Standfirst: Capturing and analysing business processes should be a prerequisite for any implementation of robotic process automation, argues Dr Gero Decker, General Manager SAP Business Process Intelligence & Co-founder of Signavio

More and more companies are turning to end-to-end digital transformation as a means of improving customer experience (CX) and propelling growth.

Dr Gero Decker

Several automation technologies are helping to drive this, from digital process automation and dynamic case management to artificial intelligence and low code. Among this group of transformational tools is robotic process automation (RPA).

In simple terms, RPA involves using a piece of software to complete a specific task that traditionally is carried out by a human worker, the concept emerged in the early 2000s and has been on an upward trajectory in recent years.

In 2019 the RPA market registered $1.4 billion in revenue, a figure that is set to rise to almost $2 billion for 2021 according to Gartner, which cites the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic as a key accelerant of the shift from manual to automated business processes.

Before the pandemic erupted in March 2020, many companies were reliant on paper-based and entirely human-powered operations, a dynamic that has been uprooted as remote-working became mandated for large swathes of the workforce.

Meanwhile, a transformation in how customers and businesses interact has also occurred.

According to McKinsey, the average share of customer interactions which were digital across the globe stood at 58% in July 2020. This is significantly higher than the 36% reported in December 2019 and represents a three-year acceleration in the space of just a few months.

Momentum is continuing to build. For instance, some 98% of IT business leaders believe automating processes is essential to sustaining business success, while almost half of jobs could be automated within the next 20 years.


How to make RPA work for your business 

In other words, more organisations are coming round to the idea that time-consuming and repetitive business processes can be automated, especially those which human workers find difficult, mundane, or frustrating to complete. In particular, repetitive, standardised tasks that are based on specific rules and high priority.

Automating these tasks can deliver significant cost savings, minimise errors and open a host of other benefits which ultimately lead to an enhanced customer experience.

However, implementing robotic process automation effectively is often more challenging than initially anticipated, with around half of all RPA initiatives failing to deliver expected improvements due to poor execution.

So, what is preventing businesses from making the most of the opportunity?

A major cause is overlooking the ‘process’ element of RPA. This leads to the automation of systemically poor processes, the likely result being that the same mistakes are made faster and on a grander scale.

This issue stems from a disparity between what business leaders think is happening and what is occurring, and it is only by aligning the actual and desired states prior to implementation that RPA can be successful.

Companies should therefore begin by framing action around a simple question – what processes which could be appropriate for automation are suboptimal?

This is part of an evaluation exercise we refer to as ‘capturing’ processes, which can be conducted using automated process discovery tools and insights from process participants.

Forward-thinking businesses may already be utilising dedicated experts (either in-house or via a third-party partner) to discover and analyse processes at scale through process mining, leveraging data from programs such as Salesforce.

After business processes have been analysed, decision-makers will be able to make informed judgements as to where RPA can best be deployed to enhance CX. What’s more, these decisions will be underpinned by a sound, data-backed business case.

A comprehensive understanding of the customer is also essential if any process capturing exercise is to be worthwhile.

Customer journey mapping can track interactions all the way from the first touchpoint to post-sale activities such as deliveries, returns and feedback gathering – combined with internal insights, these findings help organisations to provide superior, more personalised services to each of their target audiences. Process capturing and analyses must therefore be grounded in this level of customer understanding.


The human-machine dynamic

As well as transforming customer experiences, RPA has clear ramifications for many staff roles.

There is much talk about the ‘human versus machine’ paradigm here, commonly framed around fears that robots will displace human jobs and leave large numbers of employees out of work.

If implemented properly, RPA should not project this message. Rather, businesses should leverage automation as a means of augmenting and upskilling staff, not displacing them.

While RPA is undoubtedly a savvy option for handling large volumes of data and mundane tasks at speed, there will be times when a process requires a human assessment – indeed, a central message behind any RPA strategy should be that technology is not replacing human insight and effort.

And the more a business automates, the harder it gets to fix broken automations. By retaining process experts after full automation is adopted, disruptions to customer experience can be minimised when problems emerge.

By augmenting human expertise and paying due attention to capturing and analysing business processes before implementation, organisations will be well placed to leverage RPA for the benefit of their business and customers.

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