Robotic Process Automation—Robots as Subject Matter Experts

Written by Mark McGregor | 3 min read
Published on: December 13th 2017 - Last modified: November 13th, 2020
Robotic Process Automation - A white metallic robotic hand types on a computer keyboard

To date, most of the headlines around the use of Robotic Process Automation, or RPA, have centered on how they can reduce the number of full-time employees (FTE) and thus reduce cost. Couple this with the need for many organizations to increase productivity, and it is easy to see how with static sales and reduced headcount, perceived productivity increases.

Don't Just Do the Wrong Things, Faster!

However, just doing the same things you have always done, but with robots, is no guarantee of long term survival. Creating new and innovative ways of doing business and serving customers better, is the only way to ensure long term survival in most industries. In “Business at the Speed of Thought,” Bill Gates says just replacing people with systems means you can do the wrong things faster than ever before. Now, using robots, we can do those wrong things faster and cheaper!

Resistance to robotic process automation

When it comes to robots replacing people and jobs lost, reports come almost daily stating how many of us will be replaced over the next 12 years. Just last month a McKinsey report suggests that in the US 40-70 million jobs could be lost in that period, while in the UK they estimate that 20% of current jobs could be automated.

There is no doubt that some jobs will be replaced by robots and new ones created. But the “certain doom” style of reporting is certainly making it hard for some companies to make best use of them. The assumption is always if robots will take my job, then why should I help them do it! Thus resistance to robots increases.

This fear and constant talk of FTE reduction is a shame. For if we actually sit back and think differently, robots and RPA in particular can actually supplement what we do and help us do things better.

Finding out what works

Signavio customers who are leveraging SAP Signavio Process Intelligence have already discovered that often the processes as executed in their organisation are different from what they planned, designed, or reported on. Variance analysis has become a hot topic, with senior management not just discovering variance, but now worrying about financial risks and penalties when processes as executed are not as reported to external stakeholders and regulators. Of course, just having identified variance is not enough; sooner or later you will need to discuss with people why they work the way they do.

From another perspective, Process or Business Analysts—when trying to create or improve processes—will inevitably interview high performing staff about how and why they work the way they do. However, as we all know, sometimes people don’t actually know what they do or why, and sometimes they may not even tell us the truth!

In the last two cases the quality of the work we do will be highly dependent on what people say during interviews or surveys. Whilst they will share what they do as fact, the real fact is that we cannot be sure. While we can never be totally certain of many things when it comes to process, there are ways in which we can increase that certainty.

Robots as SMEs

At an robotic process automation summit in London this week, I was talking with the CEO of an RPA company, and we were discussing the fact that most organisations ignore process analysis and design when implementing RPA. Instead they rush to implement cheap robots, point them at what people do, record it, and then implement without too much additional thought.

As our discussion on the value of doing good process capture and analysis before automating turned to how we could use robots to supplement analysis, we concluded with the idea of introducing robots as Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) as an aid to process or business analysis.

As we talked, this CEO and I realised there was an analysis gap robots can help with. Process mining tools, using SAP Signavio Process Intelligence as an example, help us collect a great deal of factual information, but provide no context. Process mining does not help us understand why people vary from the expected path or paths through the process. On the other hand, interviews and surveys capture what people think they do, not what they actually do.

So we surmised that by adding robots from RPA into the mix, analysts could get facts from intelligence and subjective views from employees, but using the information collected from robots to guide and shape our interviews. Thus we can start to build richer models with both objective and subjective information combined.

Closing the loop

Turning full circle, we would then be using robots to enable us to do things we have not done before: to surface information, to guide richer discussions, and to leverage new information so that instead of simply automating what we do, we can improve what we do and then automate where needed.

The next time you are looking at or thinking about robotic process automation, why not ask yourself how you can use robots to help analyse what you do and why you do it? Why not consider how when you sell the idea of robots to your organisation that instead of replacing people, you talk about how they supplement or enhance people’s productivity? Talk about robots as your next level of subject matter experts.

Published on: December 13th 2017 - Last modified: November 13th, 2020