By Lauren Abraham Mahoney

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) as a market trend continues to gain steam as more companies begin and mature their RPA journeys. It serves as an important step towards a continuum of process improvement and automation. In some use cases this technology may be enough, and in others RPA may pave the way to more sophisticated automation, such as AI. It is hard to say that any technology is “permanent”, but RPA can be an effective long-term fix in some use cases.  However, you never know if the next innovation to solve the same business needs could be right around the corner. Overall, we think of RPA as a tool with many benefits through improvements to process and operational efficiency – but it’s not a panacea.

Companies are evaluating their pilot programs and initial implementations to determine how RPA fits in with other investment and cost-saving strategies. One area where we have seen this take shape is assessing the investment in RPA compared to investment in business process outsourcing and offshoring. Basically, should you send this process to cheaper human labor or let robots do it, and which will yield the best ROI?

Additionally, the RPA market has seen increased use of cloud-based solutions vs. on-premise. The benefits of cloud computing – lower costs, reduced infrastructure, scalability – improve the ROI for RPA. RPA in the cloud also begins to level the playing field for smaller companies who can access the functionality and benefits at a lower cost point.

Another trend that is expected to increase is the expansion of RPA beyond simple “unattended” tasks. Organizations are pushing the boundaries of RPA usage by embedding more strategic end-to-end processes that still require human oversight and input. Removing all human interaction is no longer the sole focus to leverage RPA capabilities.

For every organization the need for RPA and the actual benefits it can realize will vary. The goals of the RPA program also will determine the best business use cases, as technology for technology sake doesn’t yield high business value. We use a model to help our clients assess a set of criteria and prioritize RPA use cases. We work with our clients to apply an analytical approach that evaluates key factors and determines operational and technical maturity and complexity.

When starting out, the best use cases are often those identified by the subject matter experts as manual, time-consuming, and painful. When the people doing the work are behind the change, participation in the needed up-front work and early adoption of the technology is met with less resistance. For a pilot, good use cases are ones that are feasible (mature process based on business logic), but not necessarily the most simplistic. This provides an opportunity to experience what is possible with a particular vendor and test how the technology interacts with their environment.

Conversely, the worst use cases would be those without an owner or champion, and those where the business case value is not aligned with the organization’s goals. Without a true advocate or burning platform, the investment will fall flat and the RPA efforts will not be sustainable.

Establishing a Center of Excellence (COE) to govern and mature the RPA program will ensure use cases are prioritized to create strategic value and have the most impact. The COE can be proactive to identify potential use cases across the organization as well as working with functional teams to vet the applications they propose. A COE is also important to drive sustainability and buy-in and share success stories with target areas of the business that could benefit from RPA. By expanding the reach and applicability, the value to the business gains momentum and greater visibility.

One of the common pitfalls we see is organizations jumping into RPA without a proper governance structure in place. In doing so, the full value of an RPA deployment can be diluted. For example, RPA strategy and execution led by IT alone may not secure business buy-in or align to the overall strategic goals and vision.

In other cases, companies fall short when defining appropriate KPIs and metrics and do not maintain their focus on business case accountability. Strong governance ensures accountability to continually show that the value of RPA outweighs the cost to maintain the capability. This perspective, of RPA as a capability and not an IT project, also encourages leveraging successes to broader applications and identifying use cases that span across functions or business units. The full value of RPA comes at scale, because individual automation projects may yield only incremental gains. Isolated RPA executions do not realize the benefits of best practices and continuous improvements. An effective RPA COE can provide the necessary governance, cross-functional alignment, and business case accountability that is critical to achieving the full value of RPA.

To be successful, it is also important that organizations consider the people implications – how do you ensure your workforce can take advantage of the time savings now that manual processes have been automated? How can additional “heads up time” that enables workers to be reallocated into customer-facing roles improve your customer experience? Do your employees have the skills they need to work differently and take on more value-added activities?

This is an important part of truly establishing RPA as a capability and reaping the full value of the investment.