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Lessons from the Frontier – The Right Start for Robotic Process Automation

By Matthew Shannon, Ruma Gupta, and Tamara Shipley

This article is from the Q3 2017 issue of Fi|r|st: The CEB Journal of Finance|Risk|Strategy


Investment and innovation with RPA should include an efficient and effective plan for robotics talent. Your Shared Services organization is a great place to look for best practices and experience.

While Shared Services organizations are rarely considered hot spots for technology innovation, 83% of them are either implementing or evaluating RPA software, which is more than 2.4 times the percentage of Finance departments in general.

And it makes perfect sense that the back office is the frontrunner in this area. For more than 25 years, companies have consolidated activities into Shared Services to centralize operations and standardize processes into low- cost locations. The model’s top priorities are efficiency and customer service, leading to a culture of problem solving and continuous improvement (CI). For Shared Services, RPA is another CI tool to streamline processes.

Two lessons stand out from research conversations with over 40 early RPA adopters:

  1. Start with small, dedicated teams, including CI leaders and project managers, and expand the team as the demand for RPA rises.
  2. Beware of the typical vendor pitch that RPA doesn’t need technical skills—it’s hype. Build teams from internal talent pools with coding experience, and fill any gaps with external support.

Putting these lessons into practice allows companies to move swiftly and smoothly from exploring the concept to implementing at scale.

A Small Initial Team Should Grow and Change

Most exploration teams in Shared Services start with as little as one or two people, who are publicly designated as RPA leaders, to coordinate a centralized effort across all functions. In addition to reading industry literature, attending conferences, and meeting with vendors, the leaders may set up a steering committee of stakeholders. The panel often includes representatives from IT, Procurement, Internal Audit, and HR to quickly gather functional requirements and feedback. This collected information guides the initial team’s decisions about choosing a solution, establishing governance, and expanding resources.

The team should be ready to grow at a pace that meets the demand for the technology. In the beginning, each member usually handles multiple responsibilities. Once a few pilot processes are underway, it’s time to bring in more people to identify additional opportunities. Over time, RPA teams can grow to include roles that specialize in specific activities, such as spotting opportunities for robotic automation and evaluating those possibilities.

Add the Next Layer of Skills as Demand Increases

At this point, the key to using internal talent for RPA activities becomes knowing where to look for versatile skill sets. The top sources of RPA talent are CI teams, project management offices (PMOs), and transformation teams. After all, CI, PMO, and transformation leaders are natural problem solvers who can find good-fit processes for RPA—a big challenge, according to early adopters. As one Shared Services leader put it, “We needed our CI leaders to help teams move from low-dollar ideas to six-figure opportunities.” These capabilities are the reason Shared Services organizations often tap the leaders of the initial RPA exploration team to manage the growing RPA program.

But implementation will be faster and broader if the team adds members with a technical background. RPA solutions advertise a nontechnical user interface, but people who grasp coding logic and have even limited coding experience (which CI leaders and project managers often lack) can be a valuable asset for quickly configuring and monitoring robot activities. Therefore, as RPA teams get larger, it’s a good idea to fish in other talent pools, such as IT delivery teams and early career employees with math or computer science degrees. One company even pairs a computer science intern with tenured employees to combine their technical and process expertise.

Outside Support May Be Necessary for a While

Companies wishing to move even faster hire external experts to fill talent gaps. Early adopters have sought two types of external RPA support:

  • Consultants help establish the governance processes needed to manage RPA, such as spotting and prioritizing opportunities.
  • Both consultants and technology integrators provide expert config- uration skills to analyze and auto- mate processes.

Hiring external configuration support skips the time needed to train internal teams. However, multiple Shared Services adopters who start out with external configuration support tell us they plan to develop internal capabilities to bring the activity in house.

Next Steps

If you are a member of CEB Shared Services Leadership Council, register for a meeting on Accelerating Shared Services Performance to learn what other companies are doing to evaluate, implement, and operationalize an RPA program.

In addition, explore the Robotics Resource Center for access to all our information and resources on robotic automation.


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