The widespread proof of concept RPA phase is over – what will the next RPA phase look like?

Yes, we’ve seen all the think pieces, we’ve written them ourselves: Robotic Process Automation is the future, RPA will be the saviour of your company, RPA: giving time and the will to live back to your employees by freeing them up from un-interesting (but necessary) processing tasks. RPA will raise your children (ok, maybe not quite yet!).

Our take on RPA? It’s not the future anymore. It’s not even the present. It’s been here for a while, and in fact, if you’re not already doing it, it’s passing you by.  This is not to say that organisations are done with RPA. What we are saying is that if you do intend to use it, you need to start looking at it as one of your silver bullets, not the silver bullet. One thing is for certain, it is absolutely giving the enterprise a reason to question the need for their large scale and expensive business process outsourcing (BPO) arrangements and causing serious concern for the providers who are clinging on to the paradigm of ‘bums on seats’.

RPA is now over the hype stage – on the hype curve we are well into the slope of enlightenment. Almost every organisation is well matured on the proof of concept stage of RPA, if they haven’t started developing and operating robots already. In a year or 18 months, this proof of concept phase of the process will largely be done.

The hype curve

RPA is currently being used, in the majority of examples we’ve seen, as a way to automate parts of processes in companies. We see the headline figures – jobs that used to take 2 days to be completed now take 30 minutes or less, and completed with greater accuracy.

And so we enter the danger phase – having proved its effectiveness, RPA now runs the risk of being seen as the quick fix and the answer to all problems.

Like its predecessor – the grand saviour of productivity and bottom lines – BPO – RPA is not the solution to every problem.  It’s not a seamless process, a lot can go wrong as well as right. Therefore it’s essential to learn the hard lessons from problems experienced from BPO – most crucially – know what you want the outcome to be before you start to implement.

And we already know that it doesn’t work for everything, Most tasks in a modern organisation are complicated, and require a mix of competencies, including ones like subjectivity, judgement and empathy, that robots haven’t quite managed to master yet. And don’t expect this to be a one-time fix, robots are equally as sensitive to a lack of change management as humans are.

In our view, the next phase of RPA is going to take us well beyond using it as a way to solve parts of processing problems. Organisations who are smart about RPA are going to need to look at it as part of a much larger solution, or rather, a combination of solutions. Our clients are realising the need for RPA to be less transactional and more a part of a revised process optimisation framework.

If we take financial services, and more specifically say, mortgage processing as an example. A smart leader is going to ask ‘what are the combination of solutions that I would need to reduce the costs and improve the efficiency of mortgage processing?’  This is likely to involve a selection or combination of BPM, robotics, machine learning, AI, people (possibly offshore) and others. But the point is, it will likely be a combination of solutions. It’s not about on-shoring or off-shoring but both. It’s not tech vs human. It’s not an either/or but a combination.

We predict that, just as there are companies who will manage the whole of the printing requirements for your company, or the cleaning requirements, there will soon be eminent businesses whose value proposition is to offer cheaper and more efficient alternatives to specific industry processes, using a combination of technologies and people. And as it becomes increasingly difficult for financial institutions to differentiate or get competitive advantage on processing times, these processes will be ‘right sourced’, with RPA as part of a range of human and automated solutions.

For RPA to be effective, especially as part of a larger solution, you should fully understand the process and look to ‘right sourcing’ – seeking the right solution to make the process efficient. You may go to robots for some pieces of the processes, some big, some small, but it is not the right place for everything. Maybe all of it goes to one chief process owner who manages it with a mix of people, robots, AI, machine learning, or maybe the process stays entirely with onshore humans who have a valuable dialogue with customers. For the modern organisation, it’s likely to be a mix.

So where should companies start with the next phase of RPA? Start and finish with the process and effectiveness. Think holistically. Think about the tsunami of advances in AI and machine learning that are starting to land. Think about how that process can best be run and maintained, at the best cost, for the best customer outcome. Ultimately, the goal of these emerging technologies has to be to deliver an enhanced customer experience and a simplified and efficient service delivery model – not land businesses in another layer of operational complexity.

You can read more about machine intelligence in our 2017 Tech Trends report. The role of technology in the future of banking will be discussed at the 2017 AFR Banking and Wealth Summit, taking place in Sydney on 5-6 April. Visit this page to read more about the event.

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