Robotic Process Automation: Unlocking Benefits through Equilibrium

Over the last two years or so, an enormous number of companies have taken the dive into robotic process automation (RPA). In many cases, they were pursuing the 50 or 60 percent cost savings promised by systems integrators and RPA vendors. How many of them actually achieved those goals? In my own experience, none.

It’s not that RPA can’t produce substantial savings. For some companies with large, inefficient workforces that have yet to optimize their processes, it certainly can—though the process of achieving those savings is hardly simple.

Go too far toward machines, and your company can become ill-prepared to cope with rapid change. Stop too soon, and you can incur the costs and challenges of automating without fully realizing the benefits.

But if you want to avoid disappointment in an RPA implementation, the most important thing, we’ve found, is to understand what RPA is good for and what benefits it can provide not just in general, but to your business considering the evolution of your operating model and IT landscape. Here are four of the most important of those benefits:

Productivity: It’s easy to fall into thinking that increased productivity is the same thing as reduced costs. The relationship between the two, though, is more complex than that. Many of the software robots that make up an RPA system are focused on highly specific tasks. Imagine a bot that allows an employee to generate a monthly report that used to take four hours in 20 minutes. That kind of saving is not enough to allow a company to eliminate a position, but it does potentially make the employee who prepares the report more productive and for sure will help future costs avoidance. The cost savings from many RPA implementations are not fully realized until the company takes advantage of its higher levels of productivity and scales up.

Reliability: Once a software bot has been programmed to manage a task, it is utterly consistent and free from human error. That is an important advantage in any business, but especially so in regulated industries such as financial services, where consistency and compliance are at a premium. When quality is a crucial element of the overall business proposition, automation may be desirable—and sometimes indispensable—even when it produces no immediate cost savings.

Security: One of the great beauties of RPA is that it works on a granular level. A given bot performs a single task and nothing else. There is no unprogrammed leakage from one area to another. Access to data can be controlled and documented. This comes at a cost, of course. The most overlooked aspect of RPA implementations is the fact that bots may eliminate the need for some employees, but they create the need for employees to manage the system—and for a new set of skills in managing a workforce that consists partly of people and partly of machines.

Data: In today’s competitive landscape, the ability to improve and refine processes is crucial. A mature RPA implementation, built of hundreds or thousands of individual bots, provides an unprecedented level of access to data that can be used to re-engineer processes. And once a process is reengineered and programmed into the system, it will be executed accurately across the company. The process of reprogramming may not be cheaper than training employees, but it produces rapid, consistent results.

For most companies the question is not whether to use RPA—it’s how deeply and quickly to commit. Robots may seem like simple-to-use tools, but in fact an organization that wants to use them successfully has to remake itself in several respects: There are skills to be learned, policy, governance, and personnel issues to be addressed. Above all, the correct balance must be between humans (who are adaptable and agile) and machines (which are mostly not). Go too far toward machines, and your company can become ill-prepared to cope with rapid change. Stop too soon and you can incur the costs and challenges of automating without fully realizing the benefits.

There are an extraordinary array of business processes that can be automated. Making the decision of how to proceed with RPA, unfortunately, isn’t yet one of them.