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Overcoming automation’s scalability issue

Robotic process automation (RPA) is growing quickly as a foundational tool in an organisation’s automation journey, but many are struggling to scale their efforts both wide and deep

RPA has emerged as a crucial tool as organisations seek to reap the benefits of automating processes in their business, providing unprecedented opportunities for value and efficiency. While still at a nascent stage, this transformative technology is already beginning to be adopted in a wide range of enterprises.

Analyst firm Gartner notes RPA as the fastest-growing enterprise software category, with 63 per cent growth in 2018 alone, and expects the market to grow a further 54 per cent this year to reach $1.3 billion. A report from ISG last year revealed that the vast majority of companies (92 per cent) are aiming to adopt RPA by 2020.

“When I would attend industry events two to three years ago and ask the audience how many had implemented RPA, maybe half the room would raise their hand. Now it’s about 75 per cent,” says A.J. Hanna, vice president of client advocacy at Symphony, a SYKES company. “For most of those it’s nothing more than a proof of concept or pilot, but at least they’ve started to identify how RPA might work in their environment.”

Far fewer companies have created automation programmes that can really scale. Doing so first means understanding how to define that scale. Some prioritise horizontal scale focused on achieving quick wins distributed broadly across the organisation. This often focuses on automation of existing processes. Others go for vertical scale, which is much more closely aligned to business transformation programmes as it requires getting deep into processes requirements and reimagining the process as enabled by RPA.

Successful automation can be a combination of both approaches, but affecting real change beyond just a new source of labour means a greater emphasis on vertical scale. Those who do it well typically view RPA as an opportunity to try a completely new way of doing business, giving them cost, performance and customer experience benefits.

Organisations really looking to transform are open to challenging how their work is done and as they do that they find new opportunities to scale automation

By only pursuing horizontal scale, organisations narrow their focus to the particular tool at hand. Those who delve deep into processes as part of a vertical approach, meanwhile, will typically find opportunities for intelligent automation beyond just RPA, helping them drive their performance objectives even further. RPA may be what most companies start with, but a broad view of associated technologies often delivers better results.

“RPA is a tool to enable either a diversification of an employee or service mix, with many companies treating it only as a labour replacement, rather than the impetus for transformational activity,” says David Brain, chief operating officer at Symphony. “The latter requires an in-depth look at how work is currently being done in the organisation and challenging the effectiveness.

“Often we’ll talk to people about their processes and they’ll say, ‘Well, that’s the way we’ve always done it’. That’s not a justification for continuing to do it that way. Organisations really looking to transform are open to challenging how their work is done and as they do that they find new opportunities to scale automation. Those who treat RPA only as a software implementation will fail before they’ve even begun.”

Another key barrier to scaling an automation programme successfully is what Symphony calls the “quick-win syndrome”. Opportunities to automate existing processes and see a quick return are common in the early stages of an RPA deployment. However, problems will quickly arise when organisations fail to get out of this mindset.

“They end up treating RPA as a hammer looking for nails,” says Mr Hanna. “They go out solely with the mindset of wanting to find something they can adopt quickly and that will supposedly give them return on investment in weeks as opposed to months, or months as opposed to something truly transformational where you might expect it to take longer.”

As with any technology-driven transformation, mindset is often the most difficult challenge. Scaling automation programmes requires an intelligent approach to organisational change management and careful consideration of the narrative provided to employees and senior management alike. Most important is an understanding that the benefits may look different than first anticipated when the programme began.

While many anticipate a significant reduction in staff by automating processes, what they really do is create additional capacity within the areas of implementation. They can then decide what to do with that, either driving efficiency gains by allocating resources to other parts of the organisation where there is need or growing the business by using the extra capacity to provide additional services to new or existing clients.

“You have to walk in with a very realistic expectation of what the tool can do for you and what the outcomes will be,” says Mr Hanna. “Be willing to accept at some level the idea that while the value may not come where you originally thought, there is still some significant benefit from a cost and performance perspective, which will allow you to take the programme and grow it into something really substantial for the business.”

Symphony is a professional services firm at the forefront of intelligent automation programmes designed to digitise and transform operations. As RPA begins to play a complementary role in other technologies, Symphony helps companies transition and then scale up their automation effectively. The company is involved at a variety of levels in automation programmes, from advising organisations how to do it, all the way to managing it as a service.

A lot of the messaging in the still-maturing industry leads people to believe automation is an easy thing to do. This has resulted in a large number of organisations deciding to implement and operate automation programmes entirely on their own, which has led to many of the mistakes surrounding scalability and quick-win syndrome.

“It’s actually more complex than many people realise,” says Mr Hanna. “You’re not writing code from scratch. You configure a set of objects or designs within preset software, but that doesn’t mean you just plug the software in, walk away and it does its thing. There’s maintenance, there’s monitoring and there’s a lot of care and orchestration that is necessary.

“A digital workforce needs many of the same things as a human workforce. They need to be maintained, retrained and often upgraded, so there is a lot of work that has to be done to successfully operate and scale an RPA or intelligent automation programme. We will continue to guide organisations through that process. It’s about helping them take what can be the first hard step of deciding to make changes, then diving in, deconstructing what they’re doing and rebuilding it with an automation-first mindset.”

For more information please visit symphonyhq.com

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