Why RPA needs BPM.
Business process automation is one of the most talked about trends in organizational management at present, and shows no signs of being eclipsed any time soon. It purports to offer significant increases in efficiency and the accompanying cost reductions for organizations of all sizes.
However, robotic process automation (RPA) is neither a single solution, nor a one-size-fits-all answer, and in order to reach its potential it is best employed as part of a wider emphasis on process excellence.
Broadly understood, RPA is the use of automated systems, sometimes known as bots, to streamline business processes. These automated tools mimic human activity, but with far more accuracy and efficiency than a human operator can be expected to achieve.
RPA and AI.
RPA agents shouldn’t be confused with artificial intelligence (AI) though. While true AI does have business applications, it isn’t as readily employed or easily implemented in any but the largest scale organizations.
RPA bots are distinct in that they will never replace people entirely, they just speed up their workflows and reduce the repetitive tasks and errors that can occur. Importantly, RPA agents can’t learn from experience, nor make judgement calls on exceptions unless they have been told how to do so in their routines.
Bots won’t interpret meaning other than what has been configured for them, meaning they can’t operate outside of a well-structured environment. They are tools that will check the boxes of a process, but they aren’t there to think it through or look for better alternatives.
This is a vital distinction when considering an RPA initiative. In their article on effective RPA guidelines, Gartner research group noted that organizations need to 'carefully set expectations of what the tools can do and how your organization can use them to support digital transformation as part of an automation strategy.'
Why process matters.
What this makes clear is the importance of the processes that the bots are participating in. Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Thomas Davenport and David Brain point out that 'RPA in which the “P” stands for process improvement or innovation is a much more valuable tool than simple task automation.'
Where there are existing inefficiencies or a lack of process excellence, RPA can only achieve so much. As Cathy Tornbohm of Gartner observed, 'automating a bad process does not make it better, but may make it less expensive to execute in the short term — if you remove people.
'However, the overall goal should be to evaluate how to make the process more effective and efficient.'
Simply throwing bots at a poorly-designed business process will just make it inefficient in a new way. RPA on its own cannot solve procedural issues or reduce waste where it is inherent in the way the process has been captured.
Building a solid foundation.
The limitations of RPA agents also mean that ill-defined processes are not good candidates for automation. Where the parameters of a procedure are unclear or there is uncertainty around steps, handovers or inputs and outputs, automation can’t be properly implemented due to the inherent requirement the bots have for concrete instructions.
In these cases, it’s important to remember the fundamentals of good process management.
Simplicity and clarity are key. Your processes should help your team understand the core of what is done, by whom, both in regard to their responsibilities and how it fits together in an end-to-end process.
Jumbled maps and complex diagrams obscure that. Good process management helps identify weak points and inefficiencies, but if people are confused by the documentation they’ll ignore it and those potential savings will be missed. Ultimately it will be hard to incorporate automation into your processes if you can’t understand how the existing processes worked.
One major Australian bank undertook an RPA exercise and saw how the lack of these fundamental principles stood in the way of a push for automation. With process documentation either incomplete, unconnected, or a mix of the two, there was no complete end-to-end view of numerous vital processes.
While that had ramifications for overall efficiency and effectiveness of the bank’s operations, it also meant the RPA program could not proceed as the basic framework of processes couldn’t support it.
Gartner’s research agrees: 'Typically, less standardized ways of enacting a task or process pose a risk, as the degree of change/improvement will be much greater for those areas. However, these may be the very business areas that are most in need of new solutions and improved business capabilities. Poor processes can be automated, but it is better to improve the process first.'
Clear processes help build team engagement, too. Documented processes won’t help if those documents sit on a shelf behind someone’s desk or on the shared drive, never to be seen again.
Using interactive, dynamic BPM tools and encouraging a culture of continual improvement leads people to take ownership of their processes and participate in the process management conversation.
Having an active and engaged team means having more people looking for opportunities to improve processes, including automation. It also reduces any sense of threat they might feel about ‘robots taking over’ as they see where automation can make their work easier and more varied.
This bore out in the bank’s experience too. Using complex tools, designed for consultants, the capturing and refining of processes could only be managed by a select few specialists, slowing the entire program down.
By switching to a tool that teams could use across the organization, those working with the processes every day were quick to begin capturing what they did, how they did it, and point out opportunities for improvement. They reported an upsurge in ownership as people began to enjoy mapping their roles and finding more efficient ways of doing things.
None of this will gain traction, of course, without executive buy-in. A culture of process improvement is vital for creating an environment in which automation can add value.
This needs to come from the top, with senior management championing good process management practice, and encouraging teams to participate in the process improvement conversation.
An executive commitment to capturing and improving processes provides a framework to drive ongoing innovation and efficiency. Opportunities to incorporate automation will come.
No silver bullet.
Automation is here to stay and will only become more prevalent in business processes and organizations of all sizes. However, at the heart of any RPA is the process, and a sound foundation of good business process management is necessary for it to succeed.
Automation is not a ‘silver bullet’ for business efficiency, but it is an exciting and powerful part of the continual improvement journey and alongside good practice is a significant new facet of healthy business process management.