The reality of robot technology

16 May 18

Beyond the hype, robot process automation offers huge efficiency gains – as long as you approach it the right way, says John Thornton. 

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There is a lot of interest in how robotic process automation might improve efficiency in the public sector, including in the finance function.

First, put aside any thoughts about physical machines. RPA is simply software that operates inside other programs to extract and process information previously handled by humans. It is not new, but it is getting cleverer and cheaper. This software is capable of things like logging into web applications, extracting data, making calculations, filling in forms, moving files and relaying information to other programs. For example, if you were preparing an audit, it could “scrape” data from the web, open emails and attachments, search documents and automatically build an initial file of background information and queries, dramatically reducing the time and human effort required.

The basic business case for adopting RPA is that automated processes are more consistent, faster, more objective and make fewer errors than humans. They also work 24/7, don’t get sick and don’t become bored and distracted by repetitive tasks. This means your staff can focus on the more complex and higher priority areas, where they add more value. It is probably easiest to think of RPA as a “digital workforce” supporting your human one.

There is a lot of hype around what can be achieved and it is difficult to find hard figures about costs and returns. It is claimed RPA can cut existing costs by more than 40%. One argument is that a full-time employee works about 1,800 hours a year, whereas a robot works 8,700 (24 x 7x 52), which is five times as long. If the robot also works five times faster and costs a quarter of the price, that makes it roughly 200 times more productive. It goes without saying that you need to view these claims with a high degree of scepticism, but they may point the way to some impressive savings and efficiency gains in the future.

RPA could prove to be very useful in areas such as reconciliation, revenue collection, permit allocations, scheduling appointments and anti-fraud checks. It could also assist with compliance and security. First, find activities where you can experiment and build expertise. Start with piloting and leave “transformation” for later. Look for labour intensive, rules-based, repetitive processes that can operate 24/7, where you may have relatively low-skilled staff and a high turnover. Importantly, do not apply RPA to poorly performing processes – optimise first, then automate.

Push out of your mind all of those horror stories where robots take almost every human job. There have been claims since the 1960s that technology will replace accountants, and it’s not happened yet. Think of RPA as a set of tools that will make your organisation more productive and could give you more time to do the more interesting parts of your job better. Some of the most valuable people in the future will be those who know how best to exploit this technology.

RPA is not a quick fix; you will need to spend time to understand its potential and work out how best it might fit with objectives so you can begin to build it into plans. In the longer term, this should better position your organisation to increase productivity, reduce costs and prepare for the integration of RPA with artificial intelligence, which should produce even greater efficiency improvements.

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