Many organisations, both in government and in business, now have experience with digital employees. But implementing Robotic Process Automation (RPA) successfully at an operational level is not the same as taking strategic advantage of this technology. This is where Frank Mester of MvR Digital Workforce sees more and more questions arising, especially now that robotisation has become an irreversible phenomenon.
The question that the consultants of MvR Digital Workforce have to deal with is broad and differs per sector. In the government, where MvR has done many RPA projects in the past, there is a great need to use RPA for process optimisation and process execution. Scaling up and setting up a Centre of Excellence with its own staff come into play in such processes. And education and training are important.
‘The demand we come across in the business world is different’, says Frank Mester, CDO at MvR Digital Workforce. ‘They are a bit further on, in many cases they already have a number of robots running successfully, but now they run into questions about securing knowledge, the proper way to ask for knowledge and capacity, and they need to think about how to meet legal requirements such as the GDPR, internal and external audit requirements, but also their own quality requirements that apply to healthy business operations and service provision. ‘
Objectives in companies are often financial in nature; the implementation of savings in business operations and the attainment of cost-cutting targets are often the reason for starting RPA. The success of RPA is then measured primarily in terms of savings.
In his view, it is a ‘classic’ issue of digital transformation: ‘Organisations start with a technological innovation, see that it works, but ultimately it becomes a game changer only if it supports the strategic goals of a company. And this works only if you also get the management on board with the changes and thus have a clear goal for the deployment of RPA and create support within the organisation. If the full potential of RPA is to be utilised and embedded in the organisation, it will have to contribute visibly to the strategic objectives of the organisation. And that opportunity is there, is becoming increasingly apparent.
In the government, this opportunity is mainly there because of the need to unburden one’s own organisation, to be able to react quicker to new legislation and crises such as COVID. A robotics task force that can be deployed quickly and can set up and deal with new processes quickly and prevent the organisation from being overloaded proves very effective. It is also important to increase the organisation’s manoeuvrability, to make more people in the organisation “digitally self-reliant”, so that the IT department is less overburdened. Furthermore, making work fun again by eliminating repetitive work while empowering people are important objectives.
In companies, you see the realisation at management level that the organisation as a whole is actually becoming an IT organisation. At the same time, the labour market is very tight, especially for IT-trained staff and this will continue to be the case. And that means you have to look for alternatives, such as using low and no-code solutions and training people in the use of this new technology, of which RPA is a good example. Our major international customers are now looking at whether they can once again carry out work processes that were previously outsourced using RPA and AI, because it is cheaper and provides better quality. Among our tech- and venture-capital driven customers, we see mainly a vision aimed at scalability, expansion and focus on their own business. RPA and AI play an important role in facilitating these goals. Flexibility, scalability and speed are the key words why RPA plays a decisive and often strategic role there.’
The moment RPA becomes important and perhaps strategic in the organisation, it also places other demands thereon: issues that were less important when RPA was still being used as a technical tool or nice-to-have in the pilot phase. This starts with stakeholder management, where you pay attention to mapping out and involving the most important stakeholders to ensure that they also give the right priority. Think of the IT department, Privacy Officer, CISO, Auditors, HRM, but of course also Business and Management.
Even if you decide to outsource all RPA-related work, good commissioning skills are important and in-house knowledge of RPA is indispensable. Being able to check and guarantee the quality of the digital staff used is important. But also the request (tendering) for the right RPA implementation partners requires knowledge, which we regularly avail ourselves of to advise our clients. Ultimately, as the client, you become the owner of the Digital Workforce and you also want to avoid ending up in a vendor lock-in situation, for example.
Incidentally, the technical side of these solutions is slowly going beyond RPA alone. AI is also playing an increasing role, especially in the form of document understanding and machine learning. ‘That is already widely used, but there are many more possible applications that we will see in the future. At the moment, there are many customers who first want to organise properly the dozens of robots they have running now, before taking the next step to new technology. But in the future, AI and RPA will become the game changers in the digital transformation. The digital workforce is becoming smart and will also become important in developing and rolling out new forms of service.’
The first step in successfully establishing a digital workforce successfully according to Mester is to have a clear strategic goal for the organisation. ‘You don’t have to invent something new, but you do need to look at how RPA can contribute to the direction a company wants to go. And when you want to roll it out on a large scale, there are quite a few choices to be made, both practically and strategically.’
He mentions an example: ‘If your board decides to deploy RPA in order to support your employees in optimal fashion, you shouldn’t steer too much financially at the process level, but rather look at the bigger picture. In that case, it is much more about helping your employees by taking as much boring and repetitive work off their hands as possible, and the business case is therefore aimed at reducing the administrative burden per employee.
That may sound logical, but we still see that projects sometimes fail on financial grounds, while you would make your employees enormously happy and there are secondary goals such as quality of the process and first time right that indirectly also bring job satisfaction. And certainly in today’s tight labour market, there is a risk of employees leaving because they don’t like their job. Then you are faced with higher costs for recruitment and selection of new employees – costs that are much higher per employee than any other digital assistant.
‘This discrepancy between strategic ambition and operational execution can lead to disappointment because the right processes have not been chosen, i.e. those that contribute to employee happiness in this example. Then, successful robots may be running in a few other processes, but your strategic goal has not been achieved. It is therefore about consistency in the deployment of digital employees. With our background and knowledge, we help organisations to achieve this.
Resistance to robots, a sentiment that was prevalent in the past, is something that Mester no longer encounters. The new generation of employees does not want to do boring administrative work at all. They think it is great that digital employees are taking over. What is important is that you make clear to people what is expected of them. Because if you want them to do work with more added value, you have to explain what that means and train them to perform their new tasks, otherwise your employees will still be disappointed.
You take people with you through an agile way of working, he says. You do that in all phases of the process, to maintain enthusiasm. The most important thing about robotisation in an organisation is speed. When something has to be done, or an error message appears, it is important to deal with it immediately and not to leave it for six weeks. This often requires a different way of thinking and a different way of organising the work. But if this is successful, you see that people who have worked with a digital colleague once also ask for it for other processes. The need on the shop floor is there, the question is how far the organisation itself is prepared to go.