Early thoughts on “Robotics” in Australian finance departments

Robotic process automation may sound like it’s from the distant future but, for many organisations, it has already arrived. What does it really offer, and how should you be thinking about it?

Consider how labor-intensive repetitive tasks can be in any business, from the finance department to HR. Initiating a service request, keying in a transaction, responding to email queries, gathering data or simply moving data from one system to another, you name it. This is especially true in many major shared service organisations which is often home of a majority of transactional processes.

Today, thanks to the development in technology, it is possible to replace human work on these tedious, routine and repetitive tasks with a software robot – largely under the banner Robotics Process Automation, or RPA. Due to the capacity of a robot to work 24/7 and removal of the “human error” factor, the implications of this shift to transactional finance may be as profound as those that industrial automation brought to manufacturing.

Today, in Australia, robotic process automation is barely present in most organisations, but the interest is large and the number of pilots are increasing.

Here are some of the most important considerations as your organisation takes its first steps toward robotic process automation.

Automate the right stuff

There is a high interest in automation of all sorts these days and there’s no shortage of confusion on which new capabilities can be used to take on which tasks. RPA is often best used on “long tail” processes – repetitive, predictable and time consuming. Look for tasks that require manual intervention, are performed frequently, are rules-based and eat up a significant amount of time from your staff.

Support human activities

Some knowledge workers performing more sophisticated tasks may still spend a significant portion of their time gathering, organizing and performing routine analysis on data before applying their insight and knowledge. Apply a robot to the mechanical aspects of their work and their productivity can likely increase dramatically. Why not assign 2 people and 1 Robot to a task?

Start where  it hurts

At this very moment, you probably have people all over your organisation working on mundane, repetitive tasks that could be handled by a machine. Can you find a lot of this effort somewhere but just never quite enough to justify kicking off a large system implementation or process re-engineering effort? Answer that question, and you may have just identified your starting point for RPA.

 

What are the benefits

Low starting threshold

Due to reasonable implementation cost, especially in comparison with ERP changes, there is no need to have a massive global operation with thousands of employees in order to start looking into RPA.

Step by step offers low risk

There is no need to implement a very large amount of robots in one go. The most common approach is to pick a low risk process as a pilot in order to then adapt robots to work on different processes over time.

Consistency and quality

There are drawback to robots in terms of the lack of “common sense” and decision making, but with a correct setup a robot will carry out the process correctly, each and every time. There is no such thing as a typ-O.

Competitive advantage

Not only can a robot help to make your back office more efficient but depending on your business can also add significant value. As an example, many insurers consider the time from request to delivery of an offer to have the highest impact on the chances of winning the business. Cut your response time could bring significant advantage to your business.

Flexibility and scalability

Once in place, Robotics can be scaled up to deal with larger volumes very quickly without any need to go through time consuming recruitment, on boarding and training processes. Robots already deployed can also be quickly be made ready to work on other processes.

 

Keep in mind that theoretical benefits do not equal realised benefits

Theoretically benefits can easily be added up and quantified but will not actually help your bottom line unless they are realised. While thinking about RPA, it also makes sense to think about:

  • The retained organisation, it is likely an RPA tool will take bits and pieces away from certain roles and benefits cannot be realised unless there is a restructure of what is left.
  • Communication, the words around automation and robotics will quickly draw attention and make people worry about the impact to them and their roles.
  • Operating model & Governance, Robots have no common sense, cannot determine right from wrong and will only be as effective as we let them. Hence, a strong operating model and governance around managing robots is crucial for success. Most finance departments have seen great Excel macros take over tasks, to then be discarded once nobody understood what they were doing anymore. You don’t want that to happen to your robot.

Plan for the longer term

Though implementation times are short compared to many major IT changes Robotics should not be treated as a quick fix. Plan the roadmap carefully to make sure to get maximum return on investment and keep it as a tool to keep in mind for any process updates and improvements that are needed. Let Robots be a normal part of your workforce.

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