is therefore built around that. They have a Microsoft Visio like interface to configure the tasks to be performed by the Bot. These Bots can then be deployed and scheduled using an admin console.

Blue Prism is morphing into a technology platform. They have been calling it “Connected RPA”. The aim of the platform is to provide access and foundation for intelligent automation – across multiple industries, companies of all sizes and across every geography.

Tech Tip: Blue Prism is built on the Microsoft .NET Framework. Blue Prism robot relies on business objects to interact with applications. A business object acts as an adapter to the user interface of specific applications. Blue Prism is one of the few Object-based RPA tools and therefore does not have a recorder.

UiPath

UiPath(then DeskOver) started off by building automation libraries and software development kits. These automation libraries were quite popular and used by companies such as IBM, Google, and Microsoft. These libraries are still embedded in some of their products.

It appears that UiPath then set out Productizing these libraries. Initially, their product was not finding much traction. An Indian BPO company that was doing a pilot project to find the best provider of RPA technology discovered them. Through this opportunity, they discovered the BPO world and the repetitive work that can be solved through their product – a product-market fit was finally realized.

Around 2012, UiPath (DeskOver) launched the first UiPath Desktop Automation product line that specifically targeted the RPA market. They had just realized the market fit with RPA and started putting its resources into building a platform for training and orchestrating software robots.

Their Platform – the UiPath Enterprise RPA Platform – thus has UiPath Robots which are designed in a UiPath Studio and can are centrally managed from UiPath Orchestrator.

Tech Tip: Uipath is based on Microsoft Workflow Foundation which is again a Microsoft .NET technology meant to create applications that execute an ordered business process. This is a bit of concern as this is probably not on Microsoft’s Azure roadmap.

Automation Anywhere

Automation Anywhere started off as Tethys Solutions and was founded in 2003. The name “Tethys” comes from the Greek goddess of water. Their vision was to make business process automation be as ubiquitous as water. Quite a great vision and they seem to be succeeding to a good extent on that.

Mihir and team were aiming to replace the scripting applications that were manually done within organizations. Their product, Automation Anywhere allowed for the creation of business process automation designed by the user. They focussed on supporting all aspect of end-to-end business processes.

As per Mihir, they created the product (Automation Anywhere), launched it and went out for a coffee break. When they came back they were surprised to find that someone from Australia had already bought it!

Automation Anywhere still looks quite like the product they released around 2009! The vision is remarkable. They documented the process and also had a built-in ROI calculator!

Automation Anywhere has also started calling it a platform – “Automation Anywhere Enterprise – The RPA platform for the future of business process automation”.  Their core product works like other RPA with a studio to configure workflows and a “Control Center” to deploy and manage the bots. They also have a product called IQ Bot – which is RPA plus AI.

Tech Tip: Automation Anywhere is also built on Windows .NET framework. You can see that all the top RPA tools are built on Microsoft technologies. This works well because many Enterprises use Windows desktops to do their day to day work. RPA works through these Windows interfaces.

Looking ahead 

RPA is in what Everest is calling a virtuous circle – Real value is leading to more capital which is invested in the tools giving more and more value.

With significant capital being infused, we can see that RPA tools will get better and add more features quickly. Here are a few trends that I see:

Wider Adoption

As I said in the beginning, awareness of RPA has increased multi-fold. More and more enterprises are adopting and implementing RPA. There are challenges to scale through which we shall discuss later.

Added Intelligence

RPA is evolving to include AI. What we can expect to see in near future from RPA tools include Unstructured data processing, Predictive & Prescriptive Analytics, and simple judgment based automation.

Process Mining and Discovery

One of the challenges of implementing RPA is that you need to discover, shortlist and prioritize the processes that are ripe for automation. Vendors have been adding this feature and more could follow suit.

Bots as service

It does look like bots would be delivered as cloud services as a natural progression. Most of the RPA tools can work from the cloud even now but is not widely used. There is a possibility that some of the tool vendors would be acquired by Amazon AWS or Microsoft Azure in the future, and be delivered as their service along with their advanced AI capabilities.

Security in Robotic Process Automation (RPA)

Ensuring security and compliance is critical for RPA initiatives.

This is a place where IT needs to play a lead role in RPA. I have seen that it is prudent to bring all relevant parties in at the Pilot (POC) stage itself.

The RPA tools you select has to be able to meet the security and compliance requirements of IT and Audit.

A few key considerations from RPA security & compliance perspective:

  • Establish an RPA development methodology with a clear separation between development, testing, and production environments.
  • Never give someone configuration-build-test authority who also has authority to the run environment.
  • Make sure that every RPA access is authenticated. Encrypt and secure data in transit and at rest.
  • Bots now need to be GDPR compliant and not keep track of data that needs to be deleted under the ‘right to be forgotten’ clause.

As with any project, all standards you use elsewhere in the organization need to be applied to RPA as well.

 

Learn Robotic Process Automation (RPA) free online

Many Robotic Process Automation (RPA) vendors provide free tutorials and also allow you to download their tools so that you can follow along. Here are some top tools and their links to the tutorials and tools.

One of the most widely used (as suggested by others too) is UiPath. UiPath is easy to learn and get started. You can download the tool, learn from their academy and get rolling in no time. There is a decent community to support as well.

Here are the links to get started:

Download Uipath tool

Uipath tutorials

You can read more details including pros, cons, and pricing for UiPath here.

Automation Anywhere is another great RPA tool to learn. Please be aware that Automation Anywhere is a trial and expires in 30 days while UiPath has a free community edition that you can continue using.

Here are the links to get started with Automation Anywhere.

AA 30-day trial download (Fill out the form to get download link)

AA Tutorials

WorkFusion got popular offering completely free RPA. With the free RPA Express version, you can write scripts to automate tasks.

Free tool download

Workfusion courses

Kofax 12-month trial tool download

Kofax course (RPA intro only)

Tool & Tutorials

Getting started with Robotic Process Automation (RPA)

Getting started with RPA is comparatively quick and easy. There is minimal disruption to your current environment. So, you can dive right in and find out if RPA helps your organization. Dive right in but do some prep work so that you can get all the benefits and can scale in future.

If you are new to RPA, read the beginners guide here.

If you have heard and understood about RPA, you are probably thinking how can I get started with RPA quickly? You may want to explore for yourself or like to take up an initiative in your organization.

The good news is that RPA is not a complicated technology or skill. RPA is comparatively easy to get started with. That is true whether you are evaluating RPA for yourself or your organization.

As an individual, there are many free learning resources and tools available online. I have provided a few resources to get started in the complete beginners guide to RPA. If you are looking for free or open source tools for RPA, the resources are here. Heck, there is even a guide to get started in 15 minutes! May take you a bit longer but it walks you through a step by step process with UiPath.

This post addresses how to get started with RPA in your organization. If you are driving this initiative, you may want to start with some groundwork.

Is RPA right for your Organization?

RPA is a technology that emulates the tasks humans perform using computers. It automates manual, rules-based, and repetitive activities. So, if your organization have a lot of manual work in certain areas, there may be opportunities to automate with RPA.

RPA is quick to implement at relatively low costs. It is also applied in a way there is minimal disruption to an existing technology. So, you can dive right in a find out if RPA helps. Many organizations start small and understand if RPA brings value to the organization before scaling.

Start with a workshop

Many vendors are eager to get a Pilot started. A better approach is to understand RPA and analyze usefulness to your organization before you Pilot. Dive right in but do some prep work so that you know what you are getting into. Position yourself to scale the automation program if this is indeed the technology that does wonders for you.

The best way to understand RPA better would be to have an RPA workshop with people who have implemented RPA before. This may be people from your industry who have done this before, RPA consultants or service providers. It would be better to remain tool and vendor neutral as you start out. Some providers and some consultants offer these initial consultations free of cost.

Have a well planned workshop. I would suggest having a Design thinking approach to the workshop. Come to the session with your problems especially the manually intensive process. Usually the person running the workshop would share a questionnaire so that you can be prepared for the session.

In the workshop, understand RPA better through demos from the past. Once people see how RPA works, they have multiple ideas. List all the ideas that come up – do not hold back.

Now along with an RPA consultant or provider, look for processes that are most amenable to RPA. Some of the pointers for processes that are automated best:

  • Labor intensive: Highly manual and repetitive processes
  • Standardized and StructuredWell defined processes, preferably with documentation
  • Functioning and StableProcesses that are not changing in the next few months

By the end of the workshop, you should have some sense of what RPA is and a list of possible processes to be automated.

Determine Potential and Readiness

Now that you have some ideas to automate, analyze if there is enough opportunity to automate in your organization. This can be done offline after the workshop. Some of the things to analyze for:

  • Benefits & Savings: Look at all benefits (cost, speed, compliance etc.) and the ROI considering the costs and savings.
  • Organization readiness– How ready is the organization to change? Are the stakeholders aligned? Are there any major projects coming up that could change the environment and/or the applications?
  • Automation potential– You like to have enough manual processes that can be automated with the available technology.

The analysis should help you decide if RPA right for you now. If you see good potential and readiness in your organization, it’s time to take the next step.

Prepare for Pilot

As a next step, we would like to do a quick automation with RPA- a pilot. The idea of a pilot is to prove to the organization that real savings are possible.

Before you do the pilot, it is important to set up the right foundations so that you can scale and realize the complete potential of automation. Many organizations do not go past the pilot use case as they did not analyze or lay the right foundations before they started out.

The first step is to further whittle down the list of processes and identify the use case(s) you like to focus on for the Pilot.

Use case selection

For the Pilot, you would like to identify one or a couple of processes that are not complicated and provides proof that the technology, and approach you are taking is providing real value to the organization. Some of the pointers to select the Pilot use case include:

  • A low number of exception paths
  • Not much audit involvement
  • Not very critical for the organization
  • Provides good cost savings and benefits
  • Visible in the organization so that that people take note of the results

Tool selection

Once the Use case is selected, select a tool for the selected Pilot process. Walk through the processes that you have so far and ensure the tool addresses most of the use cases identified by your team so far. That should help choose a tool that is also good for the long run.

Choose tools that have low barrier of entry. There are tools that want you to get locked down in their ecosystem by charging high upfront fees. Even if people are ready to do the pilot for free, look for the longer term costs and benefits.

Also look for the level of expertise that would be required. Are you gong to use business people to configure or tech or combination? Choose tools that your people can configure.

Governance

RPA is digital labor – a new form of talent for the organization. Treat it as such with the new capability / talent being under the management of business. All the stakeholders support the business in bringing this capability on board.

Having said that, It is important to identify the key stakeholders and involve them early. Even though it’s a pilot, it would need all key players like Business, IT, Procurement to be aligned. Everyone’s role in the pilot and beyond if the organization chooses to proceed further should be clear.

Success Criteria

As with any project, it is prudent to have well defined success criteria for the Pilot. You may want to have an agreement with the business and IT stakeholders on the metrics and how it would be measured. Measure the baseline performance metrics and have a targeted metric after the automaton.

After this groundwork phase, you should have a list of processes to Pilot, a suggested tool for the shortlisted use cases and the initial foundation to scale.

Pilot Implementation

Once we have done the groundwork, it is time to implement the pilot. It is always best to follow Agile development for RPA. With the agile model, you can measure impact for each incremental development or even enhancement in future.

Even as you do the pilot, lay the foundations for future by following a systematic methodology. The steps usually followed include:

Process discovery: This is opportunity for implementation team to study the process in depth and ensure they is in alignment with the Business team.
Design: Insist that the team design and incorporate best practices. These can be the initial standards that you want all the automations in your organization to follow.
Develop & test: This is standard workflow creation and configuration followed by testing as per the Agile methodology. Some complex developments may need coding as well.
User testing: The developed automation is tested with the user and the feedback incorporated. It is useful to give users early look in as the team iterates to reduce rework.

All these steps can usually be completed within 2 to 4 weeks of time depending on the complexity of the use case. As any project be ready for surprises and delays.

Next Steps

Once the Pilot is complete, it is time to take stock and evaluate.

Did the Pilot hit the savings goals and benefits that was anticipated? What was the real savings and benefits for the organization?

How did the Pilot go in terms of implementation? What were the learnings and what changes do you need to make for the next implementation?

How did the organization receive the new capability and changes? How can you tailor the Change management program if you are looking to scale?

Make a report on the achievements and learnings from the Pilot. Get with the teams and understand your next steps.

Need help evaluating RPA? Get in touch.

One proven way to innovate and improve the Finance & Accounting function

RPA is changing the Finance and Automation (F&A) function. It is now possible to remove most of the manual work and help talented F&A team members focus on business growth.

Would you like to radically improve your cost efficiency? Are you looking to innovate and improve speed and accuracy? Would you like to utilize your Finance team better?

Read on to understand how Robotic Process Automation (RPA) can do that for you and get up to 20 to 60% cost savings on baseline FTE costs.

What is RPA?

Robotic Process Automation is a capability that allows you to carry out tasks on a computer just like a human would. If you are new to RPA, read here for the complete beginner guide.

RPA Demo
RPA Demo

RPA in Finance & Accounting

RPA can fully automate 42% of the F&A tasks as per a McKinsey study. Note that it says “fully” automate these tasks. Another 19% of the tasks can be mostly automated as per the same study.

Finance is the area with the most demonstrated benefits right after operations as per PWC’s 2017 Financial services RPA Survey.

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An overwhelming 98% of respondents agree that developing an RPA program is important, very important, or extremely important –PWC’s 2017 Financial services RPA Survey.

How does RPA help?

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RPA offers finance departments many short and long-term benefits.

Cost Savings: RPA provides around 20to 60% savings on the baseline people cost.

Accuracy: Increased output quality by reducing or eliminating human error.

Faster Task completion: Helps bring down the time to perform tasks significantly.

More Control: Provides fully maintained logs essential for compliance

Employee motivation: Lets employees focus on business activities that they were unable to do due to manual tasks.

Finance use cases

There are opportunities to automate across all areas of finance sub-functions. Most of the repetitive transactional activities are good candidates for automation.

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To get a sense of what can be achieved, here are a few activities that can be automated with RPA by area.

Accounting:

  • Automate journal entries: RPA can process email, perform compliance checks and process the Journal entries in ERP (SAP, Oracle etc.), and notify the requestor.
  • Account reconciliations: RPA can automate the download of sub-account balances, perform validations and create balancing journal entries to handle discrepancies

Accounts Payable:

  • Automate workflow and approvals: RPA can be configured for rules-based auto approval in the AP system. Any exceptions are raised to the appropriate person for manual approvals.
  • Invoice processing: Capture invoice data from scanned invoices or electronic files and process the same in ERP systems. The invoice processing time can be reduced by unto 60 to 80 %.

Accounts Receivable:

  • Payment matching & processing: Bank lockbox payments received from various sources are matched against open invoices. These are then processed in the ERP system and remittance receipts generated.
  • Customer onboarding: Create and update customer master data. Automatically check for credit approvals.

Payroll

  • Time record validation: Following up on missing timesheets, validate time booked and notify any discrepancies.
  • Earnings and Deductions: Initiate batch creation and imports into the payroll system, complete the standard validations.

Financial planning and reporting

  • Financial planning and analysis: Prepare forecasts automatically using historical and market data, Load pre-populated balances into the planning system, Create variance reports
  • Regulatory reporting: Capture and cleanse data, generate the regulatory reports automatically. Create complex annual reports to the extent possible.

These are some typical use cases for RPA in F&A. Every finance organization is unique and a discovery process can help unearth opportunities to automate.

How to get started

rawpixel-594763-unsplashSince RPA is a business tool that can be implemented quickly, you can dive right in. Most of the organizations start with an inventory of all Finance and Accounting processes that are repetitive and have a lot of manual work. You can look for inspiration from the subfunction and use cases above.

Once the processes are identified, pick a simple but visible process to Pilot. Once the pilot is successful, pick more processes from the inventory and implement the next batch using agile methods.

Gartner recommends that finance leaders explore the areas of their business that can be quickly automated and standardize these processes as they go. This will allow a much speedier process for adoption of robotics within finance departments, the majority of which will implement RPA in some fashion by 2020.

What next?

There is a lot of excitement around RPA. Many Finance and Accounting teams are embracing automation to improve their sub-functions. RPA is a great opportunity for F&A organizations to focus on driving efficiency.

While this is a great development, there are instances when the finance organizations do not see the results that were expected. “Without knowing their true pain points or support requirements, companies will miss out on ways to scale the benefits, and they’ll leave money on the table.” A report from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) highlights.

So, it is best to start your automation journey systematically. Finance and accounting teams that understand, plan and build automation into their roadmap will be well positioned for the future.

Need help starting the journey? Contact me.

The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Robotic Process Automation (RPA)

What is RPA? Why is RPA taking off? What are the top tools? How does it work? How can I build one?

These are some of the questions I am going to answer for you here.

If you know all about RPA and ready to start, click here for the top considerations before you start.

What is RPA?

Robotic Process Automation or RPA is a capability that allows you to carry out tasks on a computer just like a human would. The best way to visualize would be to think of a person working on his computer and doing his daily job by clicking through computer screens, sending emails etc. Now, what if the computer clicks through, enters required data and performs the same work automagically? That is what RPA enables.

If you haven’t wrapped your head around it yet, don’t worry. Here’s an example to help you visualize Robotic Process Automation.

Example:

Let us say that Bob is responsible for processing invoices in SAP. He would log in into SAP, go to the specific transaction and enter the invoice details one by one. Now if RPA were to carry out the same task, it would log in automatically and carry out the tasks without Bob having to do this repetitive work.

Watch this video from Uipath (an RPA tool) which shows exactly how RPA performs that operation.

Watch the speed by which it carries out the task. Also, note that RPA carries out the task impeccably removing any human errors.

Examples of RPA:

RPA can not only automate SAP transactions. It can be used to automate many business and IT processes. Here are a few more examples:

Customer Onboarding. Creating new customer accounts as well updating them

Finance & Accounting. Automation of accounts payable and accounts receivable

Human Resources. Automation of Employee onboarding activities, payroll

Access Management. Unlocking accounts, resetting password credentials

System Administration. Automate repetitive tasks like daily checks

Do you see the wide array of tasks RPA can do? Most of the tasks that a human does at a computer and is well defined, can be automated with RPA. The processes that can be automated are only limited by your imagination.

Ok, I can see that but is this not the same as screen scraping and macros we have seen before? Why is this different? What is the big deal about RPA?

Why is RPA taking off?

RPA is the first step to using new or advancing AI technologies and paradigms to automate labor-intensive tasks.  Therefore, RPA brings a level of automation that is much more than disparate automation with scripts, macros etc. RPA brings these advancing technologies together to enable end to end process automation. This helps free up lots of hours which is returned to the business. This enables savings for the business and fast Return on Investment (ROI).

Robotic Process Automation excels at automating very manual, repetitive and mundane work. Therefore, RPA is an opportunity to automate all the unexciting work you have been doing and go do some exciting work! You can now gain more time to spend on uniquely human activities of connecting and delighting your team, boss and customers.

6pp1

As RPA has proven to provide real value, it has taken off in the last couple of years. RPA has seen a lot of investment in AI space. Money is flowing across the AI sector with RPA capturing the second spot in terms of investment dollars.

Ok, this does seem to help. What does RPA look like and how do I build one?

How does RPA work?

Any talk about Robots conjures up images of bots like C-3PO. The word Robotic has got a bit of baggage. People start imagining a robot that would come do their job. They are surprised to find that this is just a software that sits on your computer or a server and performs the tasks.

There are mainly two kinds of RPA automation based on how the software helps you automate. One of them is like an assistant that you call upon to help you complete the tasks and the other kind of automation is mostly for back office work. What does that mean?

Attended automation

These are the assistants that run on your computer and help you complete a part of the tasks that you are performing. For eg., if you usually search and copy paste data from one application to multiple applications, you can invoke an attended RPA to take over just these set of activities. The control is then returned to you by RPA to carry out the next set of tasks. This type of automation usually helps agents at call centers.

Unattended Automation 

In this type of automation, workflows are self-triggered and run on servers. They run to pre-determined schedules or real time. and are available 24 x 7.  In the case of unattended automation, all you would see of an automated task would be the outputs. For eg. For invoice processing, all you would see is a report indicating the invoices that could not be processed automatically. You can review the report and only work on the invoices that need your intervention.

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In both cases, do you see the change in the way you would perform the work? Most of the tedious work is now done by the machine. You would mostly be free from manual work unless there are any exception cases.  Now that the manual work is decreased, you have time to take care of the real business needs.

Alright, now that we have seen what RPA is and their types, let us look at the tools available to build one.

What is the best tool to build RPA?

As with any tool, there is no one size fits all. There are different tools and each have got it’s merits. You would need to evaluate which works best for your use cases.

Having said that, multiple studies rank a few tools always in the top. They may be a good place to start evaluating. Once you get a hang of RPA, it would also be worthwhile to evaluate the niche players too for your specific needs.

Based on recent studies, these are the top tools (as of Nov 2018)

  • UiPath
  • Blueprism
  • Automation Anywhere

As I said, each tool have its merits and does have downsides as well. Here is a quick comparison of the top 3 tools in the market right now. 

The studies that I am referring to, have been done by HFS Research, Everest Group, and Forrester. To give you a quick view, below are snapshots from each study. As you can see, the top 3 are consistent across studies. The reports I have linked to has the unique advantages of the niche players beyond these three.  

Forrester RPA wave 2018

Now that you have got a sense of RPA, how do you build one quick?

How to build your first RPA

Now, building RPA automation can sound to be challenging but the tools are built so that even non-technical people can build the workflows. You can create your first RPA with the free tools available on the internet. There are tutorials from most of the tool providers that can guide you to build simple to complex RPA automation.

Here are some resources to get you started. I am linking to the resources that are freely available for you to get started.

UiPath:

Download Uipath tool

Uipath tutorials

Automation Anywhere (AA):

AA tool download 

AA Tutorials

Workfusion:

Free tool download

Workfusion courses

Kryon Systems:

Tool & Tutorials

Kofax:

Kofax 12 month trial tool download

Course from Kofax (RPA intro only)

Need help or have questions on RPA? Leave a comment or drop me a line.

6 important considerations for those wishing to adopt RPA

7 important considerations for those wishing to adopt RPA

We now have enough data to summarize what you should consider before adopting RPA. This is thanks to the early adopters and the trials and tribulations they have gone through. If you are one of the organizations coming onboard, you can take advantage of the learnings so far.

It looks like RPA will reach near universal adoption in the next few years. More than half of the respondents(53%) have already started their RPA journey as per a Deloitte study. About 75% of the Organizations would have some form of RPA implemented in the next 2 years.

Implementing RPA brings significant benefits. RPA continues to meet and exceed expectations across various key areas. This includes improvement in Quality, Speed, Compliance, Productivity, and cost.

While there is a lot of success around RPA, only 3% of the Organizations scale up as per the study! As per one Mc Kinsey study, “it is clear that the first act in the ‘robotics evolution’ has not been a slam dunk for many, especially when companies try to scale”.

How do we scale our future implementations? What are our learnings so far? It turns out most of the failings can be traced back to a few things we could have considered as we started on the journey. Here are 6 top considerations.

7 important considerations for those wishing to adopt RPA

1. Strategic priority

It is important to have sponsorship and executive buy-in on the RPA journey and Roadmap. All the stakeholders should jointly own the results. This is easier if this is a strategic direction and everyone is rowing in the same direction.

This is easier said than done though with the competing objectives of different stakeholders. It is a balancing act at the end of the day but is a very tough act if automation is not a priority for the organization.

I like to say that there should be a “Pull” from each of the business groups involved rather than being a “Push”. It’s much easier that way.

2. Business Lead

Intelligent Automation(IA) or RPA is a Business tool and not an IT solution. So, RPA projects should not be considered as another technology implementation. IT has to be involved from the beginning but in a slightly different way. IT has to ensure proper technical governance (eg. Hosting, Security etc.) and let Business lead the automation of processes.

This is a major mindset shift and probably the most important one for successful RPA implementations. Most of the initiatives on RPA either do not take off or ends up in failure when RPA is considered an IT tool and goes through the usual Tool evaluation and implementation process. It is not easy but worth the time to have discussions and align everyone with the notion that business would lead the process automation.

3. Manage change

There is a lot of hysteria around job losses due to Automation. So, it becomes especially important to plan and manage the communications. I would start by defining the roles of the stakeholders clearly. Have a plan that involves supporting teams like IT, Audit/Compliance and Procurement as early as possible.

As with any initiative, there would be resistance from various levels and groups. It is important to understand the concern and address at each level and early. We have seen resistance from mid-level managers mostly as well as people working on the tasks. It is important to educate and communicate to raise awareness of automation and its benefits. This can help improve buy-in on automation.

4. Right Process

It is important to select the right processes especially at the beginning and show a quick return on investment. People have found it best to start with simple processes that are visible but not very critical to the working of the group. It is better to select processes with a few exceptions paths as possible to start with.  Studies also suggest that you keep away from processes that have a lot of Audit involvement in the beginning lest we end up with questions you are not ready to answer yet.

Selecting the wrong initial processes could slow down or seven stop the Automation initiative. Choosing the wrong pilot process has been one of the major reasons for failed Automation initiatives. Now that we have a database of processes that are fit for RPA, It is advisable to choose the initial processes with a strong fit.

RPA Use Cases

5. Systematic

A planned approach to implementation ensures that you have the right foundations to scale the automation initiative. So, choose the right tool and ecosystem for the specific use case(s). Take care of your security considerations right from the beginning.

In terms of implementations, choose the methodology that works best for you. Agile methodologies are usually better for quick wins. Finally, establish Governance for managing Intelligent Automation throughout the life cycle.

A well thought out launch with detailed IT controls, Using the right tools and Business Processes is a hallmark of successful implementations.

6. Track metrics

It is helpful to identify the relevant metrics and track them on a dashboard. Agree with the business teams on the success criteria by identifying the post-automation performance metric and how it would be measured. It is useful to measure and track the cumulative Savings and ROI of the automation. Successful initiatives have the right level of reporting and leaders that understand the ROI & TCO of the automation projects.

In conclusion, while the above points summarize the common considerations, each organization, team, and implementation is unique. You learn a lot by doing and starting out. It will take a few cycles before you discover your unique challenges but these considerations based on past data is a good start.