Should CIOs be chief robot wranglers?

Business Robotic Process Automation (RPA) initiatives can yield huge returns. But bypassing IT can create even bigger risks. Why CIOs need to take a greater role in RPA.

bunch of toy robots

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is gaining increasing acceptance not just to handle certain IT tasks but also in business areas like finance and accounting, data entry and claims, and invoice and loan processing. Many organizations are looking to these emerging software tools’ ability to perform well-defined, repetitive tasks traditionally performed by human workers as the next big source of corporate cost cutting and productivity improvements. 

[ Related: How to prepare IT workers for the impact of automation ]

In many cases business leaders are bypassing IT when implementing RPA initiatives, say Mark Davison, a director in the RPA practice of outsourcing and technology consultancy Alsbridge. In some cases, IT is not seen as a critical stakeholder since the service automation efforts tend to focus on process discipline and subject matter expertise, rather than on programming skills. In addition, business decision makers may see IT involvement as a potential roadblock or slowdown to their operational improvement initiatives. 

[ Related: IT automation in the wild ]

However, these RPA systems do require a level of IT support and involvement to ensure performance. Lack of CIO involvement in business RPA projects then can lead to the typical risks of any shadow technology project—disconnected technology, performance issues, security lapses, and decreased business value delivery. talked to Davison as well as Dr. Mary Lacity, professor of information systems and the University of Missouri-St. Louis’s College of Business (and co-author of Service Automation: Robots and the Future of Work with Leslie Wilcocks) about the case for increased CIO involvement in RPA initiatives. How important will RPA initiatives be to companies in the near future? Why?

Dr. Mary Lacity, University of Missouri-St. Louis: RPA is still in the early adoption phase. Our survey research revealed low RPA adoption levels in 2015, but a quick uptake in 2016. The business value of RPA is so compelling that growth will accelerate.

Our case research on 14 early adopters of RPA revealed that all 14 companies achieved triple wins with RPA—wins for shareholders in the form of positive one year returns on investment, wins for customers with better and faster services, and wins for employees who were freed from dreary, repetitive tasks to focus on tasks that required problem-solving skills, creativity, and social interactions.

Mark Davison, director, Alsbridge: Businesses are recognizing the benefits [of RPA]. The most apparent is cost reduction: a robot that costs $10,000-$15,000 a year to implement and maintain can, in many cases, replace five to 10 humans. But in many cases other benefits are more important. For example, robots produce work that is more dependable, accurate, documentable, and auditable. This helps improve process consistency as well as regulatory compliance, which is critical to highly regulated industries such as banking and pharma. With robots in the environment, transactions also get processed more quickly, which means more efficient payments and logistics. And, robots enhance analytics through their ability to rapidly process and collect huge volumes of data, which is a boon to industries such as healthcare and retail seeking to leverage big data. Why do RPA initiatives often bypass the CIO?

Lacity: RPA’s magic is that the tools are designed to be used by subject matter experts (SMEs) rather than by IT programmers. In fact, it is more accurate to say that RPA users configure the software robots rather than program the robots. RPA recognizes that it is cheaper, better, and faster to train SMEs do their own automations rather than have SMEs explain their deep domain understanding to an IT software developer who then explains it to a team of IT coders. Because RPA tools are designed for SMEs, RPA adoptions are primarily initiated and led by business operations. 

RPA champions in our study said they excluded IT at the onset for two reasons: (1) service automation was seen as a business operations program since it required process and subject matter expertise, not IT programming skills, and (2) fears that IT would beleaguer the adoption with bureaucracy. In most such instances, hindsight indicated that this was a poor approach; clients learned the importance of involving the IT department from the beginning so IT can help validate the RPA software as enterprise-worthy, manage how software robots access existing systems, and manage the infrastructure so it is available, secure and scalable.

Davison: IT is often focused on other issues such as managing infrastructure or applications, or on strategic business issues or major systems implementations. As a result, RPA projects tend to fly under the radar, and are sometimes perceived by IT as being a relatively low priority. What operational and business risks result when IT is not involved? 

Davison: One risk is that the business benefits of the RPA deployment will be delayed. If IT is brought in as an afterthought, technical issues that the business didn’t anticipate can arise and the project can be delayed. And that delay can be a significant issue for the business sponsors of the initiative, who likely built a business case that promised to deliver RPA benefits by a specific date. 

On the operational side, if the CIO isn’t involved in vetting the RPA vendor and solution, there’s a risk that the solution won’t conform to performance standards or technical environment and configuration requirements. There are also potential issues around whether to include an RPA implementation and robots in disaster recovery and change management processes. Once deployed, robots can run around the clock, and if IT is out of the loop, application or infrastructure updates could compromise the robots’ performance and results.

Lacity: Business operations can inadvertently configure bad software robots that compromise data and system security. 

In one client organization, the RPA champion gave all the robots his own ID and password, which triggered alerts in the IT security and fraud detection system. The security team quickly detained the RPA champion and he was nearly fired for violating security rules.

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