by Divina Paredes

University of Auckland taps RPA and now champions it in the wider community

Oct 03, 2019
Artificial IntelligenceBig DataCareers

Izak van Niekerk
Credit: Divina Paredes/IDG

It is not just about automating anything, it is about automating the right process, and bringing the right value back to the organisation Izak Van Niekerk, University of Auckland

“Wouldn’t it be really cool if you were a student and you get a dedicated robot to help you manage mundane stuff, like your calendar and meetings? Or interact with digital robots to ask a course advice and information around specific buildings on campus?”

“That is part of our vision going forward,” says Izak Van Niekerk, business transformation and intelligent automation leader at the University of Auckland.

Van Niekerk recently shared with CIO New Zealand what’s next as the university is already well on its way to implementing robotic process automation in various administrative tasks.

The university started implementing RPA as part of its move to modernise business processes and improve service delivery to 40,000 students and 5,500 staff.

Two years on, he and his team have built the expertise around RPA implementation and worked with software provider UiPath in developing a course on robotics software.

The course, for fourth year engineering students, was offered for the first time in July this year.

Divina Paredes/IDG
No caption

What’s critical is how we build jobs where we solve problems and provide solutions, using analytical skills, creative thinking skills, design thinking, and bring those skills together Izak Van Niekerk, University of Auckland

The university also partnered with UiPath and launched an Automation Youth Course for 10-to-14-year-olds. The three-day course was first offered during the school holidays in July to students in South Auckland.

“We built a training course aimed at that specific age group,” he states. “We brought in our practical experience as well as provided a fun day for the kids, where they start building their own robots and start thinking about automation from that perspective.

“We want to build this on a continuous basis,” he says. “During the school holidays, we want to target a broader range of schools.”

According to Van Niekerk, the course is run by practitioners from the university and UiPath.

The university partnered with UiPath and launched an Automation Youth Course for 10-to-14-year-olds

He says the university course, meanwhile, covers both the theoretical part of RPA and practical application of those skills.

Initially, he says, they thought they were going to build their own content for the course.

They learned, however, that UiPath has its own Academic Alliance, which works with universities across the globe.

They got inputs from this programme, then combined it with the university’s experience and commercial insights from PwC, one of their implementation partners for the RPA initiative.

From their experiences in deploying RPA, Van Niekerk and Mark Poole, strategic programme manager at the University of Auckland, championed an academic course around RPA.

Andrew Phillips of UiPath: ‘RPA implementation allows businesses to eliminate the mundane, repetitive tasks that exist within the organisation. As these tasks tend to be administrative processes, many organisations share similar challenges and, therefore, implement similar applications of RPA.’

A big part of the course is the technical side: “How do you code and configure the robots and build the solutions?”

The course also covers having a good understanding around the business process and the business rules that sit underneath those key business activities.

“The key thing is we are building a potential career opportunity for those students, as well,” he explains. “It is a pathway for them into robotics if they wish to continue on that.”

“We are also meetingthe huge demand for RPA skills,” he says. “We are training our students so they can work in these organisations and start building all these process solutions.”

“But the bigger benefit is taking that value back into New Zealand,” he says, as their students work with companies as part of the course and when they graduate.

“RPA implementation allows businesses to eliminate the mundane, repetitive tasks that exist within the organisation,” says Andrew Phillips, managing director and vice president ANZ for UiPath.

No caption

Think about it in the context of customer experience Izak Van Niekerk, University of Auckland

“As these tasks tend to be administrative processes, many organisations share similar challenges and, therefore, implement similar applications of RPA.”

He points out the University of Auckland uses the full UiPath platform and is quite mature in the application of RPA solutions.

“The university found success with involving the students to help with building and implementing RPA processes,” he tells CIO New Zealand.

“The team effectively automated a number of different applications, for example student data migration from one system to another, student onboarding and inventory management of books. Their RPA journey is a great example of how educational institutions can use automation to improve the experience of both staff and students.”

Beyond digitising processes

Van Niekerk discloses that the move to use robotic process automation was a natural evolution from back in 2016, when the university launched the business process enablement programme.

“We started to invest in digitalisation of information, there was a huge drive in moving away from paper-based forms to creating digital forms.”

“Like many organisations, we have got some cost pressures,” he shares. “We had to find clever ways of really becoming efficient in what we do, but also becoming more effective in terms of the services we have.”

“We identified business processes as an approach to think about cost and efficiency in the organisation.”

According to Van Niekerk, they identified robotic process automation (RPA) as an approach to use.

“The timing was great,” he says. “That allowed us to move on from the business process enablement programme and directly slotted into RPA as the next level of automation.”

He explains deploying RPA was beyond digitising processes. It provided an opportunity for staff to revisit, redesign, and improve existing processes before introducing the software bots.

“It is a whole roadmap and a whole evolution in building capability.”

Van Niekerk and Poole identified processes that would be automated.

“There’s always been an effort to improve the process upfront and then automate,” explains Van Niekerk.

He says this was in July 2017. The university identified three RPA vendors as possible implementation partner and chose UiPath. They also brought in PwC to help in the implementation.

By November, they were already automating the first process, the student transcript process request, where the university gathers students’ previous institution transcripts, course participating details, and recommendation letters.

No caption

The automation processes save the university some 28,000 hours a year

So how did they explain RPA to staff?

“We positioned it in the context ofhow do we improve the work we do from a transactional point of view,” he says.

He explained RPA would do the “boring mundane activities” such as data entry.

From there, we asked them, “How do we improve your work life at the university? How do we support you in terms of finding other opportunities and other things that could mean a lot of things in terms of your own growth?”

“It was a people-centred and people-focused approach,” he states.

“It was never for us about just stripping out cost. It was around, how do you find the balance having an efficient but also an effective process?”

He says one of the first processes to be automated involved setting up a new supplier for the university. Before, procurement staff would check external sources to ensure there were no conflicts of interest.

“We automated the supplier set up, from receiving a request right through doing all due diligence risks and compliance checks.”

The overall turnaround time was reduced from 12 days to between two to four days.

There were one or two scenarios wherein the robots picked up a conflict of interest that would not have necessarily been picked up by a human, he relates.

“It enabled the supply people to work closely with the faculty around supplier requests and needs,” he says. “The level of service increased drastically.”

Van Niekerk estimates the automation processes save the university some 28,000 hours a year.

“We repurposed some of the roles into other opportunities in the staff service centre,” he states.

“What is critical from my perspective is how we build jobs where we solve problems and provide solutions, using analytical skills, creative thinking skills, design thinking, and bring those skills together.”

“We are looking at it from a strategic transformation objective,” he explains, “to understand what is the maturity of our processes and where do we invest in our processes going forward. Because, it is not just about automating anything, it is about automating the right process, and bringing the right value back to the organisation.”

Van Niekerk says they have also had conversations with universities in Australia and some enterprises in New Zealand, on their RPA deployment.

So what can other organisations learn from their experiences?

“You can’t separate process improvement from process automation,” he emphasises. “You have got to think and understand what to do to improve the process. What do you do remove the waste out of the process, how do you streamline and consolidate it?”

He says even if the organisation opts not to automate the process, “just by improving the process will bring benefits to the organisation.”

“Really understand why you are doing it in the context of what is the value that you are going to get out of this, what are the drivers? Think about it in the context of customer experience.”

Divina Paredes
No caption

We are building a potential career opportunity for our students…It is a pathway for them into robotics Izak Van Niekerk

Working upfront with the IT team is vital, he points out.

“We view them as a critical partner in our success,” he says. “We make sure they are aware in terms of what we’re doing.”

“We worked with them in the context of security and identity access management,” he says. “What is the cybersecurity perspective that we put in place and the controls we need to put in place to manage that threat?”

In fact, his team participated in the bi-annual ‘Hack Day’ or ‘Innovation Day’organised by the ICT department.

His team looked at using intelligent automation to help route emails coming into the support centre.

Before, staff members were manually triaging or routing these emails to proper agents. It could take up to four hours for the staff to sort through the messages and manually forward them.

During the hackathon, his team built a machine-learning robot to pick up the emails and forward these to the right agents.

Today, the email routing system is already in use, with robots quickly and automatically routing the emails to the correct agent, with 96 per cent accuracy.

“The application of this type of automation works well for organisations that value customer service and manage a heavy pipeline of emails or customer enquiries,” notes Andrew Phillips of UiPath.

“This is also a good example of how other sectors can explore the implementation of intelligent automation and machine learning to support with administrative tasks,” says Phillips.

Van Niekerk notes that having high level executive sponsorship, in this case, the deputy vice chancellor for operations, is important for the success of the RPA implementation.

“This is not a one-off. It is part and parcel of how we look at the organisation, and how we want to improve the organisation using RPA.”

As he points out, deployments that involve RPA, machine learning and even digital humans will now be part of the university’s future automation initiatives.

“We need that support if we need to scale up as well, which we are going to in the next 18 months.”

CIO newsletters for regular updates on CIO news, career tips, views and events. Follow CIO New Zealand on Twitter:@cio_nz

Send news tips and comments to @divinap