This is the first of a 3-part blog on Intelligent Process Automation (IPA), written by our CEO Dr Steve Sheppard.
Intelligent Process Automation brings together the fields of Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and Artificial Intelligence (AI), encouraging the use of AI technologies such as natural language processing and machine learning within process automation. ‘Hyper-automation’ (Gartner) and ‘Digital Process Automation’ (Forrester) are other similar terms used to describe the combination of RPA with other technologies, such as AI, to extend the scope and scale of automation that can be achieved.
Personally, I like the term Intelligent Process Automation, in part due to the link with Artificial Intelligence but also to recognise the importance of doing process automation intelligently irrespective of whether AI is used or not. Many organisations have endeavoured to use RPA within their business to automate processes but with mixed levels of success. A significant number have not achieved the scale of benefit expected, or the RPA industry promotes as being achievable. Arguably the industry is guilty of over-hyping the potential of RPA on its own and in overly suggesting it’s easy to implement. I do strongly believe there’s lots of potential to automate processes across most organisations but to achieve the maximum benefit requires not just RPA but a combination of other technologies and also importantly process reengineering. Doing this well isn’t actually that easy either!
This blog series is here to provide some guidance on how to deliver intelligent process automation intelligently! It’s based on my experience running digital transformation and process automation teams over the past 15 years (my first RPA style solution was delivered in 2009 although it wasn’t called RPA then!). During this time, I’ve set up several Centres of Excellence and delivered many transformational process automation solutions across a variety of organisations and sectors.
This blog and the next (Blog 2 is here) focus on adopting an intelligent approach to process automation. Blog 3 looks specifically at the use of artificial intelligence within process automation.
Before I begin properly, I’ll highlight that RPA isn’t the only technology for process automation, it can be achieved through BPM platforms, low-code platforms, traditional middleware and other technology solutions. Although there’s a focus on intelligent RPA within these blogs, many of the principals covered in this blog series are also appropriate for these technologies.
If you have any questions, feedback or want to understand more about how Combined Intelligence can help you on your intelligent process automation journey then please get in touch via firstname.lastname@example.org.
Process Automation – Intelligently
An intelligent approach to processes automation needs to begin by fully understanding the potential benefits of process automation, how to find good opportunities and how to adopt a sensible approach to prioritisation.
Process automation has the potential to deliver many benefits to an organisation including:
Removing mundane work / freeing people time for higher value tasks
Increase employee satisfaction
Improve accuracy, quality, consistency and reliability of processes and data
Reduce process lifecycle time and increase throughput
Improve the customer experience and service delivery
Expand management and business information and insight
Reduce risk and enhance security
All stakeholders from c-level through to those team members who will be directly affected by process automation need to understand why the organisation wants and/or needs to perform process automation. This must include an appreciation of all the realistic benefits to the organisation and ultimately to its customers.
Unfortunately, due to the hype and publicity around RPA, there is a significant risk that senior management might have an inflated expectation of the benefit (at least in relation to the cost/timescale to achieve the expected scale of benefit) conversely operational staff may have a very negative view in relation to bots taking over their jobs.
Communication and associated buy-in is important to the success of any project but particularly with process automation which can have a wide-reaching impact across the organisation. Always ensure there is a shared understanding of both the benefits and the likely organisational/people changes across the organisation that process automation will lead to. To successfully implement and deliver process automation requires support rather than resistance from all levels of the organisation. Investing time and effort into this is the intelligent thing to do!
Deciding what to automate and the order to do things in will massively affect the perceived and actual success of automation.
Organisations are typically split into departments or functional areas such as Finance, Customer Services, HR, Manufacturing etc. Each department will have many different processes based on their function and the systems they use. They are also likely to have existing levels of automation with their own plans to evolve systems, improve ways of working and enhance their processes. Often the automation team/centre of excellence (CoE) are asked to engage these departments independently to work with them to identify opportunities for automation. This will typically identify a range of departmental based opportunities, but many of these target processes will actually be sub-processes of an end-to-end process that spans across the organisation. It’s very important (and the intelligent thing to do) to expand out from these sub-processes to understand the rest of the end-to-end process at least at a high level. It’s often possible to identify changes within other parts of the end-to-end process that would radically reduce the complexity of potential departmental automations and also improve the levels of automation that can be achieved within the sub-process (for example, through improved data collection at the start of the process). Automating a wider part of the end-to-end process rather than just the sub-process may also be the best way forward.
There are many other factors to consider when looking to identify opportunities for automation which I can’t cover in this short blog. So please get in touch if you want to know more.
Having identified a set of candidate processes the next consideration is prioritisation. To prioritise, it helps to quantify as many of the benefits as possible. It’s straightforward to calculate the likely direct cost and time savings, using tools provided by the RPA vendors or through a spreadsheet. There are also ways to estimate the financial benefit of improvements in quality, accuracy, consistency, reliability and throughput. Other measures, such as employee and customer satisfaction, improved insight and enhanced security, are harder to financially quantify but can still be given a score (for example, out of 10). Additionally, allow for a factor based on team priority, sometimes a process may not itself appear to directly deliver much benefit, but it may, for example, be the one process remaining that stops an employee being freed to do a completely new role.
Potential benefits need to be offset by the costs to implement, deploy and importantly to maintain these automated processes over a defined period (for example, 5 years). Having a good mechanism for estimating these costs can be a challenge (we can help) and it will often need to be improved over time based on the experiences and evolving capabilities of the project team.
The level of process reengineering to be applied also needs to be factored in to estimates (cost and benefits). Some people (not me) believe RPA is only for automating as-is processes, replacing what people currently do with bots. Although this may achieve some benefit, and in some cases quickly, it’s unlikely to deliver the maximum benefit. Some level of process reengineering which might require changes to systems or other processes will often be the best strategy even if the complete process automation then needs to be delivered in several stages.
Having quantified the relative benefits and costs, then it’s possible to come up with a formula that, based on an organisation’s relative priorities (for example, cost reduction vs customer satisfaction), combines all these factors to give a priority rating.
This priority rating will be a good guide to which processes to do in what order but there are other factors that need to be considered when finalising priorities:
Quick wins – Initial projects within an organisation or for a new part of the organisation will often benefit from delivering an initial quick win to demonstrate the potential and to increase the buy-in from the effected teams. These are likely to be simpler processes which may not necessarily be the ones with the greatest long-term benefit but are worth delivering first for the above reason.
Optimisation – Initial process automations may have been done to quickly deliver an initial set of benefits. Opportunities will often exist to improve these processes based on operational feedback or further process reengineering. Doing this may have greater value than implementing new process automations.
Risk – For each process there are potential risks, this can include IT dependencies/changes, concerns about potential reliability, challenges with getting final sign-off from stakeholders, security/data managers, clients etc. Although high risk may mean high reward, it’s best to include some lower risk processes within a phase and not be dependent on timely success on multiple high-risk processes.
Reuse – Processes often have commonality of systems and steps to interact with them. This enables reuse across processes (more in Blog 2 about this). Reuse can reduce implementation and maintenance costs. Such opportunities should be factored into estimation but may then cause iterations in calculating the priority as the higher prioritised process implementations will need to carry the cost of implementing the reusable components.
Finally, not all processes are good candidates for automation. Set a threshold on the cost / benefit assessment and stick to it. Also, when working with a specific department remember there’s a law of diminishing returns. It may be better to look elsewhere than to continue to add more automations in the same area.
That’s it for this blog, I hope it was an interesting starting point. Blog 2 looks at intelligent design, implementation, delivery, maintenance and optimisation. Blog 3 will cover AI in intelligent process automation.
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You might also want to read about the Automation Journey and the initiatives we’ve created to help organisations accelerate through this journey.