RPA is poised for a big business break-out

Robotic process automation is driving efficiency at enterprises such as Walmart, American Express Global Business Travel and others, as CIOs turn to RPA to tackle repetitive business tasks.

RPA is poised for a big business break-out

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 use a piece of software, called a “robot,” to perform routine tasks, such as generating an automatic response to an email, or in concert to tackle more complex jobs, such as process flows in an ERP system. Unlike machine learning and artificial intelligence, which organizations are also using in part to automate workloads, RPA is governed by set business logic and structured inputs, and its rules don't deviate.

“Processes drive all of our organizations and almost anything can be automated so long as you can identify and use appropriate tools to define what that process looks like end to end,” says Jeff Donaldson, a former GameStop CIO who founded a new consultancy focused on RPA last year. "It's about amplifying human endeavor and making people more productive."

Spending on RPA software will reach $1 billion by 2020, Gartner says, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 41 percent from 2015 through 2020. By that time, 40 percent of large enterprises will have adopted RPA software, up from less than 10 percent today.

Enterprises employing many thousands of employees, including AT&T, Ernst & Young, Walgreens and Deutsche Bank, are among those investing in RPA to drive out costs. Fully automating routine tasks can reduce the cost of transactional processes by 50 percent to 75 percent while enabling people to focus on value-added tasks, according to The Hackett Group.

CIOs and other technology leaders who have embraced RPA discussed with CIO.com how they're using the robotic process automation to reap business efficiencies.

Software automates travel management

RPA was top of mind among CIOs attending the recent 2018 Forbes CIO Summit. On a panel regarding delivering digital value, David Thompson, CIO of American Express Global Business Travel, said he has appointed a team of five engineers to find places in the travel management company's processes that are ripe for automation.

Early wins included automating the process for canceling an airline ticket and issuing refunds, a task previously performed by employees. Thompson is also looking to use RPA to 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, who implemented a similar solution in his prior role as CIO at Western Union. "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."

CIOs aren't looking to shed staff so much as free workers up for other work. To that end, bots are a big part of the plans for Walmart, which employs 2.3 million people. Walmart CIO Clay Johnson, who spoke on the panel along with Thompson, said the retail giant has deployed about 500 bots to automate anything from answering employee questions to retrieving useful information from audit documents. "A lot of those came from people who are tired of the work," Johnson said.

Freeing up staff is part of Johnson's process automation plan to make Walmart's massive workforce more efficient. More broadly, Johnson's IT strategy entails delivering IT services as a series of products rather than traditional IT project management freighted with set deadlines and rigorous processes.

Bots come to consulting

Mindtree has deployed more than 300 bots working alongside more than 17,000 employees, says Satya Ramaswamy, executive vice president for the IT consultancy.

"The future of IT and enterprises will have a lot of automation and we have to account for the fact that we will have software working side by side with human beings," Ramaswamy said. "We see automation as a way to liberate people to doing value-added functions rather than routine work." 

Mindtree currently has three major use cases for RPA: automating IT infrastructure management, data entry in human resources and financial workflows.

Using software from RPA startup Automation Anywhere and a homegrown machine algorithm, Mindtree automatically detects patterns in IT help desk tickets, a useful skill at a time when help desks are typically overrun by repetitive requests.

Mindtree also tapped Microsoft’s Bot Framework software to build a bot that processes HR transactions. Previously, human workers copied and pasted such information into document and other information management systems. Ramaswamy says Mindtree has also implemented several bots to streamline business processes in the company’s finance department.

Bots perform another function that is less discussed, Ramaswamy says. By automating workflows with software, enterprises can capture data performed by the digital tasks, which can facilitate more complete assessments of performance.

“If a human being is doing that work, there is no scope to get analytics out of the process,” Ramaswamy says. “When you use bots, digital analytics come into play.”

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