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Robotic process automation technology gets to work

Robotic process automation technology can eliminate or speed up routine digital tasks now performed by humans. Finding RPA sweet spots and the right tools is the CIO challenge.

When IT veteran Allan Surtees joined Gazprom Energy as head of delivery in 2014, he spent time with each of his business partners at the U.K. gas and electric supplier, talking to them about their perceptions of the IT function and what they wanted from technology. "Their perception was IT didn't innovate and we didn't offer them much," he said.

During his first three months on the job, Surtees also sat down with employees and watched them work. "I observed straightway that a lot of them were doing work with data that gets manually copied and pasted from one system to another. It's what they call 'swivel chair' work -- clicking on multiple systems, getting data from one source and putting it into another, where people are actually stuck four or five hours a day just doing this boring, manual nonsense," he said. "I immediately saw there was an opportunity for RPA."

RPA, or robotic process automation, has a sexy ring to it these days, especially in the C-suite and company boardrooms. And why not? There's a lot about this emerging technology to pique a boss' interest. Robotic process automation technology -- defined in simple terms as software that automates other software -- promises to improve efficiency, boost productivity and save money by helping with or entirely replacing the manual, routine and often error-prone digital processing jobs still done with human labor at many companies.

Allan SurteesAllan Surtees

Better yet, RPA tools, like the one Surtees put to use at Gazprom Energy, promise to do so without the heavy lifting associated with other types of business software used for automating enterprise work -- ERP implementations, for example, or business process management (BPM) suites.

The software robots of RPA ilk -- virtual workers, if you please -- interact with computer systems the way most employees do, at the presentation layer through the user interface, requiring minimal code-based programming or deep back-end systems integration. As one vendor put it, RPA software can be a good fit for tasks that wouldn't be cost-effective to automate through more brute-force ways at the SOA layer.

Claims processing, "onboarding" new employees, help desk support, customer service: The makers of RPA platforms say their lightweight tools will automate -- and disrupt -- how routine work gets done in just about every industry and across departments, from finance to HR to IT operations. In a widely quoted study published in 2013, McKinsey estimated that as many as 140 million "knowledge workers" could be replaced by 2025 through the use of RPA and its AI-centric close relative -- cognitive or intelligent automation.

Finding the right RPA target

In the meantime, CIOs interested in using RPA tools for automating IT operations, or who find themselves under pressure from the business to deploy virtual workers, will have their work cut out for them, say analysts who follow the field.

Cathy TornbohmCathy Tornbohm

For starters, the term RPA, much like cloud a decade or so ago, is foggy. Robotic process automation is used indiscriminately to cover a wide range of capabilities, from tools that have been around for decades such as screen scraping and desktop scripting, to the artificial intelligence skills of a Watson, whose 27 or so technologies include RPA. And the capabilities of the products marketed as robotic process automation technology are opaque, according to Gartner analyst Cathy Tornbohm.

"Learning the difference between the plethora of automation and new cognitive tools and how to evaluate the 'sweet spot' of each tool in context has proven difficult and confusing," she wrote in a report on use cases for robotic process automation technology published last year.

What IT can do, very usefully, is help companies understand what should be automated with RPA -- and what should maybe be outsourced, or done as a service, or even through another tool that has all the rules written into it.
Cathy Tornbohmanalyst, Gartner

But CIOs face bigger challenges with RPA besides sorting through vendor hype, Tornbohm told SearchCIO in a recent phone interview from her home base in the U.K. "What RPA is doing is spotlighting things that should have been automated but haven't, due to an accident of history," she said.

Automating such routine, rules-based work was perhaps too costly, complex or time-consuming. Robotic process automation technology can function as a catalyst for digital transformation, Tornbohm said. CIOs could use the "sexiness of robots" to highlight areas that are good candidates for automation and develop an "enterprise automated roadmap" for their business partners that may or may not include RPA.

"What IT can do, very usefully, is help companies understand what should be automated with RPA -- and what should maybe be outsourced, or done as a service, or even through another tool that has all the rules written into it." Another hurdle Tornbohm has observed? "Organizations often have poor insight into 'what good looks like' for an end-to-end process and optimal processing options."

Craig Le ClairCraig Le Clair

Indeed, matching RPA to the right process is "still an art form," said Craig Le Clair, principal analyst specializing in enterprise architecture at Forrester Research. Best practices are in their infancy. The immaturity of RPA deployments, he said, means that CIOs are at risk for implementing software without a framework that addresses critical elements for RPA success, including change management; compliance controls; robust user support; and the process links, or "bridges," to what many believe represent the real payday in business automation -- the super cutting-edge cognitive automation tools that combine machine learning, natural language processing, big data analytics and other computing tools to simulate human brain power.

Moreover, in any consideration of RPA, said Tornbohm, CIOs need to provide a reality check on one of robotic process automation technology's biggest marketing points -- that it can be implemented by the business. "These tools are not as easily done by business people as they are purported to be, and you actually do need some coding background to do the scripting. Even writing a macro in Excel is not that easy," she said. IT needs to monitor the bots, provision the servers, help with security and make sure the solutions are designed well.

Downstream benefits to RPA

Analysts will get no argument on IT's role in robotic automation projects from Surtees, who came to Gazprom with one RPA implementation under his belt. While at O2, a Telefonica UK company, he worked closely with leading RPA vendor Blue Prism to further develop, test and implement its automation tool.

"This is not a tool the business can just go wild with and start creating processes left and right to automate, because it would be chaos. It has to be properly controlled," said Surtees, who served as head of IT at Gazprom until July when he left to become director of robotic process automation at Alsbridge Inc., a global sourcing, benchmarking and transformation advisory based in Dallas.

"The people who are trained to be robotic process automation designers, developers, process analysts, whatever, must follow the same delivery rigor as an IT department would," he said. That includes creating a process design document that meticulously describes what the subject matter expert does on a day-to-day basis. "Sometimes the task is in the subject matter expert's head, and you have to make sure you capture every scenario, not just the happy parts, as we say, but all possible exceptions."

At Gazprom, Surtees chose a simple process implementing robotic process automation technology -- the handling of meter readings. "They come in on a single file, and you can have hundreds and hundreds of meter reads coming on a daily basis," he said. The meter readings are not always accurate or in the right format, and the person handling them often spent about four hours a day on the task, Surtees said -- reviewing the meter reads, running a process that marked them as valid or invalid and manually inputting the valid ones into the back-end systems. "They never touched the invalid stuff because they didn't have time," he said.

Under the new automated process, which went live in the spring, there is zero human touch. "The files come into the server; the robot goes and gets them, runs the same little program to say whether it is valid or invalid and then processes the valid ones. When it finds incompletions it actually goes to the back-end system or goes externally to find the right data and corrects it internally as well," he explained.

The invalid meter reads get deposited in a file for an employee to handle. "We re-edited that [part of the] process so the robot ... filters them into a certain order as well, making it easier for the person who picks up the invalid processes to work on them," he said. Anomalies are often resolved by simply calling the customer.

The benefit was striking. In the first two weeks the automation went live, the employee was able to validate about 130 invalid meter reads.

"That means we do not have to rebill the customer in those cases," he said. A service rep takes about six minutes to rebill a customer. Multiply that by the 130 resolved meter readings and it adds up to another 10 hours of work saved. That is a large downstream benefit, Surtees said. He stressed that Gazprom's RPA journey, as he calls it, is not about eliminating jobs but freeing up people for more valuable work. "That was made very clear upfront. This is about creating more space for people to actually help us grow."

Gartner outlines use cases and key questions for robotic process automation technology

Use cases for RPA working with structured data

  • Automate an existing manual task or process with minimal process re-engineering
  • Reduce or remove head count from batch data input and output or data rekeying
  • Link to external systems that cannot be connected via other IT options
  • Avoid system integration projects or specific new major application development
  • Replace individual "shadow or citizen IT" desktop automation with enterprise-wide automation

Four questions for evaluating RPA

  • How efficient are your processes?
  • How effective are your processes?
  • What other general technology or business options are available to process this activity?
  • How are IT and process leaders working together to deploy RPA?

Source: "Use Cases for Robotic Process Automation: Providing a Team of 'Virtual Workers,'" by Gartner's Cathy Tornbohm

RPA as tactical answer to costly back-end integration

Indeed, one of the mistakes business people make when thinking about robotic process automation technology, according to Gartner's Tornbohm, is to see it exclusively as a mechanism for cutting costs -- labor costs, in particular. "It is more interesting to think of RPA to expand revenue, so, for example, using RPA to make more of your product available on the internet for self-service," she said.

IT people, especially those with an automation background, come to RPA technology with their own biases, dismissing it as a screen scraping tool when it is "so much more," Tornbohm said, and also predisposed to other automation strategies.

"IT will say, 'Shouldn't this be SOA or an API?' and it probably should, but you're not going to get around to that in the next five years. If you haven't been able to address the problem and there isn't a commercially available tool to deploy in under six months, then RPA can be a great answer," she advised. "IT can be a great help by not being a barrier."

Robin GomezRobin Gomez

Robin Gomez, director of operational excellence at Radial, a business process outsourcing firm, needs no lectures on RPA. He started looking at RPA about four years ago when costlier integration methods were not on the table. The Melbourne, Fla., firm does work for large retailers. Its contact center is a mix of systems it has developed and has acquired, plus the ones clients bring.

"We are the epitome of the swivel chair. We have agents who are handling five to 10 different brands, and each of these brands may have different systems they are leveraging," Gomez said. It was not uncommon for agents to have 30-plus windows open. Making matters more complex, clients are constantly changing applications as they seek to keep up with the rapidly evolving retail market.

About four years ago he began looking for ways to reduce or eliminate the agents' manual slog of trawling through screens and data for the right information. While the aim was to bring together all the selling channels for "more of a next-gen CRM functionality" and so-called 360 degree view of the customer, neither Radial nor its clients were willing to make the investments required of deep integration on the back end,  he said.

"The question became how was I going to make it feel like we're integrated at the desktop [without being] really integrated from the back end," Gomez said.

Using software from RPA provider OpenSpan, acquired in April by Pegasystems, Radial started with "simple things," such as assisted customer search. Robotic software captures the data customers have already entered -- and often find themselves repeating to an agent, such as their order number -- and presents that information to the agent.

"So the agent is engaging with the customer right now, rather than spending upwards of a minute -- and in some cases two minutes -- just going through the verification process," he said. The agent's focus on the customer is key today, as self-service options expand and improve.

"When customers are reaching out to agents, it is because they have a problem. I don't want our agents struggling through system usage; I want the system to present information automatically for them so they can focus on the issue at hand," he said.

RPA learnings

Surtees also views RPA software as a substitute and sometimes a stopgap solution for major systems integration work. At O2, a company with deep pockets, architects insisted his team do a proof of concept for a BPM tool, before rolling out RPA. "The costs of taking [the BPM approach] were probably 10 times higher than implementing Blue Prism," he said. At Gazprom Energy, which is in the midst of a business transformation project, RPA has proved to be a cost-effective tactical solution in the interim, he said.

Still, both RPA enthusiasts caution that robotics automation implementations are not without challenges. For example, after putting robots on a cluster of virtual machines shared by other applications at O2, Surtees learned the RPA software needed its own server with all its virtual machines on it to ensure good performance.

At Radial, network capability was an issue, not so much internally but to support the BPO provider's large work-from-home contingency. "We migrated from a Citrix environment over to a VMware Horizon environment and we've had to work through that," Gomez said, citing initial "slowness challenges." Browser compatibility was also an issue, and then there are the systems' nuances to account for, he said. "It's not as easy as flipping a switch and saying we've interrogated the system and now we can automate it; we have to look at the particular system of a client and how we're going to integrate it across what we're doing." Still, RPA work continues apace.

"We've automated about 60-plus systems; we still have about 90 to go. So we have a lot of work ahead of us, but at the end of the day we're getting better at what we're doing."

As for cutting jobs, Gomez said he hasn't. RPA has increased efficiency. The company has been able to reduce its large seasonal ramp-up in hiring, but the core workforce hasn't been downsized. "I don't see it as a job-eliminating technology and I don't think the company does."

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