In the last few years, robotic process automation (RPA) has seized the spotlight in the field of enterprise process management.
The RPA market (software and professional implementation services) has grown more than 160% from $2.8 billion in 2017 to $7.5 billion this year, on its way to $16.2 billion in 2023, according to Forrester Research.
The reason is simple: RPA “bots” can handle a wide variety of repetitive tasks at high speed, shaving minutes off the execution time of processes that run thousands of times a year. Bots are replacing or augmenting people in processes a host of processes, from employee onboarding and payroll processing in HR to bank record reconciliation to month-end entries, and many more.
As business managers and analysts across industries discover the power of RPA, however, there is a tendency to view it as a simple answer to every automation need.
The rule of five
But as Forrester VP and Principal Analyst Craig Le Clair explained in a recent webinar with Nintex, “The Truth on RPA (and its Role in the Process Automation Landscape),” companies seeking to implement RPA should follow the “Rule of Five” for RPA success: Less than 5 decisions made, less than 5 applications accessed, and less than 500 clicks in the process.
RPA bots mimic human keystrokes; they aren’t designed to make decisions. They interact via applications’ user interfaces, so they can be fragile when faced with too many applications or keystrokes. An important implication of the “Rule of Five” is that RPA, for all its power, isn’t the answer to every automation need.
As Le Clair explained, process challenges take a variety of forms, and a variety of solutions have been developed to address them. They are often sorted in categories that include solutions for managing “deep” processes such as customer onboarding, invoice processing, and claims management; solutions for wide deployment across enterprises to improve customer experience and operational efficiency; incident management and service requests; decision support; chatbots; as well as RPA.
Manage, automate, and optimize – with more than just bots
Nintex Chief Evangelist Ryan Duguid described a thoughtful approach to enterprise process automation as one that takes a closed-loop or end-to-end approach with three key stages: Manage, automate, and optimize.
In the “manage” stage, an organization seeks to discover, map and document its existing processes, then shares that information across key stakeholders to gain institutional agreement on how the organization functions.
Many organizations lack a firm understanding of their processes. Or, a few people may understand a particular process, but this understanding isn’t widely shared. If the organization applies automation to a poorly defined process, it might simply accelerate a bad process, wasting a chance at improvement.
By contrast, when processes are well documented, they are much more visible, and stakeholders frequently find opportunities for improvement even before applying automation.
Once the organization has mapped and documented its processes, it can make intelligent decisions about which automation technologies to apply. As mentioned, RPA is well-suited for repetitive, manual processes – extracting data from one place (whether an application or a paper form) and moving it to another, without any need for decisions.
But many processes require collaboration, judgment, and decisions. Think of evaluating candidates for open job roles, for example, or preparing a sales proposal. These types of processes are well-suited for workflow automation, which can route the information to the right person at the right time and make sure that everyone is consulted before a decision is taken.
Digital forms (whether on laptops, desktops, or mobile devices) are another form of automation; by replacing paper, digital forms can dramatically accelerate how information is captured routed for action and decisions. Digital forms can also reduce errors, for example by offering the user a drop-down list with a finite number of items to pick from.
Document generation and e-signature should also be part of an organization’s automation strategy. Think of sales contracts that must be tailored with terms specific to different products or countries; document generation solutions can do this automatically, allowing the people involved to focus on sales strategy or interacting directly with customers, rather than cutting and pasting documents.
In sum, a variety of tools exist to tackle different aspects of the automation challenge. In most organizations, the best strategy will involve multiple elements. Think of building a house and facing a range of discrete projects. You’ll need saws, hammers, screwdrivers, and more – the right tool for each aspect of the overall project.
Once you’ve mapped your processes and carefully selected the right tools, are you finished? Not just yet.
No matter how carefully you’ve planned and implemented your automation solution (or solutions), you’ll likely spot bottlenecks, even breakdowns, and opportunities for improvement over time – things that probably couldn’t have been predicted beforehand.
Even if the effect is obvious – a process taking longer to complete than expected or desired – it might not be obvious why. Here is where optimization tools are important, tools that let you continuously monitor, analyze, and improve how your processes operate.
To do this, you’ll want the ability to instrument your processes so you can collect data about where, how often, by whom, and how quickly they run. With that type of insight, you can see how and where to adapt your processes to run more quickly and smoothly.
This is an end-to-end approach to automation. It boils down to understanding three things: why you’re automating, how you’ll go about it, and what you want to achieve. Put specific answers to those three questions, and you’ll be on a path to success.
Interested in trying out an RPA solution for yourself? Request a demo of Nintex RPA today!