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Case Volvo Cars: A global model for RPA

by Guest

In a nine-part interview series, the editors of CFO Magazine focus on Robotic Process Automation. In this article, we take a closer look at the RPA story of Volvo Cars. Volvo Cars is rolling out its RPA applications globally. Anton Edlund, Intelligent Automation Leader, underscores the scalability and sustainability of the various models. “Have we reached the maximum potential of RPA? Absolutely not. We still have a lot of work to do.”

Just over three years ago, Anton Edlund joined Volvo Cars as Intelligent Automation Leader. Before that he was a consultant in the same field. Volvo Cars is one of the first companies in the Nordics to implement RPA and has great ambition. “We are building a global organisation around RPA and empowering our teams to automate. In so doing, we are providing central support for large(r) initiatives, especially in finance but also in other departments of our organisation.” RPA has grown substantially in Volvo Cars over the last five years, but not too fast — a deliberate choice. “We have been very smart about our growth, a scalable growth, just through our scalable model.”

A scalable model that ensures scalable growth –  could you please elaborate?

“It’s not essential in RPA alone but in automation as a whole. If you don’t start thinking clearly about the process, about what you want to achieve and how you are going to scale the whole thing, you quickly get into a position where you are constantly automating tasks with the same team that was doing it manually before. Then you don’t get that scalability in the platforms… We spent an enormous amount of time to get a scalable platform in a global context, one that we could scale ourselves without calling on additional, external skills. So there are several aspects you look at when you start with RPA. And then, of course, there is the RPA space itself, when you talk about automation. It’s not that complex, but it becomes so when you’re working with unstructured data and more end-to-end automation.”

In what way?

“The big question is: how are you going to get people into dialogue with automation? That’s something many companies are struggling with. How do you transfer tasks between humans and automation? Which is moreover needed possibly in every application you have, not just robotics. The connection between people and systems is crucial and Volvo Cars has succeeded very well in this. We think end-to-end, with new technology, to make sure we create the best solution for our teams.”

Was there a natural demand to work with software robots  because Volvo Cars is in the automotive business, where robotic arms have been used in production for some time?

“We have a long history of automating our factories. That history of thinking of always improving with new technologies, has certainly had an impact in our different departments. Automation in finance, and the fact that finance stands out, is because it is so strongly connected to the other departments. There are a whole lot of links outside finance. It’s not just a finance flow. The sales and production processes, etc. all pass through finance in one way or another. It’s an excellent centre to start and finish, to look at the whole process and improve it. Finance at Volvo Cars engages in dialogue with many stakeholders. That doesn’t come just from a process mindset. It is also a technology mindset. You need both to achieve a good degree of automation. We also have a global footprint. We need to be able to do things the same way in all the countries where we operate. Automation comes as a key concept in that sense.”

So Finance is deliberately taking the lead in RPA?

“Finance was the initial driver and took the initiative to start with RPA, but we started working cross-functionally from day one. Just to give all the benefits of RPA in all departments right away. We work globally and have built an RPA community. There is actually no direct team owner of the automation hub at this time.”

So the RPA hub lives alongside the departments?

“We have created specific hubs around the world because we have a global presence and we have to support many different processes and teams. We try to be as close as possible to our clients in the respective countries, internally and externally. We can work with different departments across the organisation but we can also offer robots precisely because we are centrally located. Before this pandemic, it was important to have colleagues close by who may not be in your department, but who were working on the same thing: creating automated solutions. So we could work together, irrespective of the organisational location. We arranged ourselves into one team. That actually implies that everyone working with RPA is connected to the Intelligent Automation Team. This provides not only opportunities for cooperation but also the chance to share good practices among team members easily, plus the feeling of having an impact on the RPA journey of Volvo Cars. Coming up with a collaborative environment and community was a huge step for us. We have the functional connections where we help our stakeholders, and also build cross-functional solutions.”

How important is it for employees to bring in their own RPA initiatives? Was there a bottom-up approach or did a top-down factor come into play?

“You would have to rely on both in dialogue mode. A bottom-up approach clearly played a role from day one. That way, everyone could indicate where we could improve. After all, the employees themselves are in the best position to look at the processes. On the other hand, management support was also important in order to implement strategic improvements in some departments. For instance, what is the strategic ambition and what does it entail? In this way, it was possible to talk to specific teams who would like to help develop future opportunities. Since day one, we have also been running a survey that can be completed by our employees. It only takes a few minutes and provides business cases automatically. We naturally look at whether it is possible to automate the process, and in what way it can be scaled up. That leads to bigger initiatives for even small ideas.”

How many ideas have you received in the meantime?

“I think there have been about 700 ideas in the last 3 years, from both management and employees. About 150 have been effectively automated. In this sense, we also have to be honest and transparent with people. A job that takes only 5 minutes a year should not be automated. There is a good balance and we can assess pretty well what works.”

What specific finance processes have you looked at?

“The procure-to-pay flows are key when you have high volumes and want to control a large workload. There are many possibilities… It’s harder to say which domains are suitable, than which are not. There is so much potential in automation. One thing is clear: just because you can automate it with RPA, doesn’t mean you should. You have to ask yourself whether there is a specific need to automate a process. If you automate a reporting process for a report that nobody reads… Or do we need to fix things in earlier steps that cause the need to automate? Or can we improve it in the system itself?

We have to look at all options and not just force RPA. Our team is working with various new technologies, such as implementing machine learning, just to give us insights into the processes and see where we can improve them. So not by forcing RPA everywhere. We don’t have to reinvent the reality wheel every day. It is more about process improvement than purely about RPA. After all, you can always automate a bad process… You have to know what the most added value is for the customer and start from that aspect.”

How would you grade Volvo Cars in its roadmap to RPA excellence on a scale from 1 to 10?

“That depends on what that excellence would look like (laughs)… If you look at the RPA space in a global context or locally, and our capabilities in cost structure, skills and benefits, I would put us high. We have a scalable model that fits our current and future organisational needs, and it is available to everyone in finance — which is not so easy at times. Our Belgian entity was part of the journey from day one, and now we’ve got RPA to a global platform. You can base excellence on how well everything is organised or look at the potential and ask: have we reached the full potential of RPA? In capabilities, platform, knowledge and availability, I would give us 8-9 out of 10. We have done a very good job, scaled efficiently and we have been working with a great team from day one. Do I feel we have reached the maximum potential in RPA? Absolutely not. We still have a lot of work ahead of us. To reach the maximum with RPA… It’s not something you do for about six months and then it’s  done. It is a long-term ambition and vision. We have dismantled a number of automations in the last 2-3 years because they have done their job. We now have new systems in our organisation for that. I still see a lot of potential, even after three years. Our business changes every day and in the last year we have seen that organisations need to be able to adapt to change faster than ever. Having a team on the ready to respond to change is a big advantage. It is preferable, in fact, than hiring a team that takes a long time and costs a lot of money to train and manage… For us, having those skills in-house is a necessity.”

Are those 150 robots active 24/7?

“Yes, some of them are. It depends. In finance, some of them run mainly in the closing — on a monthly basis, in other words. Some processes run every second of the day. That’s not a luxury when you bear in mind that we work in different time zones.”

Have you personalised the robots?

“That depends on the team working with them (laughs). Each team can name the robot, but we are not going to do that for them. It would be a bit chaotic for us. We did have some marketing names in the proof of concept. Since then, we’ve been busy with other things… Every team that creates an RPA solution actually gets a kind of team member. If it wants to name them, they just go ahead and do so.”

Do you keep track of how long robots are active?

“Certainly. Being transparent is key. Each C-level executive has a live dashboard where they can consult how robots are used. It is updated every day. They can see how many robots are active, how many hours are saved, how many cases are done and also view specifically process by process. Our team has other visualisations to see whether there are certain problems. We can identify and visualise those problems for the operations team or the team working on the robot. Both aspects are important.”

 Finally, what are the next steps to more automation?

“For me, it is a matter of having more skill sets in automation, so as to be able to broach a broader scope. Everyone wants end-to-end automation. To have this on a large scale, you need to have a large skill set in technologies. That should be the long-term plan for any RPA initiative: Increase the skill set to have more end-to-end automation. Otherwise, you are bound to run into a wall at some point and won’t be able to automate further. You also need to listen, and to look at the experience of the stakeholders during the process. Do you have a virtual agent or chatbot? Do you have someone to talk to, and are there robots that do that work for you? In what way do you have smart gates to structure data even more? Or robots that translate customer needs? Like a ticket system in the local language, translating Dutch questions into English? That would ensure that RPA has more interaction with the customer. Do we have a scalable solution for this? Especially in times where companies have a more global presence, but help is local… Here, artificial intelligence and language processing with the help of automation could provide customer support round the clock, year round —  in the local language but handled by the central team. We are working very hard on possibilities with virtual agents. How can we work closely with our customers? How can we improve our communication with them? Make everything on-demand? Big tech players already provide these capabilities, irrespective of the platform you work on. So you can combine them to meet your needs. Of course, it depends very much on what your organisation aspires at.”

Previously published in Dutch on Financial Media

Images: Volvo Cars

Learn more about RPA and finance at the round tables organised by the CFO Automation Experience

See also

“Robotic Scale requires that the data are correct and also that the processes are standardised”

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