For many organisations and their workers, technology automation is an opportunity and a threat. On one hand, using robotic process automation and other tools creates efficiencies by automating manual and repetitive tasks. On the other, it has the potential to make jobs redundant.
Tech execs gathered at roundtable events in Sydney and Melbourne recently to discuss the impact automation technologies are having on their organisations. A key issue raised during the discussion was the challenge of ensuring governance policies and procedures are followed as ‘bots’ replace tasks carried out by humans across the business.
Farid Jarrar, chief information officer, Asia-Pacific and North America at Stellar says the business process outsourcing company doesn’t look at bots as a replacement for humans but rather a tool that enables it to harness and use the collective workforce.
“It also enhances our agents’ operating environment by replacing low value, repetitive work while upskilling our agents to focus on delivering excellent customer service. We are in the process of establishing a centre of excellence to ensure adequate governance is in place. Our focus is on enhancing the agent environment as well as achieving efficiency," he says.
The University of New South Wales’ digital strategy director, Nicola Dorling, agrees that bots won’t replace humans but they will take the repeatable work that is measurable.
“With the governance of bots being measured through key performance indicators and reconciliations of data, it is important to understand when it is more appropriate to use a bot than a human and I think getting the mix right is essential,” Dorling says.
Simon Blainey, head of customer experience technology at Capgemini, says getting governance right is a challenge that will only become more complex as artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies are rolled out.
The default position would be that any introduction of bots should still meet particular business outcomes and be done so in accordance with existing risk, legal and governance frameworks and policies, he says.
“Controls need to be built to monitor performance with great care given to who designs these controls,” says Blainey. “There is also a need for enhanced security protocols, quality controls and audit logging as bots potentially have further reach to influence and can cause organisational damage when responses are not in line with policy.”
Ganesh Thyagarajan, director at Automation Anywhere, says organisations are setting up centres of excellence to effectively manage governance and govern the roll out of bots.
"Simply put, these centres are the ecosystem to ensure robots and humans are managed effectively within an organisation and this ecosystem provides a layer of compliance and governance internally when deploying a digital workforce," says Thyagarajan.
"There are specific bot frameworks, execution levers, and standard operating procedures that are built by, and within, these centres. Various levels of governance at specified frequencies are followed structurally with the centres and that includes the sponsors, delivery heads and other executive decision makers."
There’s a significant demand for AI to play a role across all market sectors. Blainey cites Capgemini research which suggested that 58 per cent of Australian consumers prefer interactions enabled by a mix of artificial intelligence and humans.
“What will become even more complex is how data is gathered and cleared for use for machines to learn from and how the inherent bias of humanity can influence the machine. When AI uses flawed data to learn from in order to make decisions that will have an effect on a human’s life or rights, the governance and frameworks need to be closely designed, implemented and monitored,” he says.
Rod Apostol, manager, business technology at City of Port Phillip, says the local council has been fortunate to enter the automation game late and has been able to learn from others’ experiences and lessons. The council is developing frameworks and governance processes to ensure that it has a constant approach its automation implementations with a focus on customer experience, Apostol says.
“Externally, transactions where speed and ease are vital are ideal opportunities for automation whereas transactions where the customer would benefit more from a human presence have less of a focus. Internally, transactional processes where we shift and process data are of high value because they allow staff to be released from these tasks to focus on value-added activities,” he says.
An effective approach to improving processes
Automation Anywhere's Thyagarajan rightly points out that automation, specifically robotic process automation (RPA), takes on more of the mundane, manual repetitive tasks related to many enterprise digital processes, allowing staff to contribute to more meaningful work.
"We are finding that our customers are starting with a very specific use-case of automation in mind, such as automating payroll, insurance claims processing or data entry, and are expanding this out to other areas of the business as they gain traction," says Thyagarajan.
"The most common use cases of RPA are for relatively simple and repetitive tasks that involve structured data. For example, businesses understand that having their employees do routine mundane tasks like data entry and order processing is not the most valuable use of their time. They are turning to trusted partners who can provide automation technology and help them implement this directly in their business."
Automation Anywhere's alliance director, strategic partnerships, Daniel Hatfield adds that the business process automation (BPO) industry is an early adopter in this space to improve services, enable growing demand of process transactions without increasing costs and solve challenges around rising expenditure.
"We saw finance, energy, utilities and mining take the next leap. And now are seeing education, retail, and government as the next wave," said Hatfield. "I also see another wave coming where small businesses and startups build RPA into their business early to keep costs down or to achieve scale."
Legal firm Corrs Chambers Westgarth recently conducted a proof-of-concept to determine if robotic process automation (RPA) is able to access and interact with various applications, accurately capture input data, reformat or repurpose the data where required and pass the information between apps.
Corrs’ director of technology, Berys Amor, says the objective was to ascertain if RPA is an effective approach to reducing effort in areas where there is sufficient volume and repetitive processes.
“The end goal is to increase efficiency, accuracy and timeliness, resulting in better service delivery to external and internal stakeholders. The proof-of-concept demonstrated that in the right circumstances, RPA can deliver the desired efficiencies as well as the benefit we sought for stakeholders. We are looking to embark on an RPA project as a result of the proof-of-concept,” she says.
Stellar’s Jarrar says the company has several implementations in progress across ‘attended and unattended automation.’ Customers in the utilities and government sectors are reporting great efficiencies using attended automation tools.
“We measure the ROI in terms of reduction in handling time for business processes that involve multiple applications or repetitive work,” he says.
“We generally operate services on behalf of our clients whereby the application ecosystem is quite diverse and may involve multi-step activities. As an outsourcer, we continually challenge ourselves to optimise and streamline business processes on behalf of our clients. This ultimately results in reduced cost, efficient processes for our clients, and enhances the overall customer experience.”
UNSW is using RPA in its finance department for repeatable processes such as accounts payable invoicing matching, says Dorling. This frees up finance staff to undertake value added work such as business analysis.
Dorling says that data analytics is also playing a role in measuring how bots and the organisation is performing now and how it is expected to perform in the future. Analytics helps determine the baseline data that has been placed on the bot and measures the uplift or decrease from this baseline, Dorling says.
“This gives us intelligence on efficiencies and if the bot has machine learning capability, it is also able to predict future outcomes,” she says.
Automation Anywhere's Hatfield believes that real-time data analytics is one of the most undervalued benefits of implementing RPA and is one of the keys to ensuring success.
"Once we automate tasks, we get access to live information with data relationships that are in context of transactions being performed rather than the traditional approach of finding the data after the process transactions have occurred that spans multiple data sources without the relationships being stored.
"Also, it is vital to establish metrics to measure performance and success so everyone can see how the business is improving throughput by implementing bots that automate and create additional capacity," he said.
Capgemini’s Blainey says that automation isn’t yet providing quite enough insight into how businesses are performing but he expects this to change rapidly as the technology is scaled up.
“On one hand, the data can help refine the bots by telling us how they are performing. But, more importantly, the analysis can prevent bot failures before they happen and will also help refine the processes continually and dynamically to improve the efficiency or customer experience the process is designed for,” Blainey says.
“Most organisations don’t have access to such data now and implementing automation will completely change that.”
Meanwhile, Corrs Chambers Westgarth is experimenting with using advanced data analytics to provide actionable insights for the law firm and its clients, says Amor.
“We have established a cross-functional focus group to collectively identify specific entry points and approaches on data analysis and visualisation client reporting, transaction analysis and machine learning as applied to structured and unstructured data,” Amor says.
“The purpose of the focus group is to lay out a roadmap for defining a data strategy to leverage data as a strategic asset and identify areas that will provide deeper insights for clients.”
Stella’s Jarrar, adds that the business case for robotics is highly dependent on the process in question. On some occasions, the case for robotics did not stack up and the company abandoned those processes in search of a higher value business case where the return on investment is viable.
“Our measure of success is simple; how much reduction in average handle time are we able to achieve, what is the impact to the end user experience, does the automation enhance accuracy, improve quality or reduce error rate. If this criteria is met, then it’s a go,” he says.
An antidote to offshoring?
Roundtable attendees were asked if RPA could be viewed as a good alternative to sending jobs offshore.
The business case for offshoring is not necessarily all financial; there are other factors that come into the equation and robotics is not the magic bullet that will fix all your problems, says Stella’s Jarrar.
“It is certainly a valuable and strategic tool, however, with human judgement, too many exceptions and a high level of complexity inherent within the business process, there is no alternative to a highly skilled agent regardless of the location,” he says.
City of Port Philip’s Apostol believes RPA is ‘definitely’ a good alternative to offshoring.
“We wish to retain the IP that our staff have developed and this would be an ideal mechanism to ensure this. The nature of offshoring requires us to have well understood and documented processes that are easily repeatable and measured lends itself to robotics,” he says.
Service Stream Limited’s head of enterprise architecture & cyber security, Adam Buczko, agrees with Apostol. He considers RPA options to be less risky than offshoring when financial aspects are put aside.
RPA definitely gives something to organisations thinking of outsourcing work offshore for cost or capacity reasons something to think about, says Automation Anywhere's Hatfield.
"For smaller organisations that don't have the scale to achieve results or benefits of offshoring, it gives them an alternative to look at," he says.
Follow Byron Connolly on Twitter: @ByronConnolly
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