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RPA and Hyper-Automation Are Transforming the Back Office

Robotic process automation began as an automated screen scraping operation but now is moving into fully automated hyper-automation. Is the business ready?

Gartner describes hyper-automation as “a business-driven, disciplined approach that organizations use to rapidly identify, vet, and automate as many business and IT processes as possible".

Let’s take a look at how to implement one element of hyper-automation: robotic process automation, or RPA.

By the end of this year, Gartner, projects, the RPA market will exceed $2.9 billion, so we know that companies are using RPA. The use cases where RPA is playing an important role include:

  • System integration in places where there was none. In the past, employees had to repetitively re-key the same information into multiple systems because those systems weren't integrated. RPA automation is particularly well suited to this manual re-keying task. It can “scrape” basic information from an invoice and apply it to otherwise non-integrated systems, so employees don’t have to manually rekey data into each system.
  • RPA can also do the little things, like being able to maintain a special “deal” price on an order for a customer, even though pricing has changed in general; or being able to expedite the accounting department’s month-end close process by taking the data from a single Excel spreadsheet and pasting it into multiple of different accounting systems automatically.

In each case, RPA can perform back-office “grunt work,” allowing staff to focus on more skills-based functions. That saves process time while reducing the number of errors that humans inadvertently introduce in repetitive work.

This entry-level use of RPA has been heralded by both staff and management. It has saved hours of manual labor for the company and has created new and more challenging opportunities for employees who were formerly relegated to rote data entry functions.

Success has inspired organizations to see where else their RPA investments can take them, and the logical answer is to combine RPA with other digital technologies to achieve hyper-automation.

Just what does hyper-automation that includes RPA look like?

In an invoicing process, it might start with simple RPA that screen-scrapes data and sends invoice information to other systems that need it. But then it gets further extended with other automation technologies. For instance, AI (artificial intelligence) might look at each invoice to see if there is anything out of the ordinary for a given supplier; or machine language might observe daily processing patterns and discover certain ways to speed processing. Other rulesets, such as determining discount rates or performing overrides in certain situations, might come into play as part of a larger business process reengineering effort.

In each of these cases, business process automation that creeps beyond simple RPA screen scraping begins to occur, and more of the routine decision-making that employees do is incorporated into automated processes.

Companies want this advance, given today's labor and skills shortages and the incessant drive to do things faster and smarter, but most find that a move into hyper-automation isn't something they can implement overnight.

Here are the pitfalls:

  • Exception processing. No matter how many subject matter experts put their heads together to figure out every possible exception to a process and what to do about it, there will always be new and unforeseen exceptions that an automated system can’t handle but a human could. When an exception like this occurs, it can bring down an entire system. That’s why you still need human “backup” for automation, along with the ability of an expert to override the system.
  • Disaster recovery and business continuation. What are you going do when the system goes down? I experienced this in banking once. Our system went down. There was no way for the tellers in the branches to process transactions. The customers got angry. Until the system returned, we had to bring in “old hand” employees who still remembered how to manually record transactions on paper ledgers that would be input into the system later.
  • Staff resistance. Employees will go along with business process changes like RPA and hyper-automation as long as they feel valued and included. If they think that RPA or hyper-automation is going to take their jobs away, they won't cooperate. Ironically, there is no greater need for soft skills and personalization than when you are doing an RPA or hyper-automation project. You need the employees to help define new business processes that can be helped by automation because these are the people who know what works and what doesn’t. In return, they need to know they have a future. What will their new jobs be like after the automation?

Final Remarks

The limiting factor for RPA and hyper-automation is enterprise readiness. Are employees ready and willing to revise business processes? Is IT ready to work with RPA and other hyper-automation tools to effect workflow transformations?

The best way to ensure a successful automation of your back-office business processes is to have a roadmap in place for both your technologies and your people.

What to Read Next:

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RPA Deals Heat Up Amid Faster Digital Transformation Pushes

Enterprise Guide to Robotic Process Automation

Editor's Choice
Brian T. Horowitz, Contributing Reporter
Samuel Greengard, Contributing Reporter
Nathan Eddy, Freelance Writer
Brandon Taylor, Digital Editorial Program Manager
Jessica Davis, Senior Editor
Cynthia Harvey, Freelance Journalist, InformationWeek
Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing