By Kathy Gibson – Robotic process automation is enabling a digital workforce for every enterprise.

It’s not just about automating work, but rethinking how work is done, says Chip Coyle, chief marketing officer of Blue Prism.

Over the last few months, with the global pandemic, there is a  desire for real true transformation and change, he adds.

“Things are moving at an accelerated pace. Enterprises are rethinking all of their innovation and transformation plans; and speed to value is of the essence.”

Jason Kingdon, executive chairman and CEO, points out that the RPA market is starting to be drawn quite narrowly, but it should be able to include and integrate all processes within an enterprise.

“AI pushed the market further away from a narrow definition of RPA,” he says. “It allows RPA to go deep into the enterprise and enable a greater process arc about what you can automate.

“We now think that any business process can be automated: the technology is there, and the combinations of technology are there. Now the digital worker integrates with all other technologies.

“AI plays a role, and machine learning plays a role. So much becomes possible using these technologies. We see the RPA really moving into intelligent automation and its application in the modern business.”

Blue Prism has published the findings of its annual global survey in a report, “The Impact of a Digital Workforce on Business Agility & Survival”.

The report, based on research conducted with more than 6 700 knowledge workers and senior IT decision makers globally, reveals that South African enterprises appear to be ready to embrace digital workforces.

The survey finds that South Africa’s automation readiness is in line with global trends: globally, 94% of business decision makers see automation as key to driving digital transformation, compared with 93% in South Africa.

Seventy-four percent (versus 81% globally) of business decision makers believe that RPA and/or automation will be essential for their businesses to remain competitive over the next five years, and 90% (versus 92% globally) of business decision makers identified automation and RPA as important factors in driving digital transformation.

However, South Africa has some catching up to do in terms of implementing automation and achieving the benefits: 66% (vs 82% globally) agree that automation has already positively impacted their organisations.

Business decision makers are enthusiastic: 81% say their employees would trust working alongside a digital workforce, 74% would trust a digital colleague to manage employees, 71% believe adopting new tech will attract the most talent and 67%  are confident that new hires are prepared to work with a digital workforce.

The survey finds that 93% of knowledge workers in South Africa understand how technology will impact their jobs, and 70% of them are excited about the opportunities automation will create.

Greg Newton, country manager: South Africa at Blue Prism, says: “Overall, we see a growing level of trust and adaptation to digital colleagues and automation in general.”

The survey found that business decision makers and knowledge workers are ready to deploy automation and RPA, with 90% of business decision makers planning to extend the use of automation across their businesses and 83% of them indicating they already have a clear plan to do so.

However, while they are excited at the potential for automation, many are still struggling to apply it.

“These survey results help validate the sea change we see happening from automation,” says Kingdon. “Covid-19 has put a spotlight on just what a digital workforce can do for business continuity, but it is just the beginning.

“This is about using intelligent automation to empower the non-technical knowledge worker to do more, faster and more efficiently, without having to rely on IT. This goes beyond using desktop macros or screen scraping productivity tools for a quick ROI, intelligent automation is at the centre of enabling digital transformations for large scale enterprises.”

Gauging the impact Covid-19 is having on businesses, Blue Prism also surveyed its own global customer base and found that 94% see a renewed urgency to use RPA as a lifeline for maintaining business continuity and ensuring a higher level of overall responsiveness.

Ninety-four percent of these customers also see RPA enabling greater competitiveness while supporting remote collaboration in this “new normal”.

All respondents are now looking to expand or extend RPA use within their organisation, a sign of continued customer momentum and permanence.

Across every industry, most knowledge-based work isn’t delivering anywhere near its potential, evidenced by diminishing global productivity that’s stagnated at one-tenth of what it was 40 years ago for some economies.

With the pandemic, organisations face additional challenges from reduced workforces, customer demands and macroeconomic pressures. The survey results reveal a positive link between automation, global productivity, business agility and resilience.

In South Africa, where 101 business decision makers and 250 knowledge workers were surveyed as part of the study, just under half of knowledge workers say they are struggling with workload demands, of which 92% believe automation would help alleviate the problem.

About two thirds of business decision makers see automation (65%) and RPA (71%) as solutions to the productivity problem. In addition, 41% of business decision makers feel they are struggling to meet customer demand, and 90% of those believe automation would help solve the problem.

The global survey reveals there’s a need for re-skilling and training, with over three quarters surveyed indicating that there are skills which they are constantly sourcing for, such as data analysis and data science. To address this, 85% of companies said they provide learning opportunities for new skills and qualifications when they introduce new technologies that will transform the job, and 79% said they do so on a continuous basis.

Fear of automation is diminishing as there’s a growing level of trust with more organisations adopting digital colleagues.

However, four in five knowledge workers in South Africa say their employers should do more to build trust between the human and digital workforces (82%) while 87% of decision makers agree that this is something they have to work on.

Globally, the results highlight RPA being used as a platform and not merely a productivity tool, giving customers access to end-to-end Intelligent Automation solutions that cover all IT environments — on-premises, cloud, hybrid and SaaS.

The notion that its not necessary for a human worker to perform every process is taking hold across the board, and there’s a growing realisation that the move to RPA need not be a major investment.

Graham Fry, MD of SpacePencil, points out that robotic process automation (RPA) is all about letting the technology take care of repetitive or mundane tasks, thus freeing up human workers to do the things that require more creativity or non-linear thinking.

“However, there is a lot of noise in the RPA market,” he points out. “You’ll hear a lot of blue sky thinking about what the technology could do; and see presentations extolling the features and benefits of the technology.

“But at the end of the day, we believe the decision to use RPA comes down, quite simply, to return on investment (ROI).”

He believes ROI needs to be calculated by looking at the tasks being automated and counting the cost of a human doing them – along with the mistakes that are inevitable when tasks are boring and repetitive.

The cost of not automating should be part of this calculation, as should the cost of the deployment process itself.

Companies should then consider the benefits of switching from a manual to an automated process – including 24/7 operation and consistency.

With these criteria in mind, just about any task that can be repeated with a pre-defined set of decision-making points could be automated, Fry says.

The people most impacted by automation are inevitably the employees and the customers, he adds.

“It’s important to understand that RPA is not there to take away an employee’s job: it is supposed to make their job more rewarding by removing tasks they don’t need or want to do and allowing them to therefore do the tasks they do want to do that enhance both their work as well as the business’s efficiency.”

Customer satisfaction is equally important, he adds. “How many times have you called a contact centre and given all your details to the robot; then you get put through to a human operator and they ask you for the same information again.

“If this happens, you have to ask what the point of the RPA was. And go back to the drawing board to make sure the process being automated is suitable for a robotic system to perform.”

The deployment process itself must have measurable benefits, Fry point out. “Discover the process and work out if it is worthwhile to set it up as RPA.

“Then develop suitable test cases that everyone approves and understand. If you do this right, by the time you get to development it should be a simple process to roll out. If you’ve got the right toolset, that is.”

One way of deciding if the ROI is worth it is to look at the value of a particular task: typically those with a lower value are the ones worth automating, says Fry. But it could also be worth investing in RPA for some tasks just to remove the frustration they cause.

Peter Clarke, CEO of LanDynamix, believes that automation offers too many benefits to be ignored – but companies in a country like South Africa need to be clear about what their strategy is.

“It’s abundantly clear that automation is going to play a key role in helping businesses build more efficiency into the their operations and make better use of expensive human resources, particularly as robotics, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) become commercially viable,” he says.

“But businesses do not operate in a vacuum. They need to be aware of their responsibility to the broader society in which they exist in order to gain the ‘social licence to operate’.

“In a country like South Africa with high unemployment and a large, unskilled workforce, an automation strategy thus needs be carefully calibrated.”

To give an idea of the factors that must be weighed up, Clarke references the automotive industry where he believes South Africa is lagging in terms of automation.

The reason for this is simply the large and fairly unskilled workforce that services that sector.

Companies must balance their responsibility towards that workforce with the siren call for automation and robotics.

It also helps that the existing workforce is relatively cheap, whereas the upfront costs of automating factory floors is high.

For companies in these and similar industries, the move towards automation must be phased and will have to include an ambitious programme of upskilling as much of the workforce as possible.

“From our own experience at LanDynamix, it’s clear that one of the most compelling benefits of automation is that by freeing staff of repetitive and mundane tasks, it opens up new opportunities for them—and they in turn create more value for the company,” he says. “But getting that right if you have thousands of workers is never going to be easy.”

In fact, Clarke argues, the job losses that many see as the immediate consequence of automation could affect skilled workers more in the medium term.

At LanDynamix, for example, thanks to a programme of intensive automation, a single person is now able to run the whole accounts department. To achieve this, though, the right individual was needed, and much effort went into upskilling.

But the result is that with most mundane and repetitive tasks eliminated, this one person can take on value-added work such as reporting to management and checking efficiencies across the business.

“If one looks at automation as part of a strategy to increase efficiencies and help employees to reach their potential, the benefits are massive, with increased profitability and a more engaged workforce setting up a virtuous cycle,” he concludes. “It’s all about your approach.”

Clarke offers some tips for organisations embarking on an RPA journey:

  • Get the right toolsets. A successful and ongoing programme of automation is dependent on easy access to the right tools. Many IT services applications have automation tools built into them, but it might be necessary to invest in a good automation toolset. Evaluate the various packages through the lens of what your automation goals are.
  • Train your staff. Having acquired the right toolset, it is essential also to train your staff not only to use it, but also in the principles of automation. The expense of the application and the training are upfront expenses that will taper off over time—but the benefits will continue to mount up. In the long run, these costs will be more than justified by a reduced salary bill thanks to the more productive use of existing resources.
  • Focus on change management. Humans’ innate conservatism combined with fears about job security can work against the success of an automation project. Innovations will not deliver the expected benefits if they are not used. Project teams should, therefore, not omit the essential business of demonstrating the benefits of automation and training users. Business owners will have more time to focus on improving the business and refining strategy, while employees will be liberated from mundane tasks and given the space to take on more valuable work and acquire more skills.
  • Initiate a culture of continuous improvement. By freeing up staff time, automation provides an excellent starting point for a new culture of continuous improvement. Make it clear that the idea is not to reduce head count, but rather to provide more opportunity for existing staff to take on more demanding jobs, gain skills and better their career prospects.
  • Look at the business as a whole. Automating business processes can deliver huge benefits, but organisations should also take an integrated approach. For example, automating the sales process can make it much more efficient in all sorts of ways, but the automation should bridge systems and business processes so that once a sale is made, the same information is pulled into the billing and CRM systems without the need to capture this information again. This approach eliminates silos and improves the customer experience, thus helping create a better company all round.

“Automation is all about efficiency, but it should not stop there,” Clarke argues.