Advice and Information for Finance Professionals

What's Real and What's Not? Robotics Process Automation in Shared Services

Guest Author

By Barbara Hodge, Global Editor, Shared Services and Outsourcing Network (SSON)

We may look back on 2017 as the year in which support services "discovered" automation. I’m putting “discovered” in quotation marks because automation has been used in other sectors for many years—most notably in manufacturing.

The advantage this sector has over manufacturing, however, is that it fairly quickly made the connection between single task robotic desktop automation and its more holistic, end-to-end iteration, robotic process automation (RPA), the most advanced version of which is a server-based, unattended solution.

As of this moment, and despite the fact that our research shows more than 50% of shared services centers (SSCs) have yet to implement RPA, we are seeing a waterfall of pilots turning into full implementations, and case studies being shared via solution providers, conferences, webinars, and online forums such as the Shared Services and Outsourcing Network (SSON). And despite some interesting headlines being bandied about—citing "failure" rates of 30 to 50% or even more (!)—we resolutely believe that the solutions driven by RPA or intelligent automation make sense and will drive performance, as long as they are implemented properly.

And therein lies the greatest challenge.

Managing the Change of Robotic Process Automation

Many practitioners, even consulting experts, will concede that the technology is the “easy” piece. It's change management that presents the biggest problem. This is partly dependent upon who owns the solution. With many providers (at least in the early days) having touted the benefit of "no IT involvement," business units or process owners were excited at the idea of quick decision-making, quick implementation, and quick results. And while in some cases this has borne fruit, in others… not so much.

Learn how RPA is shaping a new vision for shared services. Get the report.

The truth is that IT does need to be involved, at the very least in governance and providing access to systems. And when (not if) things do go wrong, you will be glad to have IT already at your side as a partner.

Where are we with RPA and what can it do?

Over the six months leading up to May 2016, our data showed that the percentage of shared services practitioners who had "not yet started" RPA implementation dropped from nearly 60% to 35%; the number of those "planning to implement" doubled to 24%; and those in the "testing" phase more than doubled (see chart).

Source: Robotic Process Automation: Hype vs. Reality, SSON Analytics

In addition, the potential of robotics is made significantly clearer once the technology is implemented. The largest segment of practitioners that have either not implemented or are in the testing phase believed, on average, that robotics would be able to automate 21 to 40% of overall processes; amongst those who have already implemented robotics, however, the largest segment believed that more than 60% of processes could be automated through RPA.

Clearly, seeing is believing.

Amongst those with no implementation experience yet, the most popular process for automation is procure-to-pay. Once in the testing or implementation phase, accounts payable takes the lead.

But for those with actual implementation experience, the potential of leveraging RPA for financial analysis also becomes much clearer (see chart below).

Source: Robotic Process Automation: Hype vs. Reality, SSON Analytics

Challenges are plenty, of course, as is expected for any new technology. For those organizations that have not yet implemented RPA, the leading hurdles are convincing management of its value and budget availability. For those that have implemented, the reality of process standardization and resource allocation are leading factors.

Notable is that, despite the headlines around job losses, our data does not show this to be a significant challenge to moving forward with RPA. On the contrary, shared services leaders, at least, understand that freeing up their human labor force from mundane activities releases a powerful tool for providing more value-added services to business customers. In fact, at a recent RPA conference, the delegates we surveyed indicated that only 20% are planning for FTE redundancy as a result of robotics implementation, whilst 54% intend to redeploy FTEs into higher-value work.

The Future of Robotic Process Automation

SSON Analytics’ Intelligent Automation Universe, a world map of all intelligent automation (IA) implementations in business support functions like finance and accounting, HR, procurement, and customer service, highlights just how far RPA has progressed in enabling smarter in-house support services delivery—and points to a significant increase in RPA implementations in the near future. Indeed, RPA and its cognitive iterations are at the heart of many of today’s technical innovations.

The tremendous growth we are witnessing in incorporating machine learning, cognitive capabilities, and artificial intelligence within the framework of process automation bodes well for the shared services model. While in the past shared services was bogged down by transactional work, robotic process automation provides a means of removing this activity from the “human workforce,” enabling employees to focus on knowledge-based, value-adding work. And that is where opportunities are highlighted, gaps are identified, and decision-making shifts in a way that robots may not (yet) be able to handle.

Consider that just a few years ago there were only a couple of pioneering vendors in this field, but that today there are roughly 30 providers of proprietary process automation technology. In addition, the map below highlights the growth in customer adoptions.

Source: Intelligent Automation Universe – Market Update Q1 2017, SSON Analytics

It's unlikely that the growth of RPA implementations will slow down. However, leadership will become a key differentiator of success. According to a recent audience poll at an RPA event hosted by SSON, more than half of current robotics implementations are being driven by a shared services lead, which may prove the most effective solution.

Source: 2016 Pulse Check: RPA in Shared Services, SSON Analytics

Shared services models are based on centralizing knowledge and best practice, and delivering a standardized service out to the business on an as-needed basis. Whether in partnership with a business-led initiative, or by acting as a solution provider, shared services’ role in driving RPA as a tool for performance improvement is assured.

SSON Analytics is the global data analytics center from the Shared Services & Outsourcing Network (SSON), offering visual data insights that are simple, accurate, and digestible to the global shared services and outsourcing community.

Read more about the future role of RPA in shared services. Download our report.


Be the first to comment

Comments ( 0 )
Please enter your name.Please provide a valid email address.Please enter a comment.CAPTCHA challenge response provided was incorrect. Please try again.