Earlier this year, we shared some insights on the application of robotic process automation (RPA) in our blog, “Seven tips for executives considering robotic process automation.” As an RPA practitioner here in the U.S., I’d like to expand on those thoughts with a three-part blog series from a practitioner’s perspective. This first post is about the importance of having an enterprise automation strategy, especially for the U.S. federal government.
While organizations should start small with RPA, as Usman advised, it is critical to do so in the context of an enterprise vision and plan. While small RPA implementations focused on discrete business challenges promise value in terms of freeing up resources for higher-value work and increasing accuracy in repetitive processes, federal agencies must take a more strategic view toward RPA implementation.
Much has been written about the challenges of automation, which include governance, selection of the right processes, technology scalability and change management. It is incumbent on agency leaders to forge an enterprise-level strategy that addresses these challenges and sets appropriate expectations for initial and recurring investment to realize RPA’s promised benefits.
So yes, start small, but plan a roadmap for RPA at scale to achieve truly transformational results.
Based on my experience delivering both RPA proofs of value and enterprise implementations, I offer these considerations for federal executives contributing to the enterprise RPA strategy:
Challenge addressed: Governance
Don’t over-analyze: Many RPA engagements start with or include an analysis of alternatives (AOA) on RPA platforms. However, the top RPA platforms all have a common set of features adequate to satisfy current and future requirements for most agencies. My advice: save your AOA money and direct that budget toward RPA implementation with a well-known and established RPA platform. If one segment of the agency needs certain niche features, those may be built as custom integrations or extensions that enhance capabilities of the enterprise RPA platform.
Engage business and IT experts: While RPA does not require changes to existing business processes, efficiencies can best be harnessed with inputs from business subject matter experts (SMEs). These SMEs can highlight inefficiencies and recommend tweaks to existing business processes for inclusion in RPA design. However, while RPA is business-driven, it must be IT-governed. IT SMEs implement the RPA platform and introduce modern IT controls necessary to manage the automation activity. As a result, agencies need to budget and prioritize SME time appropriately to achieve the vision articulated in their enterprise automation strategy.
Budget for unanticipated expenses: Speeding up business processes at one stage of an agency operation can potentially end up just moving the bottlenecks further downstream, shifting negative economic effects to other parts of the enterprise. Evaluate and plan for downstream impact of RPA, but reserve some budget for the unexpected—no amount of planning can anticipate everything.
Challenges addressed: Process selection and change management
Closely involve your operations staff: RPA is only as cognitive as it is programmed to be. In my experience, many exception conditions and business rules are missed during RPA definition, purely because humans intuitively follow rules without conscious thought. Additionally, automating all exception scenarios may not be economical. As your employees pivot to a greater focus on duties that require more innovation and intuition, ensure they have time to address emergent situations in the newly-automated processes.
Seek employee input: Ease RPA adoption by ensuring that agency staff has an excellent experience when using the automated processes. Conduct workshops to help employees acclimate to the RPA concept. User experience experts can enhance RPA adoption with user-centric design practices similar to those used for custom software implementations.
Challenge addressed: Technology scalability
Account for all startup costs: RPA robots augment human capabilities and require onboarding, very similar to human staff. Onboarding expenses are in addition to RPA platform costs. Examples include computing infrastructure and software licenses. Plan to factor those costs into your metrics when evaluating return on investment in order to more accurately reflect RPA’s value at scale.
Invest in an RPA Operations Center: An RPA Operations Center (ROC) is essential to achieving the benefits of RPA at enterprise scale. ROCs are set up for governance and operations, driving scale and standardization across the enterprise. These centers develop and maintain automations for lines of business, provide RPA technical and operational support in collaboration with enterprise IS and IT units, and engage RPA platform vendor support on behalf of the enterprise. Investment in an ROC is an essential component of a mature RPA strategy.
What do you see as essential ingredients to a federal automation strategy? Share your thoughts using our comments tool below, or contact me to start a conversation.