In the new world of work, automation is a force of change. The idea of automating repetitive, predictable, and mundane tasks is extremely tempting. No wonder, then, that more and more companies are pursuing automation today than ever before, with at least 2/3rd of the companies piloting some sort of automation exercise for their business processes.
Automation technologies have already resulted in rich, mosaic changes in the way work is conducted. One of the biggest benefits of automation is that it frees up valuable time to focus on deep work, activities that require more creative, empathetic and strategic inputs.
Having said that, automation isn’t a superlative or conclusive solution for all workplace drudgery.
The magical promise of automation: a myth
Usually, the concept of automation is introduced as the be-all and end-all of all issues that bug you. It is presented as a solution that will magically solve all your woes, but, in reality, even bots need practice. Machines cannot do everything. In fact, they are only as good as the data we feed them and how well they practice with that data to hone their skills.
Therefore, the most prevalent automation pitfall you should avoid is the urge to automate everything. Not only is it an unrealistic goal, but it will also cause unnecessary stress and can give automation an unfavorable introduction. It is always a good idea to start slow, even though automating everything with RPA can seem like a magic wand at face value. We’ll discuss why automation isn’t meant for all tasks, but it’s important for you to know right away that the human touch and input cannot be substituted.
There will always be certain tasks and functions that need human presence. The most immediate example is customer service or support. You can have bots talk to customers as part of the initial interaction to solve standardized issues, but if you want to cater to the emotional needs of an aggrieved customer, you will need a human being at the other end. Or else they might feel alienated from your product or brand.
In order to stay reasonable in your automation agenda, it is important to understand how automation actually functions. No, the robots doing your work aren’t sci-fiction humanoids, but rather technology forces that augment and supplement human efforts. In the next section, we shed light on one such software technology that creates an ecosystem where human effort is replicated.
What is RPA and how is RPA working?
Robotic Process Automation (RPA) bot is a software technology that leverages bots in order to automate repetitive tasks in the digital landscape. These aren’t humanoids or droids or the kind of robots we see in science fiction, but rather software programs that follow a set of rules fed into them in order to replicate human actions required to perform certain tasks or execute certain processes.
RPA bots help us perform repetitive, uninspiring and mundane tasks with minimal interaction and input from humans. However, just like a little child learning to do daily tasks slowly, RPA bots need to be taught how to perform these tasks in the first place.
It’s not as simple as science fiction
In the case of RPA, the tool you use is an RPA bot. This bot needs to be taught how to perform the tasks that you want it to perform. This data can be fed into the system through automation code and that is a manual task that requires human effort. Automation can make things happen, but someone — some trigger, some force — needs to make automation happen in the first place.
So if you are the one advocating for automation in your workplace, make a reasonable case for what it can and cannot achieve. Start by automating only those tasks that can actually benefit. For example, choose the tasks that software testers or quality testers take a painstaking amount of time and effort to execute - in other words, tasks that have a general rule or pattern in their execution. Also, manage expectations about how long it will take before you can reap benefits from automation. Make provision for the learning period of the bot too.
Your automation exercise should also yield tangible results like better customer engagement or service, lower downtime or regression times, etc. Include that in your pitch for RPA bots, then follow it up with visible results.
Not all processes are economically fit for automation
As mentioned earlier, training and implementation of an RPA bot is an extensive process. You will spend your time and resources in training the bot and optimizing its usage and implementation. The global RPA market size is projected to hit around USD 23.9 billion by 2030, growing at 27.7% from 2021 to 2030. No wonder then organizations are planning big investments in RPA bots, but you need to be savvy about this investment.
If you want to go about this smartly, you will identify which processes to automate, and figure out if the benefits of automation outweigh the costs. A helpful rule of thumb is to think about tasks that are “high volume, have low variance and high value” for the organization. It’s called the three Vs rule, helping you make sure that the processes you choose to automate offer the maximum possible return on investment (ROI).
RPA cannot be a substitute for all our tasks due to the cost-ineffective nature of implementation, which is why these bots are not coming for our jobs.
You should also keep in mind the timelines for RPA bot implementation: it can take less than 12 months for RPA to give results/payback on the investment.
Automation should assist, not lead
A big part of managing expectations when it comes to automation is seeing behind the glitz. Not all automation — irrespective of how cost-friendly or easy to implement — is efficient or even good for your business. Take customer service bots or phone calls that are automated.
Without even realizing, you might find yourself mired in long phone trees. Now imagine a customer — possibly aggrieved which is why s/he is reaching out — is going through random questions and options and a long menu list of options, when they could have just talked to a person. They grow more frustrated with every passing second and the process does nothing to soothe their anxiety, even when they do find a resolution.
Human contact in this case can be a far better alternative. Do you want to send out a message that you are not keen on engaging with your customers or serving them well? Then remove automation from customer support. Use a mix-model: start customers off on an RPA bot call, then quickly redirect them to a human agent who can handle their query and provide emotional satisfaction in the process.
We cannot replace the human touch
This brings us to an important factor in the automation decision: complex processes can be easily and efficiently handled by RPA bots. You can teach the bot how to run workflows with different steps, where to find data touchpoints, and how to use conditional rules.
But these complex processes often have further consequences and can benefit from human intervention. Sometimes, decision-making is about more than an “if-else” condition. Therefore, your agenda should be to automate smaller parts or steps in the process. Don’t delegate the strategic part of the process to the RPA bot.
Change management is not the forte of RPA
Another thing automation tools cannot substitute humans for is change management. In any business environment, change is inevitable. Change management is a huge part of any manager’s job. Automated processes can quickly become invalid if not adjusted to the changing business environment. Remember, RPA bots don’t have a mind of their own. They rely on you to feed them information or reconfigure them to retain their relevance or usability.
If you have programmed change management into the bot, they can handle it. But the human intellect or presence of mind needed in times of unforeseen change cannot be automated into any bot, no matter how much you preempt such situations.
Thumb rule: Refrain from automating your core competency
This is another cardinal sin managers can commit. Your core competency is what makes your brand. It’s what your customers pay for, investors invest in, and clients appreciate. Do not fiddle with it by trying to automate it. You do it better than anyone else and not even a bot can replicate that. Automate tasks that are important but don’t make or break your business on their own.
Parting thoughts: Upskill your personnel for automation-related capabilities
Now that we know automation is not a magical solution, we need to prepare our human resources to implement RPA bots and optimize the way work is conducted. Automation-related skills should be imparted through focused training for your employees so that they can make sure the organization is able to make the best use of the bots and their capabilities. Employee capacity-building can be a game-changer for automation success, if done correctly.