With its promise to transform our daily lives, Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been the subject of debate for decades. Until recently, this debate had not moved from the theoretic to the tangible, with AI still requiring highly skilled computer programmers to perform even what would be considered simple tasks by many standards, writes Elaine Daly, Partner — Head of Business Consulting at Grant Thornton.
In recent years, a new term has entered the lexicon when it comes to AI and ‘Intelligent Automation’ technologies – Robotic Process Automation (RPA). For those unfamiliar with RPA, it is the configuring of a software package to mimic a set of human actions and carrying out pre-set process like calculations and rule-based processes that is both repetitive and exhaustive. This allows the human workforce to focus on more cognitively challenging and exciting activities. RPA is a process and skillset agnostic technology that allows a single software bot to perform computer-based tasks accurately, quickly and 24 hours a day. If you require more scale then you can simply add another bot that can be instantly trained.
The term Robotic Process Automation was coined as recently as 2012, and the emerging technology has already seen global adoption in the private and public sector. RPA has been adapted to all areas of public sector work from central and local government, defence, education to healthcare. Governments and public bodies have been willing to embrace this emerging technology because they often face problems of increasing amounts of administrative work, more demands from citizens; and faster turnaround of reporting.
RPA has traditionally proven its value in back office support of finance and human resources often taking away the repetitive yet vital, tasks of these departments. However, this limits the transformative potential of this new technology for public sector bodies. RPA can reduce lead time, increase efficiency and speed at which documents are monitored, handled and processed. This offers the ability to enhance services to citizens and internal customers.
A complete approach
To realise its true value RPA needs to be introduced in a complete way to an organisation. This means not treating it as a technology initiative led by the IT function but instead viewing it as a strategic business initiative aligned to the organisation’s strategic goals. Therefore, when implementing RPA, it is important to view it through the pillars of people, process and technology, the convergence of which has been identified as a major aspect of the future of work.
Some of the major applications of robotic process automation in the public sector are activities around documentation and recording information, calculations, logistics data, getting information, improving productivity, the collection of revenues, incident reporting, fixing penalties, managing data and many more. By using RPA to automate these mundane processes, organisations can:
- Retain key talent for redeployment elsewhere;
- Improve productivity, efficiency and quality;
- Reduce the need for temporary workers;
- Avoid costs associated with complex integrations; and
- Improve scalability and service delivery.
Grant Thornton has recognised this evolution and executed a convergence of its own; bringing together experts from its process, people and technology consulting units to form an expanded, more experienced Business Consulting division. Our team now boasts more than 200 consultants with a clear vision, common methodology and Grant Thornton’s famed client-focused pragmatism. At Grant Thornton, we focus on three key pillars of RPA:
Process — RPA allows for the automation of existing processes. It is important to consider ‘bots’ as digital workers, and as with any workforce they need management and maintenance occasionally. This new operating model is something that is needed and at the right scale for an organisation. At Grant Thornton we have worked with organisations where new departments are formed and others where one or two staff members manage the digital workers. Both of these models work for the organisation they are in and it is a hugely important part of realising the long-term benefit of RPA.
People — you cannot automate tasks once performed by people without considering the impact on those people. There is very often a fear factor of RPA and similar tools taking people’s jobs. Our experience has shown this is not the case and that RPA is a complementary tool; your digital and human workforce can focus on things they are individually excellent at. The fear is typically removed when those people are involved in the RPA initiatives and have a clear understanding of how their role will change. Key experienced staff can be reassigned to strategic initiatives and be given space to think and create, encouraging innovation in the organisation. It can allow individual interactions to be focused on the person or customer rather than the process ensuring that the process is still adhered to throughout.
Technology — RPA is a technology that needs to be implemented to the organisations IT infrastructure and managed as another IT service no different to email. In this way, IT will manage the software but won’t decide how it will be used. RPA does require development skills depending on the complexity of the process being automated. Like any tool, training and experience is required to get the full potential from it. Dedicated RPA developers provide the best option for rapid and robust automations but staff can be trained in a matter of weeks on the techniques and functions of the software. In terms of the technology itself, it mimics the user’s actions to perform the task. This means that you don’t need to integrate systems or the RPA tool to key systems. Additionally it means the user management security rules in place for staff can be easily applied to RPA bots further reducing the risk, management and cost of the technology.
You cannot automate tasks once performed by people without considering the impact on those people. There is very often a fear factor of RPA and similar tools taking people’s jobs. Our experience has shown this is not the case and that RPA is a complementary tool; your digital and human workforce can focus on things they are individually excellent at.
Taken in isolation RPA offers value to any organisation, but the true realisation of value occurs when it is approached with a multi-faceted approach. Our experienced Business Consulting team at Grant Thornton has helped clients realise the full potential of RPA by bringing our experts together to deliver this holistic solution. We are seeing phenomenal uptake of our RPA service where we provide a full-service offering including business process management, change management, RPA licencing, bot development and support.
This exciting innovation will help public sector organisations realise the vision and objectives of the Public Service ICT Strategy, and align with the outcomes sought by the framework for Our Public Service 2020. While the RPA journey might seem daunting, we offer a Proof of Concept service that allows organisations to test RPA software quickly without major investment upfront to show the value and help them determine the best route forward.
Key RPA specialists in the Business Consulting team working alongside Elaine include Directors Ian Cahill (Technology), Will O’Carroll (Process) and Michael McKiernan (People).
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