For years, there has been a lot of talk about robotic process automation (RPA), but this talk is slowly translating into substance. So, as boards begin to take the tech seriously, what opportunities and obstacles do C-level executives face when it comes to adoption?
Chief executive officer
Ultimately, it is the CEO who will decide how far and wide RPA can go in a business, and there are plenty of opportunities to make a big difference for the organisation.
According to Danilo McGarry, automation and transformation executive, a successful RPA programme can cut operating costs significantly, improve operational efficiency, increase the volume of work the company can take on and improve the work-life balance for employees.
“The CEO can utilise RPA as a fundamental transformational tool which could give them a significant competitor advantage,” says Mr McGarry, who currently manages the advanced automation programme at UnitedHealth Group.
But there are also obstacles associated with automation adoption for CEOs, particularly as it can change what teams fundamentally do and how they work.
“CEOs face the difficult challenge of knowing how to set the right expectations at board level in terms of targets for savings for the year; a significant RPA programme can affect the share price of a company,” says Mr McGarry.
“They also have to make aggressive enough decisions in terms of providing big enough budgets for RPA programmes while also being cautious that it is a relatively new type of programme; getting the balance of risk versus reward is crucial.”
Howard Williams, director at Parker Software, believes CEOs have the challenge of ensuring the use of robots in business is not just to balance the books.
“Finding the automation sweet spot of increasing productivity and efficiency, without losing ethical ground will be a challenge in the years to come,” he says.
Chief financial officer
The share of finance professionals adopting RPA is expected to surge from 38 per cent to 86 per cent in the next one to two years, according to The Hackett Group. And yet, it may seem unclear what the exact benefits of automation are for the function.
Vanessa Keating, directory of finance advisory at The Hackett Group, says the indirect benefits of automation are not described widely enough for finance, which can negatively impact adoption, and many face the obstacle of not knowing where to start.
“It can seem overwhelming and many have to prove cost-savings from day one, which can impact their way of approaching automation strategically,” she says.
For example, selecting an easier automation implementation could help the team to learn how to go through the automation life cycle, but it may not deliver the high return on investment a more complex process would, influencing their prioritisation and roadmap development.
But there are plenty of opportunities for CFOs when it comes to adoption. Raymon van Viegen, CFO at Onguard, says the time saved on manual activities, such as chasing up debts, means CFOs are “able to focus more closely on the bigger-picture issues, as well as those accounts that are in greater need of their attention”.
Ms Keating says organisations will need to optimise their investment: “This means co-ordinating across digital and human workers to make the most of both, which is the most important factor to consider within the smart automation framework. Finance is in a great position to be a leader in this space.”
Chief technology officer
Perhaps surprisingly, there was a lower share (24 per cent) of IT respondents to the Hackett survey who said their department had adopted RPA compared with finance function. But this is set to treble in the next one to two years to 75 per cent.
The CTO will inevitably be involved in helping to implement automation into the business, as it requires a certain infrastructure for it to scale.
Mr McGarry at UnitedHealth Group believes it is a great opportunity for CTOs to begin to understand what every element of an organisation does: “Never before would the company have embarked on such a detailed analysis of what processes the different teams and employees are performing. This gives the CTOs more data, in an organised fashion, and with data comes
the privilege of knowledge so they can better steer the company to become more efficient,” he says.
Mark Ridley, director of CTO advisory firm Ridley Industries, says automating existing processes makes them more repeatable, reduces manual errors, lowers costs and improves speed in a business.
“A major obstacle for CTOs is having a legacy IT environment or an older business where there is a wide variety of systems and departments involved in processes,” he adds.
Other challenges include finding the right technologies necessary and ensuring it makes financial sense to implement them.
Mr McGarry believes that even after working this out, finding the right people to run the programme and ensuring the rest of the workforce is properly trained to support an RPA programme remain difficulties CTOs would have to overcome.
Human resources director
BNY Mellon’s head of digital Roman Regelman believes the human resources director (HRD) is the first person who can really benefit from automation as it can help them to carry out low-variance work.
“It allows them to automate the more menial, paper intensive, repetitive tasks, enabling them to focus on high-quality work,” he says.
RPA adoption is slow in HR. Only 11 per cent of HR departments have adopted the technology, but this is expected to rise to 28 per cent in the next one to two years, which is still considerably less than expected in finance and IT. This is perhaps because some of the benefits of RPA remain unknown.
UnitedHealth Group’s Mr McGarry says RPA could help HR when it comes to making key decisions during disciplinary actions against employees, as HR could hold more information on what the employee does and has done over time.
“In addition, I believe HR will be able to better understand the company’s needs in terms of skillsets and devise more accurate job descriptions, and then it can use automation to screen candidates more efficiently,” he says.
But to get these benefits, HRDs are faced with a number of obstacles, including employees potentially believing analytics that show how long they work and which applications they use the most could be an invasion of privacy.
In addition, Mr McGarry believes HRDs have the difficult task of ensuring employees are retrained, and that these employees maintain positivity and are kept motivated, as otherwise RPA can be seen as negatively disrupting existing company structures.
It’s clear that each role has its own obstacles and opportunities when it comes to automation. For a business to make RPA work most effectively, the C-suite should work on a co-ordinated plan to implement automation. This is the only way RPA tools and other automation technologies will be able to provide the benefits executives are seeking. If only organisations could automate implementing automation.