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Robotic process automation (RPA) trends and to-do list for scaling across the enterprise

The 3rd Annual Global RPA Survey Report

Over the past year, there has been intensifying interest in robotics and in the application of cognitive and artificial intelligence technologies, both in the media and on the conference circuit. Robotic process automation (RPA) is already delivering value, and early movers in shared services and other administrative organizations are achieving significant benefits, which are highlighted in this third annual RPA report.

Addressing strategic priorities through RPA

More than four hundred executives responsible for running transactional operations such as global business services, shared services, finance, procurement, HR, marketing, and operations, responded to this year’s survey. When asked about their top strategic priorities, the following rose to the top:

  • Focus on continuous improvement (35 percent)
  • Increase level of automation (24 percent)
  • Develop analytics capabilities (17 percent)

Given the high impact of RPA on these top-three priorities, continued investment in its adoption is not surprising. Yet there remains a large core of organizations that are, at best, slow to benefit from RPA. Compared to last year, there has been a relatively small increase in the number of organizations investigating RPA or building a proof of concept, and only a tiny minority (3 percent) of progressive leaders have reached any form of scale with more than 50 robots in service.

While a few early adopters are already moving from experiment to scale, process automation using RPA is still in its infancy and many organizations have yet to fully realize its benefits.

Maximizing the impact of RPA requires a committed shift in mindset and approach from experimentation to transformation. In making this change, organizations must make the right strategic choices—laying the right foundation to enable a "premium" digital workforce to support their drive for competitive advantage. Given the relative immaturity of the automation market, it is taking time for large organizations, in particular, to learn about and to adopt RPA at scale. We see three keys steps to achieving RPA adoption at scale, and our report goes into each with more detail:

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with a bold ambition
a strong foundation
high-velocity change


Implementing RPA: Start with a bold ambition

Organizations that achieve scale in RPA set out a bold ambition for their digital workforce and make conscious choices to achieve it. In all cases, sponsorship has risen to the executive committee.

Think broad

In 2016, just 15 percent of respondents reported that their RPA program was part of a wider corporate initiative. In 2017, the figure had risen to 64 percent–organizations that have embarked on the RPA journey have RPA as either an enterprise-wide or strategic initiative.

Not all RPA journeys start off with an enterprise-wide scope and organizations should “think big, start small.” Many of our clients have started small, in a specific functional area, where there is stakeholder support and clear opportunity, for example Finance or HR, or in a shared services or global business services organization. Once proven, they can then showcase this to other parts of the organization and help leaders “think big” about the broader opportunity across the enterprise.

Think big

In terms of targets, on average, respondents who had implemented RPA estimated that 20 percent of capacity in their operation could be delivered by robots. This was in line with the expectations of organizations at proof of concept or pilot stages, which were targeting just under 20 percent of capacity in their operation. However, among organizations that are already scaling robotics, the average target was as high as 52 percent of capacity. Those implementing at scale believe their digital workforce will exceed their human workforce in terms of delivery capacity, for administrative and repetitive tasks.

Think benefits…and beyond cost reduction

Cost reduction in the target processes is typically achieved through attrition, freezing recruitment, and through moving people into higher value roles; however, the evidence yielded by this survey underlines and amplifies what we have learned through experience implementing RPA–that top line and productivity benefits can outstrip cost benefits: 86 percent of respondents indicate that their expectations of productivity improvement from RPA were met or exceeded, while the same is true of 61 percent in relation to expectations on cost reduction. Other benefits that met or exceeded expectations, and ranked higher than cost reduction include: improved compliance; improved quality/accuracy; timelines/ability to work 24/7.

Think high

72 percent of respondents indicated the C-suite and functional leadership as the most supportive stakeholder groups, while only 31 percent indicated IT as supportive or highly supportive. C-suite awareness of, and support for, RPA, in particular, has increased since our last survey. Organizations can capitalize on this to cut through organizational barriers and to accelerate scaling, both of which are especially useful where there is resistance from other parts of the business.

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Build a strong foundation

Higher-performing robots operate leaner, less error-prone and less customized processes. They are designed and operated by agile, effective teams. Strong foundations must be in place to achieve these outcomes, creating highly adaptable robots that work alongside an engaged human workforce.

There must be a focus on process

The top challenges for those who had implemented and scaled RPA include, in order:

  1. Process standardization
  2. IT buy-in and support
  3. Integration and flexibility of solution
  4. Stakeholder buy-in and expectations
  5. Employee impact

Put simply, process complexity drives robot complexity: it increases the cost and difficulty to design and implement RPA, increases operating costs, and increases business disruption. Robots require detailed process accuracy and need to be taught at the keystroke level. Yet, organizations are finding processes are not always well understood, even where robust process documentation exists. Operations that appear standard in the process documentation, often differ significantly in reality across countries and/or business units. Implementation teams need to work closely with the business to fully understand the detailed processes and proactively address any issues.

It is important to engage global process owners (GPOs) as stakeholders and our research shows they are often highly supportive of RPA. One key strategic decision to make, ideally together with your GPOs, is whether you will automate the current processes with minor changes, or consider more wholesale process change as part of the automation.

Implementing RPA requires responsive and secure technology support

Buy-in from an effective IT organization and successfully integrating the RPA solution are the next challenges in implementing RPA–a point that highlights the fundamental importance of including and integrating the IT organization in the automation process.

We recommend engaging the IT organization from the outset, integrating it into your governance and sharing face time with executive sponsors. If IT teams are struggling, consider engaging CIO support to create a small handpicked team of agile, digital-minded technologists to support your RPA implementation and help you successfully navigate the wider IT organization.

You need engaged people

Organizations that have succeeded in scaling RPA tend to have engaged people and have effectively built buy-in to the change process. In contrast with outsourcing, there seems to be little resistance across organizations to the introduction of RPA. Just 17 percent of organizations that are piloting RPA faced some or significant employee resistance, and among those that have progressed to implementation or scaling, resistance was negligible (3 percent).

Some organizations had engaged their employees in the design and implementation of the robots and in how this alters the role and skills of the people who will be working alongside them. They reported that as a result, many employees had welcomed RPA, found their jobs were more satisfying after implementation, and wanted to pioneer this new technology.

Robotics requires a transformation program

Organizations achieving scale in RPA implementation have moved beyond the experimentation stage and into transformation. They recognize the potential and scale of impact and are adopting approaches and techniques associated with large-scale change programs.

In these organizations, investment is significant and rising, typically in the $2m to $4m range for those with strategic or enterprise-wide initiatives. Of those that have already implemented RPA, 78 percent expect to increase or significantly increase investment in RPA over the next three years.

What’s more, for the majority of organizations (63 percent), implementation will involve working alongside a dedicated third-party partner, often to provide advice and skills that are scarce in their own organization. This support ranges from turn-key solutions to collaborating to up-skill in-house teams and build internal RPA-delivery capability.

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Achieve high-velocity change with RPA

The highest-performing digital workforce benefits from a well-planned "robot architecture": the way it is designed, coded, deployed, and integrated into your human workforce determines the future performance of a digital workforce. In our experience, a well-planned and designed digital workforce is around twice as productive as more organically developed robots.

Many support models are emerging for robotics, with the most common being a hybrid model combining an element of local operation-specific responsibilities and a centralized function that can provide wider coordination and more specialized activities (38 percent). This retains local ownership and flexibility but allows economies of scale and enterprise-wide coordination in areas where this makes sense. In our experience, activities such as RPA-vendor-relationship management, disaster recovery, and third-line support tend to be provided centrally.

And while RPA is a significant step on your organization’s digital journey, it is only the start. As organizations progress in their adoption of RPA, they tend to become more ambitious with cognitive technologies. More than a quarter (28 percent) of those implementing and scaling RPA are also implementing cognitive automation, while only 6 percent of those that have not implemented RPA are progressing with cognitive automation. RPA can fuel both the interest in and the agility required for other digital technologies, enabling organizations to move further on the digital automation journey.

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RPA implementation to-do list

While implementing robotics will take effort and investment, the prize can be very significant if you get your ambition, foundations, and agility right. We recommend you consider these carefully from the outset and establish an ambition and a model that will enable you to deliver at scale and manage your digital workforce in a fast, fluid and agile way. The prize is not only a cheaper, faster and higher-quality workforce for those rules-based administrative tasks, but the opportunity to establish a mindset and momentum that enables you to progress further and faster on your overall digital journey.

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