There is a technology that is disrupting the workplace, it’s called Robotic Process Automation (RPA). Using software ‘robots’ to mimic repetitive human interactions with computers, this technology can do these tasks much faster, without any rest and no errors that human are prone to making.
Although this technology is not brand new, the last two years have seen an unprecedented adoption by many companies where repetitive tasks are now being automated and performed by robots. Many consider this a threat, but companies see it as a great opportunity to create new high-quality jobs that require human intelligence and creativity.
Mass industrial automation and robotics
The tail-end of the third industrial revolution saw the introduction of mass industrial automation and robotics. The microprocessor revolutionised manufacturing and countries that embraced and adopted this revolutionary technology, were the beneficiaries of sustainable manufacturing industries. They still maintain a competitive advantage in the 21st century.
Similarly, in this industrial revolution, businesses and countries that embrace and adopt 4IR technologies (including RPA) are going to be the global beneficiaries of agility, efficiency and cost.
RPA has specifically been designed to streamline repetitive business tasks, increase accuracy, save time and reduce costs. These are the tedious manual repetitive tasks that don’t add any value to employee knowledge.
It’s not about removing people, but rather about using them for vital processes and tasks that require intelligence, imagination, contextualisation and creativity. These new jobs will also bring new opportunities for learning and allow employees to develop themselves with more creative work elsewhere.
According to Gartner, finance departments can save thousands of hours of avoidable repetitive tasks and rework caused by human errors – simply by deploying RPA in their financial reporting processes.
The survey found that the average amount of repetition and avoidable rework in accounting departments can take up to 30% of a full-time employee’s overall time.
Examples of these ‘time-wasting tasks’ include:
- Navigating through accounting/ERP system screens between value adding activities
- Tediously finding the correct codes to use and to prepare financial journals
- Repetitive searching for financial information, copying and pasting values into reports
- And even painstakingly trawling through hundreds of transactions to find mismatches which cause Balance Sheet imbalances
For an organisation with about 40 full-time accounting staff, this equates to savings of 25,000 hours per year or put differently, about R6-million saving. The survey says those departments that have experimented with RPA in their reporting processes, have reported a series of additional benefits, from less staff time fixing mistakes and more time allocated to analysis and decision support work.
RPA can already handle much more involved processes such as matching large volumes of transactions; certifying account reconciliations or even collecting and compiling complicated financial reports.
Robots will arguably do a better job than human beings, they don’t need to take breaks and they don’t make mistakes that workers frequently do when tasks are prolonged and mundane.
Getting through the repetitive tasks
Managers usually think that their staff can attend to both the repetitive tasks (such as compiling reports) and the value adding tasks of interpreting them. However, on closer inspection, it often becomes clear that staff struggle to even just get through the repetitive tasks and make a considerable amount of errors in the process.
The other side of that coin is that Robots cannot, and should not, interpret the reports they have created. There will always be exceptions that do not follow the norm of the business process, which will still need the human workers to investigate and resolve.
IDC forecasts the worldwide RPA software market will grow at a 49.3% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) for 2017-2022 to reach US$3.7 billion, which is much faster than the overall cognitive and AI technologies markets that will represent a 37.3% CAGR during the same forecast period.
RPA is defining the future of work, the rapid adoption of this technology is helping drive business outcomes such as improved customer experiences and improved service delivery. Outside the finance department, RPA reduces the time to resolve queries and complaints – it makes specific processes available 24×7 and ensures more efficient processing.
Other examples include customer on-boarding and account opening procedures that are simplified and accelerated with RPA. There are huge cost savings as a result of productivity improvements or even fraud detection with insurance and expense claims.
In a world where KYC procedures are mandatory, it is essential that these processes are followed to the letter of the procedure and not just the spirit of the procedure. This typically happens in a high-volume customer environment that is managed exclusively by humans.
IDC predicts that by 2024, half of structured, repeatable tasks will be automated and 20% of workers in knowledge-intensive tasks will have AI-infused software or other digitally connected technology as a ‘co-worker’.
These kinds of statistics can understandably be worrying to individuals who can identify repetitive tasks as part of their normal daily jobs. There is a real need however to change this perception both on the part of people who implement RPA, as well as the companies and the individuals who are the receivers and benefactors of this technology.
When spreadsheet applications were introduced, there were certainly some nervous accountants who saw this software as a real threat to their jobs. However, today every person working in finance or accounting use spreadsheet applications in almost every task they deal with.
Companies that resist automation, risk being left behind. Their competitors can now create more efficient cost structures with RPA and also deliver better services and customer experiences. It is therefore no longer an option, companies need to start exploring the benefits of intelligent automation technologies.
They also need to take stock of their future skills requirements and how to reskill and redeploy their staff to more high level and rewarding tasks. More importantly, to create an environment that fosters innovation and human-machine collaboration.