RPA – Your Digital Assitant is here!

Post by : Deepak Sharma

I’ve been working in Software Test Automation for more than a decade now. I’ve spent majority of my automation consultancy time working on large enterprise softwares such as SAP, Siebel, PLM, etc. developing and implementing test automation solutions for complex business processes. I recently came to know about the Robotic Process Automation (RPA)- a rapidly growing industry which is now hitting a sweat spot in their growth curve realizing exponential increase in the last couple of years. RPA is projected to become a $5 billion + industry by 2020. Having researched a little bit about RPA, I found a lot of similarities with test automation in terms of tooling, technology and implementation approach. I thought to share my understanding about RPA, for people like me who are new to this industry looking to learn more, and also to share ideas from my experience in test automation that may prove useful for anyone looking to implement RPA solutions.

What is RPA about?

Robotic Process Automation is a revolutionary step forward in the quest for business process optimization. It is about empowering 21st century working age with software “robots”. The software robots once configured act as your digital assistants making you more productive by taking care of your mundane repetitive day-to-day business tasks.

What is RPA not about?

Robotic Process Automation is not about a replacing working employees in businesses with software robots but to have the robot perform the repetitive, mundane tasks which are not strategic but essential for the businesses. It is about making good use of technology to make business employees more productive and improve business operations.

Why RPA?

Businesses have tapped into the power of globalization in the last 2 decades and we all have seen strategies of economic arbitrage being implemented leading to outsourced operational activities. But the offshore cost advantage of such global strategies is quickly diminishing due to escalating costs fuelled by economic growth in offshore countries.

The pace of technological advancement in computer science and software industry is staggering with emergence of new technologies such as Robotic Process Automation, Machine learning and Artificial Intelligence faster than one had anticipated. These new technologies with the right use can offer a tremendous potential to improve working people’s lives and businesses.

There is a problem and there is an opportunity. An opportunity for businesses to improve their service quality with technologies like RPA. An opportunity for business employees to develop new skills and switch attention to more business critical tasks with help of RPA. An opportunity for businesses to use innovative technologies like RPA for competitive advantage and reshape organizational structures for carrying out business operations.

Where can you apply RPA?

Standardized and stable business processes that are implemented using Enterprise software is one great area where RPA can be applied to as these require a lot of repetitive data set up or swivel chair activities. I wanted to share some examples below from my experience in test automation working with enterprise applications in different sectors which are very well suited for RPA-

  • Business processes for Child maintenance benefits on a Siebel public sector enterprise application where the system allowed building benefit cases for claimants, evaluating their eligibility, calculating and scheduling benefit payments, issuing notifications, updating records, etc. A typical business process consuming about a day’s worth effort on the system being spread over several days. About 80% of the effort requiring setting up the benefit cases in the system going through repetitive data filling steps on the Siebel platform. A typical software enhancement release needed 200 to 300 case building activities to validate all of the different variations of the business user cases. A classic example of a data driven business process and a perfect candidate for automation. By implementing automation, cycle time was brought down from 30 minutes to 7 minutes per case build.
  • Business processes on a custom built wealth management back office platform where the system provided solution for performing transaction processing, asset management, client & account management. Majority of the time was spent on setting up clients and accounts on the system and great example where massive ROI was realized with automation. Again a repetitive data driven automation scenario containing repetitive form filling enterprise software activity taking hours to do manually.
  • Business processes on a SAP implementation in an Energy Utilities sector environment where the system processed scenarios such as device management, billing, invoicing, customer gain/loss, home move, etc. A typical end to end scenario needed to go through a sequence of transactions on the SAP system which could sometimes be as long as 100 + transactions. The automation implementation here was a classic example of keyword driven automation where each transaction was scripted as a reusable routine and end-to-end automated scenario where developed by chaining up such routines reducing execution cycle time by 70%.

How would you go about building a business case for RPA?

From my experience in enterprise application test automation I would advise to look at the following variables –

  • Cost benefit from time saved by executing business process (end-to-end or specific tasks) as automated as compared to existing manual execution
  • Cost of RPA tool
  • Cost to configure an RPA solution using the tool
  • Maintenance cost of RPA solution over time
  • Training and support cost

As in the case of test automation, there is going to be an upfront investment as you start to apply RPA in terms of the tooling and its configuration, training and support that is needed, and maintenance cost of the RPA solution. Best is to develop a metrics that plots cost benefit of running automated business processes with RPA over time against the upfront set up and recurring maintenance cost of the RPA solution. You should then be able to project a break even point of your investment, and the savings you can achieve beyond that in the initial year or two. From experience in test automation you typically expect to reduce the cycle time somewhere around 70% by automation.

How to shape an Implementation Strategy for RPA?

Based on my experience carrying out test automation implementation projects, I would advise the below steps-

  • Start small, identify a business process or 2 that are perfect candidates for automation – similar to automation candidate examples I gave above.
  • Conduct a proof of concept –
  1. Choose an RPA tool – Compare and identify an RPA tool that sufficiently meets you requirement in terms of compatibility with the system technology you want to automate, and other features that are desired such as – data driving capabilities, modular script development, usability of tool, available documentation and support, etc.
  2. Build a POC team – As a minimum you would need an RPA solution developer who knows the RPA tool and a business SME who knows business process you are looking to automate
  3. Build the POC and do a thorough assessment to confirm the potential business benefits
  4. Showcase the POC to key stakeholders within the organization
  • Develop an RPA Implementation Strategy and Roadmap–
  1. Build a demand pipeline- Identify and prioritize potential automation candidates
  2. Formulate Business benefit case to reflect the demand, seek approval & funding
  3. Build internal resources and capabilities for RPA- tooling licenses and infrastructure, specialist team, SPOCs from business areas to work with who overtime become RPA champions to then spread the automation knowledge amongst their business operation teams
  4. Build and implement RPA roadmap
  5. Develop metrics, track implementation progress and benefit realization

While in the POC phase, it would be a good idea to seek help from an RPA service provider or implementation partner who can assist in reaching best possible outcomes.

Having seen success at the POC stage and looking to go ahead further on a larger scale if you are faced with a make or buy decision from an implementation perspective, it may be better to start it as an internal shared service. This is simply because your RPA implementation may require considerable customization and configuration early days, your demand may change based on that and so you probably want to carry out the initial capability development in house. There are benefits to retain that knowledge and capability in house even if you decide to hire a service provider later.

What Challenges you may face early days?

From working in similar software test automation projects and having carried out numerous implementations, the typical challenges you may be faced with in early days can potentially be –

  • Complexity of business processes to automate as they may run over several days and have intermediate steps such as overnight batches, etc- Best advise to solve this is to find patterns such as data driven or keyword (business process component) driven patterns and to build automation solution/framework using the RPA tool to exploit those pattern
  • Business teams using the RPA solution won’t have RPA tool or technology skills and so it becomes a challenge to engage them in the automation process, and more so as there may be a resistance to change– To solve this, think of building an abstraction layer on top of the RPA tool and technology that business SMEs can work with. This will allow them to easily configure, execute and modify the automated solution. This is a critical challenge to overcome as you scale up your RPA efforts.
  • Scalability and Maintenance of the RPA solution – Apply design patterns to your RPA solution such as modularity to promote reuse of automation assets, and partitioning to separate out business logic from technical implementation details. Having a dedicated specialist team can help achieve this.

More Information and resources about RPA

Refer to the original discussion on Linkedin here.