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Using the right automation tools for the job

February 14, 2020 4:00 PM By Jason Schedler

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Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is no magic bullet. It’s one tool in a toolbox. There’s a lot to consider before determining that process automation is the leading solution for a problem. More often, RPA is part of a series of solutions. Identifying the right strategy to implement creates the most efficient gains.

The problems that can be solved using RPA are vast. In order to map a solution, we have to identify problem types. For this exercise I’m using the three problem types I see most often:

1. Repetitive SYstem Tasks

These are the repetitive keystrokes and mouse-clicks your users perform in a single system on a frequent basis. If these tasks can be codified, they can be automated.

This might not seem like a big gain at first glance. Consider that performing 10 mouse-clicks and 20 keystrokes takes a user 20 seconds. What about 20 seconds per transaction when there are up to 100 transactions per day? Nearly 17 hours per month makes a stronger case for automation. And that doesn’t even take errors into account.

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2.Multi-System Challenge

Having multiple systems implies there is a data integration issue. A person is generating a report in System A and then entering data into System B. A person dumps data from System A into a spreadsheet and emails it to another person. The second person reclasses, codifies, or otherwise normalizes the data and then sends it down the line, back to the originator, or enters the data into System B. These are some of the most common scenarios. In this instance, the first solution to consider is an API.

If an API does not exist, can the data be delivered directly to the database? Consider the database tools that may be at your disposal, such as stored procedures and ETL packages. These are great solutions for moving data from one system to another. In many cases, the system will offer import/export utilities. Sometimes these tools are not exposed to users. In other cases, the processing is so complex that the possibility of using direct database tools is virtually eliminated. In this event, RPA is an excellent candidate.

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3.Hybrid Challenge

In this scenario, which is really a hybrid of the first two, there are a series of procedures that users follow and more than one system is involved. A case could be made for RPA as a first-choice solution because an alternative will involve a combination like customization and implementation of APIs/ETL or Import and Export utilities.

For example, a marketing department in a residential company consolidates all marketing invoices for a period using a payables system. Someone else allocates those invoice amounts across properties using Excel. Another user receives the allocation via email and enters corporate accounts receivables. Finally, yet another person may be responsible for posting those batches and printing invoices.

There are countless examples in our industry of multiple users working in multiple systems to complete tasks. When your team is working in multiple systems with manual processes involving multiple users, those tasks can be automated using RPA.

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The next steps in automation

Making the most of your software

Before jumping right to RPA, the first thing to consider is whether your current software can natively address the problem. While this seems painfully obvious, it is often overlooked. The truth is most enterprise technology is often vastly underutilized due to issues with—or incompleteness of—setup and a lack of understanding. The capabilities of your current software are often overlooked when trying to solve the problem. After all, it’s a reasonable assumption that the issue you’re trying to fix wouldn’t exist if the current software had the capability.

If a native solution actually doesn’t exist, the next thing to consider would be a customization to the existing software. In most cases, the extra keystrokes and mouse-clicks that exist in an enterprise software solution are a byproduct of adaptability or flexibility. Your organization handles certain scenarios the same way every time (at least that is the expectation), but the software is intended to be used by myriad companies that may operate completely differently. This is your software; it is best to tailor it to fit as efficiently as possible.

The right automation decision

If a solution can’t be found natively and there is no customization to be had, process automation is the next logical choice. RPA and APIs can provide similar solutions to business problems. The main difference is that an API uses the back end while RPA uses the front end (i.e., the user interface). On a function-for-function level, APIs are the better option. They are predictable and rigid in terms of format and type, providing more resilient and long-term solutions that may not be possible using only RPA. The two can easily work together—for example, if there is a query outside of the core of the API, RPA can fill in the gaps that exist.

RPA is also a great choice in many instances where it seems there isn’t a solution and an API is not available. For instance, RPA has the ability to automate elements of customer service like incident or ticket management, system administrative tasks, and consolidation of information so that your team can utilize one screen instead of multiple systems. This saves time and eliminates a lot of human error.

Why digital solutions are your best bet

The alternative to these digital solutions is to leverage a data entry professional to save your staff from doing menial, error-prone tasks. The very last resort should be using the talented employees on your payroll. Unfortunately, many of the tasks that could be automated or improved through customization and automation are the same tasks that pull down employee engagement and critical thinking.

The least attractive solution to solve for inefficiencies is to continue spending your staff resources on repetitive, endless, mindless activities. While automation tools make your processes easier and more efficient, there is a lot of process mapping done on the back end to make things function smoothly for your team. The best way to ensure proper automation solutions are in place is to partner with a firm that is well-versed in all the tools in the toolbox, as well as your software and business processes (ahem...REdirect). If you’re eager to see how automation tools can help you increase efficiency, reduce errors, and boost employee engagement, drop me a line.