Robotic Process Automation (RPA) for the people

By Paddy Smith
Filing expenses and booking leave are not the most thrilling bits of business administration, but RPA for basic HR jobs is turning heads...

There’s no denying the benefits that Robotic Process Automation (RPA) can bring to a business, especially in a department like HR which deals with repetitive, data-driven tasks on a daily basis. Allowing employees to ditch mundane tasks such as processing expenses and annual leave lets them focus on more impactful work, often resulting in substantial gains. While you’d be forgiven for thinking that investment in RPA solutions has dropped during the global pandemic, that’s far from the case.

This year, Gartner predicts that total RPA software revenue will hit close to $2 billion (an increase over almost 20 per cent from 2020), with 90 per cent of large global organisations expected to adopt RPA in some form by 2022. This is supported by recent findings from CFO Research and AppZen, which shows that reducing manual, time-consuming processes is a priority for 90 per cent of executives.

"Last year, we saw a huge acceleration of digital transformation in finance, and our research confirms that we'll see even deeper transformation in 2021, championed by the finance organisation," said Anant Kale, CEO and co-founder of AppZen. "With CFOs taking an increasingly strategic role, the need for agility and incorporating technologies that accelerate company-wide decision-making is imperative. Moving forward, we expect to see a rise in automation and AI among modern finance teams."

A cure for the mundane

HR departments are a prime example of an area in which RPA can have the most impact. Many tasks require dealing with rule-based data, including payroll, on-boarding, expenses, and requests for annual leave. No HR professional dreams of spending hours in front of a screen chained to data intensive tasks, which is why RPA offers so many benefits. 

“All jobs have some repetitive nature to them, and thus can benefit from automation,” says Renzo Taal, managing director EMEA at UiPath. “This may be on a large scale, such as a HR team processing thousands of expenses, or it may be as small as sending out one specific email a week. Either way, a software robot could be trained to carry out this process, handing back time to the employee to spend on value-added work.”

Leaving the robotic work to the robots, employees can focus on more creative tasks such as fostering a positive company culture, training, and engaging with employees – all areas that are best left to the fluid and creative minds of actual people. Throw artificial intelligence (AI) into the mix, and you can take advantage of products like chatbots during the recruitment process, where, for example, they can help candidates narrow down the roles best suited to them.

“AI aids transparency in the recruitment process – for example, by automating CV screening through AI and process intelligence,” says Neil Murphy, Global VP at ABBYY. “This also makes the onboarding process faster and more efficient, which drives better retention. It also has the knock-on effect of reducing the time it takes to manually process these documents, and instead spend it on educating employees around the use of these technologies. This creates a long-term approach to automation that works for an entire business”.

Beyond this time-saving aspect, RPA also reduces human error in data-heavy workloads, in addition to executing tasks around the clock for maximum efficiency. Software automation company Ultima, for example, is using RPA to automate its own back-end operations, including its HR onboarding processes. 

“We’ve seen productivity rise by a factor of two”, said Scott Dodds, CEO at Ultima. “Software robots collate real-time sales and marketing information, and process all the information they collect during the day to produce detailed forecasts and business intelligence for the next morning. Usually this took eight to ten hours per day of staff time, it now takes minutes. As a result, the business has improved business intelligence to plan with, and staff have more time to spend on customer service and strategic thinking.”

Widespread benefits

It’s easy to draw attention to the fact that some of the world's largest organisations are using RPA to increase efficiency while saving costs, but the benefits transcend to smaller businesses too.

“While larger businesses will have individual departments to handle repetitive finance, admin or HR tasks, employees of smaller firms may all be a little responsible for these processes”, Taal explains. “If these tasks are automated, all employees will benefit from the time handed back to them. Investing in RPA can also make small businesses more competitive. This is why RPA adoption among small and medium businesses is increasing, spurred by a solid cloud offering that enables them to scale their automation initiatives without making investments in costly infrastructure”.

Successful deployment of RPA in HR use cases can also go beyond simply automating administrative tasks and improving numbers. Now, more than ever, employee wellbeing and mental health are at the forefront of many employers’ minds, and the benefits that technology can bring can go well beyond simply increasing profits — there’s a human factor to take into consideration too.

“We consistently hear from clients how it enhances the well-being of their people, sparing them from spending their time on dull and repetitive tasks, making for a happier, more productive workforce,” says Chris Porter, CEO of NexBotix. “This is particularly important at the current time. The huge impact of the pandemic on every aspect of our lives means that employers have a greater responsibility to consider the well-being of their people. Automation is helping to reduce stress levels in the workplace, whether that be in an office or, as is the case for millions across the globe, while working remotely.”

The future of RPA

While it’s clear to see that investment into RPA solutions won’t be declining any time soon, it’s important to note that this technology isn’t a blanket solution to simply replace the ‘human’ in human resources.

Phil Lewis, co-founder at Endpoint Automation Services believe that “The sky is the limit in terms of where we see RPA going. It will never take away the importance of humans in the workplace, but if business processes are slowing companies down, then using tasks that could be streamlined with robots will free up staff to focus on more value-add activities and innovation, while our robots take care of repetitive day to day tasks.”

In terms of technological development, Taal believes that more firms will turn their focus to full automation to all tasks that can be automated. In addition to this company-wide increase in efficiency, he also predicts that companies will also be forming their own solutions, thanks to coding platforms that lower the entry barrier for RPA system creation.

“Given the availability of low-code automation platforms, which have lowered the accessibility threshold for a broader range of users, in the future we will witness the advent of automation software co-creation. Using their first-hand experience with conducting business processes, subject matter experts will go beyond being consumers to becoming the creators of the automation solutions that make their work life easier. We call these citizen developers.”


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