RPA is often pegged as a means to create higher value work for existing employees, but what exactly are those higher-value roles, and are people actually moving into them as robotics adoption increases?
Prior to their presentation at Nexus 2018, we caught up with A.J. Hanna and Jaume Sues from Symphony Ventures to tap into their shared experience with RPA, covering adoption barriers, worker displacement, and the real-world value that the technology is currently producing.
Nearshore Americas: How much of the RPA hype train is justified, and how do you think businesses should be approaching it?
AJ Hanna: RPA is absolutely a tool that can offer tremendous value to organizations of all sizes, primarily because of its flexibility – it’s not hard coded to one set of systems; it’s very flexible with what it can interact with and what it can do.
If you can give user credentials to an associate, you can give user credentials to a robot, and have things processed at a much higher rate, and, in most cases, a much higher quality than a human resource can achieve. Even so, it’s not necessarily the be all and end all; it’s another piece of a larger automation spectrum and a larger approach to digitizing operations – albeit an important one.
In a fairly straightforward way, you can automate routine, non-value-added tasks that many people do as a part of their jobs – tasks that offer very little value to them as an associate and to the organization. Eliminating those situations can lead to all types of outcomes, such as improved ROI, improved customer satisfaction, and improved associate satisfaction.
People often walk into this without much knowledge of RPA, moving in based on a set of expectations I call the “purple unicorns”. There are use cases that promise thousands of percent in ROI, hundreds of reductions in head count, and so on, and while those use cases are real for that specific organization or circumstance, that’s not necessarily the same for everybody, so people have walked in with expectations that don’t get realized because RPA doesn’t interface the same way in their world.
Jaume Sues: One development that we are seeing is that, from time to time, industry specific RPA products are being created, such as swift transactions, customer care, and chatbots in logistics departments. Once those smaller packaged products become more prevalent and more accessible, the small- to medium-sized enterprises will be able to benefit from RPA.
Nearshore Americas: What kind of impact is it truly having on human resources? Is RPA actually starting to push people out in reality?
AJ Hanna: It’s creating an opportunity that some people perhaps didn’t have before, to be able to forego some of that repetitive work in the organization.
We haven’t yet seen the massive job displacement that has been prognosticated. In the majority of circumstances, we were able to retrain people in work that was more client directed than administrative. Or we were able to allow natural attrition to take place, putting us in a position where we didn’t have to back-fill positions because the work was already automated, or we’d retrained enough people to realize savings.
In my former life, we were in a massive four-year growth pattern and were able to restrain that growth with the technology. While we didn’t eliminate any position because of RPA, we were able to hire less peers for those roles as we took on more work because we were able to push more through the automation.
In the end, if the work is pretty straight forward and rules based, perhaps with no customer engagement, then those roles could be affected, but the associate population is getting a chance to do higher-value work and is more satisfied because of their ability to help clients the way they want to.
Jaume Sues: In Latin America, the labor market in very low-cost, so in the past people would throw more people at the problem, creating a lot of manual work, fragmented processes, and processes that were only documented mentally by the people doing the jobs. This is not ideal as companies move to the digital world, and there is a lot of work to do.
Many people say that the business case of robots in Latin America is not that good because of the lower cost of labor, which is a limited view. There is so much manual labor here that people actively want repetitive work removed from their lives so they can focus on better tasks. It all comes down to each person’s capabilities and their desire to do better work, but everybody wants robots to assist them in the region, even at the base of the pyramid.
Nearshore Americas: We often hear about the chance to learn higher-value skills. Can you pinpoint some of the exact skills that people are moving toward?
AJ Hanna: The best example is in Human Resources, which is highly transactional and deals with the most sensitive subjects for everyone – their pay, their benefits, and their health. The ideal circumstance for any HR organization is being able to put as much individual, personal time as possible into unexpected scenarios that fall outside of the norm.
HR departments can sometimes be restrained from the ability to provide that level of care because of the administrative work that is required, so RPA offers the opportunity to put more of the “human” into human resources, allowing HR teams to interact with staff at times when things don’t go to the script, and ensure things are taken care of.
Jaume Sues: We robotized the monthly financial closing for a telco company. It previously took the company 10 days to close, but we reduced that to an overnight process. But nobody in this department will be fired; those guys free their time to interpret the information and get a clearer view of what is happening with the business. Instead of wasting 10 days copy pasting information, they have that time to analyze the data and deliver explanations on what has happened in the business to the decision makers. Prior to that, they felt like mechanical accountants, and now they feel like businesspeople thanks to RPA.
Nearshore Americas: On the client-facing side, what higher-value roles are being created as a result of RPA?
AJ Hanna: The ability to turn things around more quickly. We have a client that used to take 3-4 days to process a transaction, but can now turn that around in 30-35 minutes.
If you’re talking about RDA (robotic desktop automation), you’re providing agents that interact with clients the ability to pull up information about that client much faster and more accurately than in the past. This gives them more time to interact with the customer, instead of doing system or screen research while they are waiting on the phone.
Nearshore Americas: In your experience, what is currently the biggest adoption barrier to RPA?
AJ Hanna: Some of the biggest drawbacks are that RPA is being treated very tactically, when you should be thinking about it strategically. Those who have heard how quick and easy it is to put in place have bought into that and have found that it’s not as quick and easy as they thought – there are a lot of things to think through before stepping into a program.
They seem to want to pick a tool before thinking all the way through what their different use cases are. We’re strong advocates of really stopping and thinking before you dive in. Spend to time to assess your work environment, the type of work, and the volumes of work, as well as understanding if you have the organizational capability to take it on, particularly if it’s not been part of your culture before. Also, simply applying RPA to a “dirty” process will not fix it. You have to take the time to tidy up and strengthen those processes before you automate them.
Jaume Sues: Latin America has a crystal ball when it comes to technology adoption. Anything that arrives in the States today arrives in LatAm 2 years later. As part of an English company, we are aware of the developments there and they provide a roadmap for us – 2016 in the UK is where we are now.
The main adopters of RPA in Latin America are big clients. The most advanced developments of RPA are in Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Colombia, and within all companies that have large headquarters or large operations in the region.
We have advanced past the stage of explaining RPA to companies, as they already know, so they are either well-educated or they are building internal capabilities through centers of excellence.
Telecom companies are adopting in faster in Latin America than in Europe. Banking and Insurance, Retail, and Airlines are also strong adopters locally.
E-Commerce adoption developed later in LatAm, so players are in a hurry to create omnichannel experiences and undergo digital transformation, so they are asking about RPA as an enabler to these changes. Typical brick and mortar retail companies are looking to go digital, but with a bunch of legacy systems. RPA is a great enabler to connect these traditional core systems, and can transversally follow the client to have omnichannel.
Even so, the main challenges are the time and effort to determine a good business case, and convincing people at the executive level of the real benefits of RPA.
Catch Jaume and A.J. at Nexus 2018, June 26-27 in San Francisco, where they will host a joint presentation on the challenges, opportunities, and tips to help make for a successful RPA implementation.