by Clint Boulton

RPA is poised for a big business break-out

Jun 12, 2019
Artificial IntelligenceBPM SystemsDigital Transformation

Robotic process automation is driving efficiency at enterprises such as State Auto, Berry Appleman & Leiden, American Fidelity Assurance and other companies.

robot gear automation
Credit: Thinkstock

Software that automates basic tasks is catching hold in large enterprises, where CIOs are seeking to inject greater efficiency into business processes.

Called robotic process automation (RPA), the technology enables IT departments to configure or train software to perform routine tasks, such as generating an automatic response to an email, or to tackle more complex jobs, such as process flows in insurance systems. Unlike machine learning and artificial intelligence, which organizations also use to automate workloads, RPA is governed by set business logic and structured inputs.

RPA’s potential for streamlining processes sees its use across every sector. AT&T, Ernst & Young, Walgreens and Deutsche Bank are among those investing in RPA to drive efficiencies in their businesses.

Spending on RPA tools will top $1 billion in 2019, but will ratchet up to $1.5 billion by 2020, according to Forrester Research, which says that 40 percent of enterprises will operate automation centers and frameworks in place this year. These investments have been a boon for Blue Prism, UiPath and Automation Anywhere, which are collectively valued at $11 billion.

“Investment dollars continue to flow into RPA platform companies,” wrote Forrester analyst Craig LeClair in an April blog post.

Here IT leaders discuss how RPA implementations are driving business efficiencies at their organizations.

‘Dropping the drudgery’ of data routing

Shane Jason Mock, vice president of research and development for American Fidelity Assurance, was skeptical the first time he heard about using software bots to automate data entry. A demo of RPA automatically moving data from a spreadsheet into a mainframe changed his mind.

When Mock, whose company handles 2.5 million health insurance policies, needed a tool to help move data from legacy systems, he selected RPA from UiPath, which American Fidelity now uses in its accounting, claims processing and other business units.

“Robots are good at moving data across multiple systems,” Mock says. They do it faster and with fewer errors than humans, too. Mock estimates that American Fidelity is automating 10 hours’ worth of tasks for every 1 hour it has spent building bots.

Mock also combined RPA with machine learning to classify and route emails about claims and other business processes. Previously, humans read each email and routed it to its correct address. Scanning 9,000 emails that previously took staff 45 hours now takes 3 seconds, Mock says. Combining RPA with AI is growing in popularity, in particular for process mining, in which the technology identifies patterns and anomalies in how a process is actually performed rather than as mapped out in theory.

Automation tools such as RPA do raise questions about the possible elimination of jobs, but Mock says he has both retrained and hired more people to build and work with the bots. Other staff are freed up to help reduce customer pain points. People are still needed because it’s hard to replace domain-specific institutional knowledge, Mock says.

“People who know the business really well and are able to learn the software is a great combination, Mock says. “We termed it ‘drop the drudgery.’”

RPA is also replacing grunt work at immigration law firm Berry Appleman & Leiden LLP, which has seen a sharp uptick in business thanks to tech clients scrambling to hire staff on H-1B visas.

The firm uses UiPath’s software to collect information, including wage data, as well as resumes and passports, from government websites such as the U.S. Bureau of Labor and enter it into its case management platform, Vince DiMascio, the firm’s CIO, told at the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium in May.

Paraprofessionals who previously went site by site to collect the data focus on more complex policy work.

The learning curve for UiPath is brief. Staff can “self-certify,” or train themselves to use UiPath, even building and deploying a bot within two weeks. Its implementations are managed by Ashley Fleischer, a project manager and business analyst by training.

Yet without RPA, developers would have had to develop and maintain APIs and systems to scrape websites for the information, DiMascio says.

Overall, RPA enables DiMascio’s staff to focus on other efforts, which includes adopting serverless computing, chatbots and machine learning software to simulate hiring scenarios or predict outcomes based on large data sets.

“It all comes back to customer experience, improving the speed and quality and our ability to do things we are unable to get done with people,” DiMascio says.

Insurance claims, now processed by bots

State Auto Financial is using RPA to cut the time the insurance company’s staff spends manually processing claims and other tasks, says Greg Tacchetti, State Auto CIO.

The process for calculating vehicle total loss is historically labor intensive, requiring several humans to log into insurance systems, order loss letters, insert loss letters into envelopes and FedEx them to customers and other parties.

Now, many of those steps are “recorded” and executed by bots, which can work 24-7, boosting claims processing speeds. Ultimately, State Auto automated approximately 80 full-time equivalents of work, resulting in faster handling and higher-quality service for customers. State Auto also uses bots in HR, customer services and finance, among other business lines. 

Overall, State Auto has saved more than 60,000 labor hours per year, says Holly Uhl, the company’s director of operational excellence and robotics.

The RPA work is part of a broader business transformation intended to improve the customer experience for the provider of property and casualty insurance, which serves thousands of customers across 30 states, while doubling sales to $3 billion.

“There was a strong mandate to do things differently, so we decided to rebuild our back-office technology and get to digital delivery,” says Tacchetti.

Software automates travel management

David Thompson, CIO of American Express Global Business Travel, enjoyed early success with RPA after assigning a handful of engineers to explore the technology.

Early wins included automating the process for canceling an airline ticket and issuing refunds, a task previously performed by employees. The company is also exploring how it might facilitate automatic rebook recommendations in the event of an airport shutdown, and to automate certain expense management tasks.

“We’ve taken RPA and trained it on how employees do those tasks,” said Thompson, at the 2018 Forbes CIO Summit. “The list of things we could automate is getting longer and longer.”

Implementing RPA requires serious change management. For example, Thompson’s team had to teach business leaders how the technology works and have them evaluate their operations to see where RPA might fit. Then there is the challenge associated with reassuring 12,500 traveler counselors, some of whose tasks are being assumed by software, that they still have a job. “It was scary for a lot of people,” Thompson said. He ultimately reassigned those workers to engage with the company’s clients and perform other higher value tasks.

“Our business leaders are coming along for the journey,” Thompson said. “They didn’t think these things were even possible and we’re now showing them the art of the possible.”