Robotic Process Automation: Part II of a five-part series

Part II: Creating a Process Automation Strategy

It’s simple, right? You bought a robotic process automation (RPA) tool, thinking you were going to automate a bunch of processes and save the company millions.

It worked fine for a couple of simple processes, but now you’re not sure what to automate next. Even worse, after only a few months, the automation robots you implemented are having issues. What happened? It was all working on Friday!

Your main problem isn’t that you chose the wrong automation tool (although that might also be an issue). Your problem is that you didn’t put together an automation strategy, before you bought the tool.

So, What’s an Automation Strategy?

An automation strategy is planning and management of your automation initiative. A typical automation strategy should answer the following questions:

  • Which processes do we want to automate?
  • With which applications will we have to interact?
  • Who maintains those applications, and how often are they updated?
  • Who needs to know that we have automation running against the applications?
  • How do we find new automation opportunities?
  • How do we get notified before changes are made to an application?
  • Is there test data available, so we don’t have to test with production data?
  • With what security rules and regulations do we have to be compliant?
  • Which departments (e.g., IT, Security, HR) need to be involved?
  • What resources will need to be involved, and for how long?
  • What’s the overall cost of implementing the solution?
    Hint: the automation product is probably the least expensive part of the solution.

To be sure, even with all of those items to manage, automation provides a high return on your investment. I have helped many companies implement automation into their environments and, for every one of them, it’s always been worth the time and expense. It’s definitely worth the time and money to implement process automation but, to have real success with it, you must do it the right way.

Five Steps

Here are my five steps to implement a successful automation strategy:

  1. Don’t reinvent the wheel.
    Talk to someone who has already implemented a successful strategy. Maybe it’s a manager of another group in your organization, or a trusted partner. Copying another successful implementation in the same industry is the best way to get started quickly.
    Another option is to find a vendor that understands your industry and your problems. There are a lot of automation tools out there, and many are very generic. Consequently, most vendors don’t have specific domain expertise. To them, all automation is the same. I can tell you: it’s not! There’s a big difference between automating a simple desktop task and automating, for example, complex medical claims.
    Do a Web search to find the right vendor and solution; but don’t search for automation or even robotic process automation; you’ll find very generic solutions from vendors who have no expertise in your area. Instead, make your searches specific — for example, automating medical claims.
  2. Pick your team carefully.
    Yes, that’s right: you’ll need an automation team. It should consist of at least one business analyst, one technical person (this could be an IT resource), at least one programmer (someone has to “build” the software robots), and a decision-maker or approval committee (to decide “What do we automate next?”). You also should have a subject matter expert (SME), but this role could — and should — be rotated among several people. Each SME has expertise with certain processes so, engage only the best SME for the process you intend to automate next.
  3. Define your process.
    Your process should start with identifying the next (or first) automation opportunity. It should also include the method used to identify automation opportunities; and, before you begin your first one, you should have a list of five to 10 opportunities. In fact: for each opportunity, you should be able to calculate the potential ROI, and that should be the highest criterion on which you base the decision to automate a process. However, basing it on cost is only one option. You could use the “squeaky wheel” approach. This is where you choose to automate processes that draw the most employee complaints. Although this might result in minimal cost savings, it could be worth it to make your users happier!
    Once you define the list of automation opportunities, you need to implement them. The rest of the process should be defining the requirements with the SME, validating the business rules with the business analyst, documenting the step-by-step instructions with business rules, and providing those rules to the programmer for creation of the software robot.
    Testing is critical. Make sure that (a.) you have valid test data that truly represents real, production data and (b.) it can emulate all of the scenarios implemented in the robot. That’s the only way to test your robot fully before it moves to production.
  4. Have a backup plan.
    What happens if you have 10 robots running all day and, suddenly, they all stop? Let’s say that, up to this point, your automation solution has been so successful that you were able to eliminate 50 FTEs. But now, you don’t have the people to do the work and your robots aren’t running. Your backup plan must take into account this nasty scenario and others like it.
  5. Measure, measure, measure.
    Make sure your software robots provide the data related to the work they’re doing. This is some of the most valuable data in your organization. Use an analytics tool (if your automation product doesn’t already have one built into it) and analyze the data. What you’ll get from it is not only what your robots did but, more importantly, what they didn’t do. Of course, what they didn’t do is what they should do. That can help you understand how to improve your robots and the value of doing so.

If you carefully plan and take advantage of the knowledge and experience of others, you will have a successful automation strategy. Remember: don’t automate unless you have a strategy in place ahead of time!

Part III: Choosing the Right Process Automation Solution.

Robotic Process Automation: Part I of a five-part series

Part I: What Is RPA, and Why Should CIOs Care?

Robotic process automation (RPA) has become very popular in the last couple of years. It’s become such a mainstream topic that you can find RPA-related articles in publications such as the New York Times1 and the Wall Street Journal2. So, what is RPA, and why has it become so popular?

Automation — specifically, process automation — has been around for more than a decade. However, RPA is a specific type of process automation. The robotic part means a software robot that mimics a human. More to the point, it means software that interacts with the same applications and interfaces that humans use. It’s important to understand this: it has many implications; and it’s the major distinguishing characteristic among process automation, business process automation (BPA), and robotic process automation.

There are several reasons RPA has become popular in recent years. Businesses are constantly under pressure to reduce costs, but they can’t rely on their IT departments to be responsive to their needs. RPA allows businesses to use automation without requiring IT involvement. Mind you, that approach is not best! However, it can help them implement a solution much faster. Even some IT departments have embraced RPA, because it’s easy to implement and requires no application or infrastructure changes. This allows the IT departments to deliver value to the business more quickly and efficiently. However, many see it as merely a Band-Aid® for legacy applications in which they don’t want to invest.

Part of a Strategy

It’s a fact that automation reduces costs — in some cases, dramatically. But most CIOs don’t see RPA as strategic. Instead, they view RPA as a tactical approach that’s best for the business users or individual IT departments to use on a case-by-case basis. Still, CIOs should embrace RPA for what it is, rather than avoiding it for what it’s not. Yes, RPA is a Band-Aid for some situations, but it’s also an effective way to save money quickly. To be sure, a company should use RPA as part of an overall automation strategy or a digital transformation initiative. The company should not use RPA as a “one-off” solution for one process and one department.

RPA tools also have limitations. Why? Because, in most cases, the entire targeted process is running on a desktop PC. As a result, that limits you to the flexibility of the RPA tool and the robustness (or lack thereof) of the desktop environment. If your process has complex logic, it’s less likely that an RPA tool can automate it. Also, there are certain types of application interfaces that work well for humans, but are a challenge for automation. Two examples are mainframe applications and Web-based applications. You usually can access both using server-based technology that’s more powerful and more accurate than a default desktop interface allows.

A Better Way

Why not use the best of both worlds? That would be a server-based process automation solution that utilizes RPA technology to interact with the desktop applications when it makes sense to do so.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you have a process that uses a client/server application, a Web-based application, and a mainframe application, along with some standard desktop applications such as Excel® and Outlook®. With a pure RPA tool, you will have to create a process that runs on the desktop and interacts with all of these applications. If the logic isn’t too complex, then you might be okay, but it’s still a lot of applications with which to interact. However, if the logic is complex — well, good luck. This will be a challenge for most RPA tools.

A better approach is to have a server-based solution that runs all of the business logic and process information. This gives it the power to process complex logic and keep track of the hundreds of software robots that could be running at any one time. Such an approach also enables the server to connect directly with the Web-based application, using standard Web services. This eliminates otherwise required “screen-scraping” on the desktop or navigating a browser’s document object model (DOM). Ideally, the server-based solution can also access the mainframe applications directly on the network without “screen-scraping” a desktop-based mainframe emulator. (Of course, the desktop applications have to reside on a desktop, and that’s where the RPA tool comes into play. However, there is no need for complex logic to run on the desktop, since the logic is running where it should be: on the server.)

This approach allows you to take advantage of the RPA tools that are getting much attention, while still implementing them in a more robust, server-based environment that can be part of a strategic automation initiative. This is no Band-Aid approach. And it’s something a CIO can and should embrace: yes, bring in RPA and allow the business units to use it, but control it and implement it in a centralized, enterprise-level environment.

Part II: Creating a Process Automation Strategy.
Band-Aid is a registered trademark of Johnson & Johnson Services, Inc. Excel and Outlook are registered trademarks of Microsoft Corporation.


1. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/magazine/the-robots-are-coming-for-wall-street.html.

2. https://www.wsj.com/articles/robots-on-track-to-bump-humans-from-call-center-jobs-1466501401.

Automation and Workforce Analytics Offer Relief to Rising Outsourcing Prices

In a recent article featured in Supply Chain World Magazine, I discussed how manufacturing innovations, specifically large-scale 3D printers, are bringing jobs back home to the US. At the same time, computer-based innovations in process automation and workforce performance management are helping companies to increase productivity of in-house workers and cut the waste of outsourced operations.

Rising Cost of BPO in Offshore

In 2005, a PWC report listed the average salary of US-based call center employees at $19K per year, while their Indian counterparts took home just $7.5K per year. With the allure of low cost of labor, outsourcing operations such as IT, financial services, and technical support have historically allowed companies to reduce fixed costs (fewer FTEs), add flexibility to scale business, and focus on core-competencies at home.

Payscale.com lists a median US-based claims processor salary of $33K/yr., and Outsource2India advertises claims processors between $15K-$22K/yr. per FTE. In a 2010 interview, Phil Fersht, CEO of HfS Research, stated that “in some cases, workers in India are making only about 15 percent less than workers in Nebraska”. Today, [in] “Bangalore many probably earn more.”

While there is still a significant gap in FTE costs between the US and offshore, companies don’t need to look much further than inflation rates to see that the cost advantage of BPO in India is quickly closing. According to World Bank, inflation based on CPI, from 2010 – 2014 in the US was 1.5% compared to 10.9% in India. The cost of an FTE in India is rapidly increasing while US worker compensation has remained fairly stagnant. To further narrow the gap, a rise in the adoption of home workers in the US is helping companies to decrease overhead by as much as 20% when compared to brick and mortar operations (Source: NPR).

As savings decrease, companies are forced to evaluate additional costs/benefits of BPO such as quality difference, lack of direct managerial oversight, frequent labor turnover, brand perception, and IT security. For health plans, the risk of a Protected Health Information (PHI) leak can be catastrophic, and large salary savings are necessary to justify threats.

One of our healthcare payer customers recently replaced 100 outsourced FTEs with 50 US-based direct hires and increased production volumes and quality of work. To maintain competitive advantage, companies need to find lower-cost BPO hubs, automate repetitive processes, or execute operations in-house with greater efficiency and quality.

Enable the Best

Outsourced FTEs are rarely incented to suggest process improvements, lack of direct oversight makes it difficult to identify performance problems, and short-term assignments mean they are not fully invested in your company’s success.

Increasing worker performance is not about adding carrots, finding a bigger stick, or working longer hours. Smarter managers know that to get more work out of a smaller workforce they focus on increasing engagement, maximizing work time, identifying bottlenecks, and training teams based on the actions of top performers.

Whether a company is looking to automate processes or increase workforce performance, the first step should always be measurement. In the AHIP webinar Improving Employee Performance Through Measurement, Ed Peters, Open Connect CEO, and Jim Sinur, formerly Distinguished Analyst Gartner Group, discuss this topic in detail.

Most BPOs provide clients with macro-level production reports pulled from core systems. These reports identify NET production levels, but meaningful workforce performance measurement explains how employees actually spend their work time. Measurement should be automated, and not require laborious self-reporting and activity log. Task-level detail, such as the time spent adding missing details to a customer record, comparing documents in an imaging system, or researching account history can help managers to identify bottlenecks and training opportunities.

Automate the Rest

Not all processes require a human, but BPOs won’t advertise opportunities to reduce FTEs. Process automation software, such as WorkiQ Automation, has seen drastic improvements over the last decade. Back-office operational tasks that are computer-based and repetitive can be automated. Software robots can now perform online research, compare digital forms, create customer records, and execute artificial-intelligence levels of process complexity. By augmenting a portion of labor force with process automation, companies can reduce NET headcount, improve cycle time, and free up employees for higher value-add activities.

A decade ago, insurance auto-adjudication rates around 90% were unheard of. Now, most of the health plans I work with are automating over 85% of their claims on first pass. Significant advancements in process automation are the result of increased form/document digitization, an overwhelming abundance of real-time online data, and detailed process measurement. Today’s software robots not only follow the steps of pre-scripted workflow, they learn from their human counterparts and build a better workflow.

Again, good automation builds on good measurement. Before companies start to automate any process, they need to have a very good sample of data points that explain how top (human) performers would complete the automated task.

Smarter work is achieved through the continuous analysis of the work activities and processes, to ensure automation and performance management outperforms BPO contracts. For more information about WorkiQ Workforce Analytics or WorkiQ Automation, please visit openconnect.com.

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