Using Software Robots (RPA) to eliminate admin – really?

The consultancy, McKinsey, claim that 60% of jobs could have 30% or more of their constituent activities automated. Forrester (a well-respected technology research company) estimate that, by 2021, there will be over 4,000,000 robots doing office and administrative and sales related tasks. That’s just 3 years away!

Tech companies are promising revolutionary reductions in administration costs using software robots built from products like Automation Anywhere, Blue Prism and UiPath.

It’s often called Robotic Process Automation (RPA) or Intelligent Automation (IA). The techies are going mad for this shiny new thing!

But what’s really going on? I interviewed one of our Regional Directors, Andrew Hart, to hear more about the reality and what we’re actually doing with mid-market businesses.

Graeme Freeman: What are software robots and what do they really do?

Andrew Hart: We’re doing a lot of work with our clients using software robots to take over repetitive system tasks previously done by admin staff.

It’s potentially a game-changer. The idea is to use tools to eliminate the kinds of jobs that people in offices do all the time…. pull data from documents, emails and systems; get things from the web; update other systems and documents; read and send emails. That kind of thing.

Graeme Freeman: This sounds very impressive. Is this all about cost-saving?

Andrew Hart: Well, actually, this normally starts with the idea of saving costs but generally the objectives change. Many of the people bogged down with repetitive tasks are experts in the business, systems and data – if they have more time available then they can make a real difference to enabling growth.

Graeme Freeman: So if it’s not really about cost-saving, what are the hard benefits?

Andrew Hart: Well, it is about cost-saving. But it’s not only about cost saving.

Fundamentally, using software robots allows clients to simplify and standardise their business and to free up their experts.

Lots of companies are really complicated, especially if they’ve grown through acquisition or if their customers or suppliers impose annoying processes and systems on them. Software robots can allow companies to automate a lot of this.

Also, for our clients who are in highly regulated sectors these tools are very useful from a compliance point of view – reduction in errors, imposing controls and processes.

And a company with more software robots is well placed for growth. Directors know they can scale up far more simply and easily.

Graeme Freeman: Well that sounds great. What are the pitfalls?

Andrew Hart: There are plenty of pitfalls! Most importantly, our experience is that these projects are complicated and difficult to plan. IT experts and business experts need to be heavily involved and committed (rather than fighting to protect their jobs). So the entire project needs to be well supported, well communicated and part of a strategy.

The project should be driven on an incremental 80/20 approach all the time. Some ideas will work well, some not so well. It’s a gradual process of improvement rather than a quick win.

And once you have a large number of tasks automated then there will be frequent issues and you need people on hand to address them at affordable cost.

Graeme Freeman: So this is sounding like a mixed picture? What’s our conclusion?

Andrew Hart: Yes, the picture is mixed and (of course) the upsides are not as simple and clear as product vendors would claim!

Software robots are a way to transform businesses, but that’s never going to be easy. We would advocate this kind of project in particular circumstances and not in others. It’s not suitable for everyone.

It is vital to have inhouse expertise in the tools or to have a good relationship with a provider who can help at a reasonable day-rate. So, yes, the mundane tasks can be shrunk, but they are replaced by a new technical maintenance task. This task is smaller, smarter and more value-adding – but, make no mistake, this is a complicated technology that needs maintaining (by well-paid humans!)

Freeman Clarke is the UK’s largest and most experienced team of part-time (we call it “fractional”) IT leaders. We work exclusively with ambitious organisations and we frequently help our clients use IT to beat their competition. Contact Us and we’ll be in touch for an informal conversation.