At a time when good people are tough to find and even harder to keep happy, interest in robotic process automation (RPA) is growing: the technology can automate repetitive tasks and free up talented workers to focus on higher-value tasks that are more rewarding for the business and its staff.
Gartner says global spending on RPA software reached $1.58 billion in 2020. The analyst predicts that 90% of large organisations globally will have adopted RPA in some form by 2022.
Employees can use the technology to configure scripts, often referred to as 'bots', that automate business and IT processes, such as searching data, triggering responses or executing transactions.
Analyst Forrester believes we're about to enter a new phase of RPA and automation. During the next decade, we'll see the emergence of 'autonomous enterprises' – organisations whose operating models are enabled by self-aware, self-correcting, self-directed digital technology, with AI and automation at their core.
Such is the power of RPA, that – once the software is up and running – it might be tempting for CIOs to sit back and watch the efficiencies multiply.
However, while the business case for using automation is clear, operationalising RPA can be tough, with long-held practices slow to change.
That's a situation that's recognised by Adobe CIO Cynthia Stoddard, who's spent the past few years overseeing the implementation of automation within her own business. She says the introduction of RPA requires a careful, considered approach.
"It's a culture change – be true to what your vision is and what you say," she says. "If you're not upfront, people are going to be scared, and they're going to push back on the technology. Just be open and transparent and help people through the change."
While RPA might be tempting to implement, its acceptance is not necessarily guaranteed as employees can be concerned about the impact of the technology – especially if it starts doing what they perceive to be their work. Initial reports a few years ago suggested up to 800 million global workers might lose their jobs by 2030 due to robotic automation.
Companies that are implementing RPA now must work to dispel the fears such stories can bring. Adobe uses a collaborative approach, where business functions work alongside the technology team to analyse how bots will be implemented and accepted.
Adobe's move towards automation started three years ago, when the finance chief was keen to boost operational efficiencies within his department.
Stoddard and her IT team thought about the challenges the finance team faced and recognised RPA could help. Rather than working in isolation to create an IT solution to the business problem, the tech and finance functions co-developed an automation platform based on UiPath technology.
The result of this collaborative approach is a Centre of Excellence for RPA within Adobe that manages the building, tooling and implementation of the automation platform. The centre also works out how the technology will be used to automate business processes.
"The technology component lies within IT, and then we partner with finance to create the business partner component of it – and then we put the two together as one virtual team," says Stoddard.
Three years after first being considered as a potential technological solution to business challenges in the finance department, the approach is paying dividends.
RPA has been used to deal with specific elements of the finance process, such as contracts and procurement. The technology is also being applied to acquisitions.
The success of the RPA project in the finance department means it is now being used across the business. Once again, Stoddard says Adobe takes a systematic approach to the application of automation in other departments.
"People will approach us with ideas and then they'll work together with a Centre of Excellence to say, 'how do we enable it, and how do we get people to use these tools?'" she says.
The IT team, for example, has worked with the internal compliance group to introduce RPA. The aim here is to find ways to automatically check that the company has the right compliance controls in place.
RPA has also been applied within IT operations. The technology acts as a virtual assistant and makes suggestions to IT staff about how tasks can be completed successfully, processing low-level helpdesk enquiries automatically.
The platform was used by the operations team to deal with technical questions during the coronavirus pandemic. The Centre of Excellence used artificial intelligence and machine learning to sift data in the internal Slack channel. They looked for technical questions that were being asked regularly and that could be answered programmatically through RPA.
However, while Adobe has managed to scale automation successfully, evidence suggests other businesses can struggle. Forrester suggests only 52% of enterprises that have launched RPA initiatives have progressed beyond their first 10 bots.
The analyst suggests governance and culture issues are often the biggest roadblocks to scaling the technology. CIOs must be careful to establish the ground rules for how RPA is used in their organisations, which is something that resonates with Stoddard.
"The way that we view RPA within Adobe is that we don't view the productivity improvement as a headcount reduction," she says.
"We view it as creating virtual workers that work side by side with our human workers. So, we're just creating this virtual workforce that enables our human workforce to have more time to do other more important value-adding activities."
The message from Stoddard is simple: don't over-promise. Other digital and business leaders who are thinking of implementing RPA must think very carefully about how their employees' working lives will change.
"If you're using RPA to create a virtual workforce and boost productivity, be true to that, because people will watch your words and your actions. We've been very careful to say if it's virtual, and we're increasing productivity, we're not going to change or eliminate any jobs," she says.
She says people within Adobe who were previously working on more mundane activities are now working on higher-value tasks. Some are even writing scripts for RPA and helping to improve the productivity boosts that automation should encourage.
Once again, says Stoddard, the key to success is collaboration: "You have to be open and communicate exactly how roles are going to change, and then people will get on board. You have to show them what your vision is and how RPA will change things for the better."