Point of View

To get value from process automation in your organization, you must maximize its initial impact

March 2, 2020

Robotic process automation (RPA) vendor NICE has been working with RPA for 17 years. Attended (desktop) automation was the main thrust for NICE initially; unattended robots joined along the way. NICE has learned many lessons along this journey. While legions of companies have RPA in place, each often has only a handful of bots, offering at best a questionable return on investment (ROI). RPA journeys often stall. Repeated patterns are apparent, and the success stories have common themes. HFS recently sat down with three of NICE’s finest to discuss the myths, reality, challenges, and opportunities in RPA and to understand the best route to attaining success, realizing value, and achieving scale. In short: the starting point matters, and it includes the mindset and intent at the outset of selecting and prioritizing the processes to automate. Once automation initiatives are underway, NICE shifts the emphasis from automating processes to augmenting employee and customer experiences.


Transforming business processes and delivering outcomes supply the measure of value that matters


NICE featured prominently in HFS’ Top 10 Robotic Process Automation (RPA) Software Products, topping the charts in the “Ability to transform business processes and deliver outcomes” category. HFS is especially interested in the approach NICE takes when working with its customers. We’ve laid out a few areas where NICE shared some interesting insights. Spoiler alert—the decisions made early on have long-lasting ramifications impacting business outcomes. Also, NICE does not approach the challenge with RPA alone; the HFS Top 10 description for NICE is “An industry veteran with a smorgasbord of integration, virtual attendant, desktop analytics, and automation within a broader data play.”


Improving human experiences is emerging as a driver alongside cost reduction and digital transformation


NICE sees the market for automation advancing in maturity. The desire to do more with less remains a central theme, as do driving consistency and adhering to processes to reduce rework and errors. And the problems organizations are trying to solve are evolving; it’s not just a drive for efficiency and cost reduction anymore.


Lonnie Johnston, Global Customer Success Leader of NICE, advocates thinking in terms of growth, saying, “Don’t look to eliminate heads; look at generating more capacity. Generate additional throughput with agents. There is typically an abundance of work, and there are plenty of ways to fill capacity.” Digital transformation is imperative, too, and most organizations know this needs a broad approach with many complementary initiatives in both front and back offices, in tandem. Also, organizations realize that there are some limitations with approaches containing RPA alone.


There is an appetite in the market to automate to improve customers’ experiences, such as automating the first point of customer contact resolution with the intent of increasing customer satisfaction. Similarly, an employee onboarding experience has a lot of automation potential with benefits to the overall experience, and there are opportunities to improve the quality of interactions with better information and data-driven sales tactics. The real challenge lies in understanding what to use when—and that depends on what you’re trying to achieve.


Start with the experience, not the process or the automation tool


Putting experience first fits with HFS’ views as depicted in the OneOffice diagram in Exhibit 1, where human-centric customer experiences are at the center of everything. Within the OneOffice construct, “customer” extends to other users, too. Partner experience and employee experience merit as much focus as customer experience.



Exhibit 1: Be more human-centric as you approach better outcomes





Source: HFS Research


NICE advocates a Center of Excellence (CoE) approach that begins with building the essential experience for technical and business side CoE members and includes change management and user-centered design to drive end user adoption.


Navigating the route to success is an art, not a science


An obvious starting point for automation is the low-hanging fruit in back-office processes, and many organizations begin their automation journey with automating high-volume, simple tasks. However, NICE’s Alliances Director, Gareth Hole, holds a contrary view, and he advises against the default of searching the back office for high-volume processes, “Get closer to the end customer. Process volume is just one indicator of automation’s potential applicability. In reality, value is best measured as outcomes in business impact terms or the effect on a customer’s experience or journey.”


For example, positively and significantly impacting a customer-service process may deliver more value overall than automating a high-volume back-office process. Questioning users and executives in the initial stages will not necessarily lead to the right answers, either; you will hear suggestions based on the work people don’t like doing or the processes that executives hear are problematic.


Get an objective, data-driven assessment of process suitability


Business processes are complex, and they are tough to improve and measure. Completing the tasks often involves multiple people executing them in a linked chain, forming a process with communication challenges, gaps in pre-defined business rules, and subsequent workarounds or “off-script” activities that employees undertake in their day-to-day jobs to get work done, one way or another. Since RPA emerged, enterprises are struggling to know what to automate as they begin their journey. Once started, they need a way to confirm that the choices they made were good ones. NICE’s Automation Finder, announced in 2018, can help here.


Automation Finder sits on users’ desktops looking for patterns based on the data that their interactions with processes generate. Monitoring 20 people over a couple of weeks delivers enough data to create a good picture of automation opportunities, and it provides data on handling times, frequency, and action types as well as process volumes.


Customers typically use this data to produce a decision matrix that lists opportunities, assigns weighted values. All this must be balanced against the level of difficulty from a development perspective and the complexity of the process being tackled; the number of process steps is a big factor here. This method drives priority to different factors to make a hard case for investment based on efficiency gain, error reduction, or experience improvement.


Picking a good starting point is crucial—when the impact is visible, it fuels adoption


This approach encourages thinking about processes to automate in terms of value, not just volume. Ideally, you should base the prioritization of potential automation on measurable benefits tailored around business outcomes. With value top of mind from the start and a coordinated approach throughout, you increase the likelihood of success.


When a business prioritizes the employee experience, it helps adoption because employees see the benefits quickly. It’s important to ensure that early efforts are highly visible so that the top of the organization appreciates the impact, and sponsors and champions continue to fuel the endeavor.


The oft-touted advice is “Start small, and think big”—but make sure the impact is worth it


Lonnie Johnston advises that impact must be obvious early, “The C-suite is looking for significant savings, so you can’t start too small. Find the juice that’s worth the squeeze.” NICE sees some customers pick a harder process than recommended to keep the attention and investment of the C-suite, and it works. It is important to get the balance right with this choice because C-suite support is critical to knocking down walls and getting past roadblocks that inevitably present themselves in siloed organizations with siloed processes.


There is a different way to view “small,” especially when looking at attended automation. The sweet spot, according to Yael Birin, Senior Business Consultant for NICE, is small increments in the form of micro-automations that provide quantifiable, measurable benefits and low (enough) complexity, “Break ideas into smaller and smaller pieces, prioritize those against each other at a micro-automation level, solving tiny bits of processes that hurt rather than on a full-blown mega-monster process level.”


A micro-automation approach generates a myriad of simple, small automations that combine and create impact rapidly. The underlying aim is assisting employees in real-time, making them stronger performers and allowing them to provide an exceptional customer experience. This contrasts with many traditional RPA approaches that focus on taking away bits of employees’ work to reduce headcount, costs, and processing time. Birin also maintains that “Timely guidance and automation helping employees at the right moment of a live service interaction can bring improvements to employee and customer experiences.”


The Bottom Line: Choose your starting point wisely; the C-suite may not have the patience to wait for gradual improvements. Demonstrate as much impact as possible in the early stages, or risk fatigue setting in and the C-suite choosing to focus investment dollars elsewhere.


Beyond improvements to human experiences, business transformation is the goal. For this, you need at least one high-level sponsor’s attention and engagement. To maintain attention and win the war back home, focus on business outcomes from the start. It’s not enough to approach transformation with a technology solution mindset; you need both IT and business units in alignment to succeed. Let the business unit or operations side be in the driver’s seat because that is where the impact will be felt and applauded. Then, once the journey begins, focus on continuous optimization to drive long-term impact with RPA.

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