Digital operations: Beyond RPA

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RPA digital laborRobotic process automation (RPA) is a hot topic, particularly how it can help organizations automate repetitive work by creating a “digital workforce” and enable them to digitize business operations.

Is RPA taking over? If not, what’s does the bigger picture look like?

A brief introduction to RPA

First, let’s take a look at what RPA is.

RPA provides a set of tools that organizations use to design, configure, deploy and manage software robots that act as synthetic application users, automating tasks across business software systems. Robots gather and update information in business software applications by automating actions against their existing user interfaces.

RPA provides a non-invasive alternative to creating and using specialized integration APIs or programmed integration by other means. They can hook into underlying databases using triggers or hook into application code directly.

RPA can generate value in a few ways. Most notably, when applied to the right kinds of routine tasks, RPA can significantly reduce the time it takes to perform them, consistently eliminating errors along the way. In doing so, it can increase customer satisfaction by speeding up the process, ensuring accuracy and freeing human workers to focus on exceptional problem solving or more creative outcomes. It can also make regulatory compliance easier by making work auditable and transparent.

The qualifier of “the right kinds” of tasks is important. RPA is a great fit when the work in question is highly routine, rules-based and has few exceptions, as well as when the majority of the applications involved don’t have modern integration APIs available. The RPA investment case makes most sense when there’s a steady volume of the same kind of work taking up a significant amount of time for one or more full-time equivalent (FTE).

So RPA isn’t suitable for everything. It’s important to explore RPA, but also to look beyond RPA to the broader work automation toolkit that’s out there.

To get the context right, let’s zoom out a little and consider why RPA is such a big deal at the moment.

Digital business and the productivity imperative

Organizations from sectors as diverse as financial services, retail, utilities and logistics see the threats posed by new “digital-native” competitors — businesses that are built from the ground up to offer and deliver digital products and services — entering their marketplaces. They want to find ways to protect against those threats while improving the experiences they deliver to customers, improving their operational efficiency and agility, and driving more innovation into their products and services.

But what, precisely, should established organizations  protect against and respond to?

The organizations that have most aggressively embraced digital technologies, including digital-native industry disrupters in banking, retail, insurance, transportation and beyond, have two very specific characteristics. First, they use digital platforms, not only to change the ways in which they deliver their products and interact with customers and prospects, but also to run streamlined processes that enable them to scale their operations without hiring huge cohorts of administrators. Second, they use these platforms to facilitate a positive attitude toward business change. Their platform investments enable them to embrace ongoing, digitally enabled business change as part of “business as usual.”

Automating to create “digital threads”

To truly transform and respond to new digital predators, organizations can’t focus only on digitizing customer experiences, products and services or focus only on digitizing business operations. They must do both and tie them together.

Success comes from tying an “inside-out” focus on how to digitize and automate business operations seamlessly into an “outside-in” focus on how to create personalized, multichannel, seamless digital customer experiences. There’s no point in having a lean, digital business operation if interactions with customers need to be improved. Likewise, there’s no point in building the best personalized web platform, the best social channels and the smartest call centers if operations should be sped up.

Digital business automation platforms are the answer to tying these two perspectives together because they enable the creation of “digital threads” of work automation and coordination, decision making and knowledge sharing.

RPA is one important technology for defining and implementing an automation platform, but it’s not the only technology to consider. Operational processes are very seldom completely routine and structured, and different kinds of activities are amenable to automation to different extents and in different ways.

This means organizations should look at how digitization can be applied in different ways to different activities:

  • At the front end of operations, consider intelligent capture capabilities that can be used to digitize, categorize and prioritize customer communications across multiple channels, providing a foundation for consistent, personalized and context-aware customer interactions that work, even across channels.
  • As staff work to deal with customer requests and issues, many times organizations need to employ case management and workflow capabilities that help departments share knowledge and coordinate responses. These activities must be adaptable to changing customer needs.
  • Where business-critical policies must be applied and managed at scale (for example, in determining customer eligibility for a product, service or benefit), businesses should use decision management capabilities that help design, control, deploy and manage these decisions, even where these decisions happen thousands of times per day.
  • RPA plays a complementary role to these capabilities throughout operational processes, helping speed up and lower the effort involved in updating systems of record, accelerating searches for information across legacy systems and so on.

Digitizing business operations requires looking beyond RPA at a broader automation strategy for operations that enables tailoring of automation approaches to the different kinds of tasks in an organization. One individual product is not going to do everything. Organizations must create a platform of capabilities, which each address different aspects of work automation, while working seamlessly together.

Editor’s note: Thank you to Neil Ward Dutton of MWD Advisors for providing this guest post sharing RPA insights. Learn more about RPA and the value of automating business tasks from IBM and Automation Anywhere.

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