How to identify Robotic Process Automation (RPA) opportunities

June 6, 2019

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) doesn’t suit every process. Here’s how to identify the best use cases in your organization.

Robotic process automation (RPA) can make a big difference for organizations plagued by repetitive mundane processes – the kind that suck up the productivity of people whose time would be better put toward more important work.

“There are a vast number of uses for RPA,” says Chris Huff, chief strategy officer at Kofax. “In banking, tasks such as opening accounts or processing mortgage applications can be automated, while insurance companies can automate health and injury claims and onboarding for new applicants or agents. In the transport sector, supply chain and logistics operations can be streamlined with RPA. The list of possibilities is nearly endless and beneficial to any business that deals with laborious or tedious manual processes.”

How to identify RPA use cases

How can you best identify and evaluate processes where RPA can deliver tangible results? As a starting point, you need to fully understand the process you’re considering automating. If that sounds like table stakes, it is – and yet many organizations jump into RPA with significant blind spots in their existing processes.

“RPA automates a clear, defined process. Most people don’t have clearly defined processes, so they start automating, and either automate the wrong thing or get lost in trying to reverse-engineer the process,” says Antony Edwards, COO at Eggplant. “For example, you try and do RPA for invoice approval, but you didn’t realize that there are actually about 30 different approval processes in the company – because of acquisitions, because this SVP doesn’t like the new process, etc.”

With that foundation in mind, we asked several RPA pros to share with us their advice on identifying and evaluating potential RPA fits in your organization, starting with a series of questions IT leaders can ask to kickstart a discovery process.

What can RPA do for you? Questions to ask

David Landreman, CPO at Olive, starts us off with a four-point question to begin generating a list of processes that might be good fits for RPA. (Before you consider this question, make sure you fully understand the process. As Landreman noted in our recent piece on explaining RPA in plain terms, this also means that the process should have clearly defined inputs and outputs.)

Landreman recommends that you determine which of your workforce’s tasks are:

  • Repetitive
  • High-volume
  • Rule-based
  • Prone to human error 

“If a task checks every single one of these boxes, it’s probably a great fit for RPA,” he says.

Bultman from Nintex shares a set of seven questions for your discovery process. If you answer yes to these questions, you’ve probably got a good candidate for RPA:

1. Can the task be completed manually by a human sitting at a PC working with applications?

2. Does the business system lack an API or is the database behind the application inaccessible?

3. Does the core vendor charge extra for updating information in the business application?

4. Does a human worker perform the task more than once per week?

5. Does the task involve sensitive data? (In this case, Bultman notes that RPA bots may be better suited for working with sensitive information. Among other reasons, it can reduce the probability of that data being mishandled as a result of human error.)

6. Does the task need to be completed quickly with limited staffing resources?

7. Are there repetitive tasks that employees dislike?

Those last two questions also speak to the possibility for RPA to improve human job satisfaction. “Rather than calling team members in on the weekend, let the bots do the work.”

Where can RPA help? Qualitative questions

Let’s keep asking questions – this time a bit more broadly. Huff from Kofax has you covered, with some qualitative ways of thinking about where RPA can help.

  • Which areas are underperforming?
  • Where are rigid applications or information silos creating bottlenecks?
  • Do you have processes that can’t be scaled unless you hire more people?
  • Are employees performing manual repetitive tasks? (You should be noticing a theme here: If it’s repetitive and manual, it’s probably a good fit for RPA.)
  • Do you have highly paid knowledge workers dedicated to time-consuming administrative tasks?
  • Are human data-entry errors creating frequent rework or exception handling?
  • Is your company considering outsourcing processes that you would prefer to keep in-house?

You can use these questions to construct a diagnostic checklist to evaluate the suitability of a process for RPA.

How to construct a diagnostic framework for RPA

Particularly once you’ve generated a list of candidate processes for RPA, you can translate these kinds of questions into a more evaluative rubric.

“A diagnostic can be used to systematically evaluate candidate processes across all functions and verticals to determine which ones are fit for RPA,” Huff says. He recommends rating potential RPA fits on seven criteria in some way that makes quantifiable sense, such as low, medium, and high. (You could also use a numerical range such as 1-10.) Huff also suggests creating a heat map based on the results to help prioritize projects and create a roadmap, since you’re likely not going to tackle everything at once.

Here are the seven criteria:

  • Transaction volume
  • Prone to errors or rework
  • Process predictability
  • Rules-based exception handling
  • Manual work involved
  • System upgrade timing
  • Controls importance

Four functions where RPA can deliver business value

Sometimes it’s helpful to see and hear accessible examples of where RPA has worked well in other organizations.

In terms of business functions or departments, Edwards from Eggplant notes that most any back-office function likely has processes that are good fits for RPA.

“It is great for automating back-office business tasks across industries, such as accounts payable, returns processing, and warehouse management, as it increases productivity and reduces errors,” Edwards says. Other examples include:

  • Finance: Sales order processing, invoice processing, accounts payable
  • Management reporting: Gathering information from lots of sources and putting them into consolidated XLS
  • Marketing: list management, email, social, digital marketing, CRM management
  • IT and/or HR: Staff onboarding and off-boarding

In terms of vertical industries, Huff mentioned several – such as banking, insurance, and supply chain – with abundant processes that fit the framework and questions above. Landreman points to the healthcare industry, which is Olive’s target market, as another.

“We’ve found that RPA can significantly reduce inefficiencies on the non-clinical side of our healthcare system – these technologies are perfect for many time-consuming, costly revenue cycle processes such as checking the status of claims, eligibility and benefit verification, and more. And it’s helping free up time for skilled workers to focus on tasks that require a human touch, instead of spending time manually processing data.”

Four categories of tasks that suit RPA

Finally, Bultman from Nintex shares several broad process or task categories that are department- and industry-agnostic, meaning they can apply to just about any organization or business function.

1. Updating information: “For example, organizations often clean up addresses in their system in order to get a reduced postage rate when sending out mailers. They export the addresses, pass them through an address cleanup service, then use RPA go into each account and update the address,” Bultman says. “Could this project be done programmatically? Probably. But that would require IT or a programmer to get involved. With RPA, the employee tasked with updating this information can use RPA to create an automated task for this themselves.”

2. Migrating information: “Organizations often need to move information from one system to another. For example, if a bank merges with another financial institution, the bank systems need to be consolidated,” Bultman explains. “Using an RPA approach, the data can be exported from the old system and keyed into the new system at superhuman speed. This approach is advantageous in that it does not bypass the rules of the destination business system – that is to say, the data being put in is formatted and stored properly every time. Other code-heavy approaches bypass the screens of the application, which prevents the work from being captured in the system’s audit logs.”

3. Urgent tasks: Any process with a trigger that requires immediate attention can be a good fit for RPA, which can often run that process faster than a human can. “If a bank is notified of a data breach that compromised a list of debit or credit cards, that financial institution wants to close those cards as quickly as possible to mitigate their losses and protect customers from the hassle of having their funds stolen,” Bultman says.

4. System monitoring: “RPA bots can be used to monitor critical business systems. If an online retail store goes down, it could cost a company millions of dollars,” Bultman says. “Organizations are using bots to simulate human interacts with their online apps to ensure things are running smoothly. If anything goes wrong, the bot can immediately report the problem in a variety of ways, including sending email, text message or Slack notifications, to name a few.”

Again, the possibilities for RPA may seem limitless, but asking the right questions and applying some type of evaluative or diagnostic framework can help you develop a sound strategy. Also, don’t confuse those seemingly limitless possibilities with “everything.” There are areas where RPA isn’t the best approach. Look for more coverage on that topic in a follow-up post.

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