FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Companies shouldn't wait to fine-tune business processes before introducing automation, according...
to an insurance company executive, who said robotic process automation, or RPA, can power through inefficient business processes with ease.
"For years, every single time we were looking to do a new project, we always thought, 'Well, let's look at the process first. How can we lean it out? How can we create more value before we go ahead and do some IT project?'" recalled Chuck Wiegersma, assistant vice president of John Hancock enterprise operations.
"What we've realized is that's really an unneeded and ... probably bad step to take as your first step, even though, historically, that's always how we did it," Wiegersma said while on a panel discussing implementing RPA at the recent SIM Boston Technology Summit at Gillette Stadium.
Wiegersma explained that, after working with a consultant, the company was persuaded that its old approach of honing efficiency as a first step before taking on an IT innovation might be counterproductive when it comes to RPA. If the company overhauled its business processes before automating them, elements that had become second nature to employees would be less familiar to them, which could prove detrimental during troubleshooting the newly automated steps now handled by the software robots.
That mindset made sense to James Martin, CIO at Boston-based architecture firm Shepley Bulfinch, who attended the talk.
"Don't clean it up. Keep it dirty and automate the dirty, and then move on with your life, because the robots don't care if they have to do six extra steps," Martin said after the talk.
'Old Navy' of business process automation
There are varying viewpoints on implementing RPA -- software that automates data entry and other rules-based work performed by people. Some see the fast-growing technology evolving into more complex areas of the enterprise, as it is paired with machine learning and other AI technologies. Others see it as an inexpensive and temporary patch that should be treated as such.
Wiegersma's approach toward implementing RPA dovetails with his belief that RPA is a useful tool, but will not necessarily drive the automation of business processes in the future.
"I compare it to Old Navy. I think it's disposable tech. Just like I don't mind spending 20 bucks on a pair of pants and then letting my kids go run outside [in them] immediately," Wiegersma said. "Bots are cheap."
Frederic Chanfrau, CIO and executive vice president of technology services at Citizens Financial Group, based in Providence, R.I., has a different perspective, envisioning RPA as playing an enduring role in the automation of business processes.
"There can be some evolution about what a robot is. But I think something which is quick and dirty, which you can create, disband in a few weeks, is something that is worthwhile in our tool sets," said Chanfrau, who was on the panel with Wiegersma and Dan Sheehan, CIO at Beacon Health Options, based in Boston.
While their viewpoints differ on aspects of implementing RPA, all three executives told panel moderator Devan Dewey, CTO of NEPC, they expect to increase automation of business processes over the next few years.
In addition to speeding up processes, RPA also reduces the risk of human error, Sheehan noted.
"If they're doing something repetitive, it's human nature. You're going to probably miss a couple of configuration steps or the values that you're putting in, and that can cause adjudication of a claim to not process correctly," Sheehan said. "So, we're trying to remove that risk."
RPA gets smarter
James MartinCIO, Shepley Bulfinch
Chanfrau also predicted there will be artificial intelligence use cases for RPA, which will broaden its utility.
"Eventually, I think the robots are going to be less dumb than they are right now," Chanfrau said. "And we figure, eventually, we are going to see some kind of AI type of use case where the robot is not just going to do a basic task, but put some intelligence behind that."
As RPA becomes more intelligent and the bots make more consequential decisions, that will create an interesting dynamic, Martin predicted.
"I think that's where the really interesting failures are going to start coming into play," Martin said.
While opinions vary on how much businesses should change to incorporate RPA, there are some unavoidable considerations that will come up when integrating RPA into a workforce.
The robots need access to various parts of the system, and naming conventions can trigger objections from human resources, according to Wiegersma, who initially wanted to give the robots names that might be shared by real people.
For access purposes, Chanfrau said, Citizens treated RPA like employees, but he said onboarding robots into an enterprise is a "complex problem."