by Galen Gruman

RPA to the rescue during the pandemic? Not in Asia, it turns out

Mar 03, 2021
Robotic Process Automation

Robotic process automation has been touted as a fast way to enable distributed workforces, increase operational efficiency, and lower costs. But Asia-Pacific CIOs have not jumped on this bandwagon.

interconnecting gears / process / automation / machinery / mechanism / efficiency
Credit: Anawat S. / Getty Images

CIOs and their IT organisations have had to make major adjustments due to the COVID-19 pandemic in how they and their business stakeholders operate. Robotic process automation (RPA) has been pitched as one solution, by automating routine tasks via cloud-hosted processes that allow teams now forced to work at home to get work that used to be manual in nature done more easily.

But Asia-Pacific CIOs aren’t rushing to adopt RPA because of the pandemic, according to a Forrester Research survey of 45 firms in Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, India, Australia, and New Zealand. Their pace of RPA adoption—they were interested in RPA before COVID-19 and remain so—remains unchanged due to the pandemic.

“COVID-19 has not resulted in significant expansion of tenured programmes beyond existing plans,” Forrester’s February 2021 report stated. In fact, 56% of the respondents saw no change in their RPA pace during the pandemic, and only 11% saw their RPA investments increase by 20% or more. Of the rest, 20% saw investment increases below 20%, and 9% weren’t sure if their RPA investments had changed.

Why COVID-19 didn’t accelerate RPA efforts in Asia

Businesses that were already digital—and typically had begun RPA efforts within the previous three years—didn’t expect to gain much from an accelerated RPA adoption pace. These companies accounted for about 60% of the respondents. Those that had already established digital business processes were “already realising adequate levels of risk mitigation and did not see a need to significantly increase automation investments,” Forrester found. RPA could refine and improve on that base, but there was largely no need to accelerate the current digitalisation pace.

Digitalised businesses that began adopting RPA within the past 18 months, largely during the COVID-19 pandemic, focused on adapting to the massive disruption in processes as employees had to work remotely or in changed office environments. Then they began to look at RPA. Businesses that weren’t already digital only started trialling automation efforts after the initial shock of the pandemic had passed, when they could focus on the first steps of digitalisation, Forrester found. Both types of firms—which jointly accounted for about 40% of the respondents—struggled with establishing the value and cadence of business automation. As a result, their efforts tended to be on lower risk, simpler business process automation needs.

A big reason that the pace of RPA deployment did not increase for all three sets of companies is that RPA does not scale quickly. Forrester found that firms that began RPA efforts in the past three years were working to overcome three challenges to scaling RPA: “identifying and deploying automation on the right processes, establishing effective governance for the automation program, and managing the cultural and people aspects of automation.” Those all take time and a methodical approach.

The top challenges—none easy to solve quickly—were:

  • 24%: identifying the right processes for RPA
  • 18%: organisational challenges
  • 16%: budget constraints
  • 13%: finding the right talent to manage RPA deployment and operations

RPA also requires a governance framework and a set of best practices, which are largely absent in Asia. Only 24% of respondents had an IT-led centre of excellence for RPA for the entire business, whereas 16% let each line of business lead its own separate RPA effort, 16% relied solely on IT, and 4% used an offshore provider or dedicated shared services group.

RPA’s benefits are real but not dramatic

RPA is important to CIOs, and 71% of the respondents say their RPA efforts have C-level visibility, underscoring its strategic value. But the short-term value has not been dramatic: Only 18% of Forrester’s respondents saw sufficiently significant benefits from RPA efforts to expand their programme, 7% saw significant benefits but weren’t expanding their programme, 51% saw measurable benefits, 16% saw limited benefits, and 7% saw no benefits. RPA is no silver bullet.

Leslie Joseph, a principal analyst at Forrester, told CIO ASEAN:

Generally speaking, companies adopting RPA in Australia tend to be driven by the goal to reduce costs. In Singapore, as well as in other countries in ASEAN, cost takeout continues to be an important goal, but firms also emphasize service availability and improvements in customer experience as areas of value. In addition to this, workers in ASEAN are culturally more accepting of the idea of working side by side with robots. This makes it somewhat easier for companies implementing RPA to seek broad support and create a culture of automation among their workforce.  

Forrester’s survey also showed that RPA’s drivers are largely in “softer” areas of value that may be harder to justify a significantly expanded investment during a crisis:

  • 59% could move personnel to higher-value tasks
  • 30% saw improved employee productivity
  • 29% saw improved customer service
  • 13% saw improved business process compliance
  • 12% saw improved output quality
  • 6% saw improved employee experience
  • 5% saw enhanced security controls

The “hard” drivers were:

  • 27% saw reduced employee headcount for support processes
  • 2% saw deferred expenditures on legacy app modernisation

The “significant” benefits experienced, though, favoured the “hard” benefits: 23% saw reduced costs from greater efficiency of existing staff, and another 8% saw lower costs from reducing staff. The ability to serve higher volumes of transactions—to conduct more business—accounted was cited by 12% of Forrester’s respondents.