There have been a plethora of terms used to refer to the economic turmoil that has accompanied the first global pandemic of this century – Comparisons with the Great Depression of the 1920s and more recently the 2008 Financial Crisis, abound.
The turmoil has driven governments to suspend liberties related to travel and movement, grant massive bailouts and many companies have gone to the wall, literally. Others quickly started to offload the employees that they had struggled to find and recruit during the preceding boom years. Even the EU trade bloc suspended key principles, such as those restricting the use of state aid to fund companies and public entities such as airlines amongst others.
However, the turmoil was uneven and indeed for some businesses, COVID-19 brought about a substantial business opportunity. We have witnessed a boom in the online grocery and supermarket sector and the growth of software companies the likes of Zoom and Microsoft, who underpinned and certainly benefitted from the principles of remote working. It will be years before economies recover the same levels of growth and value that they enjoyed just four months ago.
Companies bruised and battered by the economic handbrake turn, will not willingly consider hiring back all the people they let go, more so as the war against COVID-19 is far from certainly won. They will have drawn important lessons about how technology, mainly cloud-based technologies have played a big part in keeping them operational throughout the lockdown period. They will also have learnt how to balance a remote working labour force and the potential savings on office space and other costs.
So, how can companies increase their operational resiliency, keeping in mind potential future outbreaks of COVID-19 and possible repeated lockdowns?
Information technology is definitely going to play a crucial part – and one technology which can provide organisations with a means to avoid/reduce rehiring as well as keep basic and core processes in the company running regardless of whether the workforce is in or out of office – is Robotic Process Automation (RPA).
RPA is a powerful new development in business automation that can offer a potential ROI of 30–200 percent in the first year. Even though businesses could adopt it to avoid rehiring; employees too can benefit from RPA processes. The term ‘robotic’ seems to bring about visions of robotic mechanical arms, like those used by Tony Stark in his lab in the Iron Man movies. In actual fact, RPA is all about software and fears of dangerous and intelligent machines taking over should be stowed away.
Software robotics are beginning to have a profound effect on business. Its impact on work, and how companies can capture its strategic and financial benefits are providing business advantages to the early adopters across several industries including financial, logistics, manufacturing, back-office processing and corporate services and so many others.
So, let’s start by defining Robotic Process Automation (RPA). To begin with, RPA takes the robot out of the human. The average knowledge worker employed on a back-office process has a lot of repetitive, routine tasks that are dreary and uninteresting. RPA is a type of software that mimics the activity of a human being in carrying out a task within a process.
It is ideally suited to do repetitive stuff more quickly, accurately, and tirelessly than humans, therefore allowing them to focus on the other tasks requiring human strengths such as emotional intelligence, reasoning, judgment, and interaction with the customer.
There are four streams of RPA. The first is a highly customized software that will work only with certain types of processes in, say, accounting and finance.
One can liken different variants of RPA to a three-lane motorway. The slow lane is what we call screen scraping or web scraping. A user might be collecting data (e.g. either from paper or a disconnected IT system), synthesising it, and putting it into a document on a desktop. You automate as much of that as possible.
The second lane in terms of power is a self-development kit where a template is provided, and specialist programmers design the software robot. Such software is generally tailor-made for a specific organisation.
The fast lane is enterprise/enterprise-safe software that can be scaled and is re-usable. You can multi-skill each piece of software. It’s lightweight in the sense that you don’t need a lot of IT involvement to get it up and running. Business-operations people can learn quite quickly how to configure and apply the robots. It is lightweight also in that it only addresses the presentation layer of information systems. It does not have to address the business logic of the underlying system or the data-access layer.
What are the business benefits of RPA?
When considering implementing RPA, one should not just look at the short-term financial gains, particularly if those are simply a result of labour savings. That approach does not do justice to the power of the software, because there are multiple business benefits.
For example, companies in highly regulated industries such as insurance and banking are finding that automation is a cheap and fast way of applying superior capability to the problem of compliance. You also get better customer service because you’ve got more power in the process. A company that receives lots of customer inquiries, for example, can free staff to deal with the more complex questions.
“Companies in highly regulated industries such as insurance and banking are finding that automation is a cheap and fast way of applying superior capability to the problem of compliance”
There are benefits for employees, too. People welcome the technology because they hate the boring and repetitive tasks that the software machines doIt relieves them of the rising pressure of work.
In the post-COVID-19 era and as business gets back into gear; organisations that previously had people doing administrative and repetitive tasks, will inevitably find themselves dealing with bigger workloads and smaller number of employees to deal with them.
One can expect that the ongoing regulation of some industries will continue increasing audit regulation and bureaucracy. We need automation to relieve the stress that this creates in organisations. Different industries will have different measures of success and ROI. One online retailer measures the success of RPA in terms of the number of hours given back to the business. So, it’s not just the shareholders, the senior managers, and the customers who benefit, but also employees.
Organisations need to prepare for the future. COVID-19 was a wakeup call and although many will look at it as a once in a lifetime event, it has exposed the issue of resiliency in business and more to the point, the hefty people cost that is laid inside company balance sheets during the past seven years of plenty. RPA can deliver the sort of resiliency and cost-saving that are going to the core and critical needs within every business regardless of size, industry or geography.
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