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A Primer on Robotics

Shared services teams might have led the way but more and more corporate functions are finding uses for robotics software to take on repetitive tasks, and free-up employees for more thoughtful ones

While robotics process automation (RPA) is already being explored by other functions like Shared Services, finance managers, from the CFO down, will benefit from understanding how this technology can be used within the department.

Answering three main questions will help.

  1. What’s different about robotics software?: While various finance activities have been automated in the past, RPA software is different because it isn’t designed to automate any one specific process or activity. It is a more flexible technology that can be taught nearly any standard rules-based process or activity.  It mimics human interaction with IT systems, but can execute rules-based steps in a fraction of the time a person can. In fact, robotics software vendors often refer to their bots as “digital FTEs” or “human proxies.”

    What’s more, robotic solutions generally cost about one-third of what an offshore employee would cost, and one-tenth of an onshore employee. Well-programmed bots can also operate 24/7 while committing fewer errors than their human counterparts.

    RPA is what most functional leaders think of when they think about robotics. This software can record, capture, and mimic a series of steps across multiple systems; it is a good place for functions to begin any experiments with robotics. However, it is important to note that RPA software is not at the cutting edge of automation. For example, advanced cognitive computing tools can use machine learning to interpret unstructured data and identify patterns and solutions. The ultimate end of this continuum is true artificial intelligence — machines that exhibit behavior indistinguishable from that of a human – and we’re a long way away from that yet.

  2. How and where is robotics software being used?: The use of robotics has really taken off in shared services centers across the globe. In April 2015, 70% of shared services centers had not done any work on robotics, but by the start of 2017, that number had fallen to just 17%, according to CEB data. As of this year, 34% of shared services organizations have implemented or are in the process of implementing robotics.

    While shared services teams appear to be leading the charge, robotics is also gathering steam in other functions like Internal Audit. While most internal audit teams are still in the early stages of exploration, 10% are planning to implement RPA this year, and the rate is expected to increase. For example:

    • One shared services team used RPA for customer payment processing. Their bot was able to mimic the manual process of one person copying and pasting data from one source to another. Implementation reduced processing time from 24 hours to 1 hour, and improved accuracy from 97% to 100%. Over 2,500 payments are now processed this way daily.

    • Another company used robotics to gather sales lead generation data from numerous sources across varying formats to create a regular report for those who needed it. This was a labor-intensive process that required employees to access 50 different information sources. Automating the retrieval of 29 out of the 50 information sources through RPA reduced the required time by 300 hours per month, and saved nearly $150,000.

  3. How to determine which activities are a good fit for robotics?: Since robotics, in theory, can be used for nearly any rules-based process or activity, it can be daunting and difficult to pinpoint where to start. To determine areas that are good candidates for robotics within your finance organization, ask the following questions.

    1. Can the human activity be written out as a repetitive process, and therefore programmed into a robot?

    2. If the activity requires human judgment or a decision, can a set of rules be defined to cover all possibilities?

    3. Does the activity pull (and put) data from and into the same place every time (i.e., the same field name, same location of the field on a particular screen of an IT system)?

 

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