Robotic process automation (RPA) is among the hottest topics in today’s enterprise. RPA simplifies business processes by mimicking human actions and automating repetitive tasks without altering existing infrastructure and systems. Nearly every day, we hear stories of organizations streamlining operations and optimizing costs with RPA.
Why is this technology gaining such attention? Because it has the potential to make enterprise-wide business transformation a reality.
As directors continue to rethink and address their organization’s strategy, RPA should be considered as one component of an array of emerging technologies that are changing the game. These solutions include artificial intelligence, cognitive computing, and machine learning. Many call this the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and for good reason. Nearly half (47%) of US jobs could be impacted by computerization, according to a 2016 report authored by Oxford University and Citibank.
Sitting on the sidelines is no longer an option. Robotics technology has moved beyond proof of concept, and the business benefits are increasingly clear and attainable. In a recent example, EY worked with the Robotics Center of Excellence for a major U.S. bank to scale robotics on a global level. Results included a significant reduction in full-time employees (FTEs) across back- and middle-office business processes and decreased runtimes for automated processes. Leading organizations will focus on the long game, planning for scale, speed and pace of adoption on the automation journey.
Boards will play an important role in helping organizations seize automation’s full advantages—reduced redundancies, improved accuracy, speed to market, and the ability to free human staff for high-value work. Vigilant corporate governance will help promote the establishment of a robust operating model and provide oversight of controls and risk management. From the highest levels, the enterprise must successfully manage changes in technology, processes, and people to seize opportunity while enhancing risk management.
The Need for Strategic Vision
Boards looking to enhance oversight of corporate strategy in response to these disruptive forces can learn from the industry’s early successes and failures.
Despite industry promises of rapid, low-cost success, automation is not a one-size-fits-all journey. The board must guide leadership to make certain that a robust operating model exists for leveraging the best-fit technologies to meet the organization’s needs.
The operating model must adapt to support a hyper-agile implementation approach. EY recently worked with the C-suite of a leading financial services corporation to design a centralized automation strategy. This strategy established a common framework to support its federated environment. Ensuring that the company has adopted the right operating model is key to accelerating technology adoption and streamlining change management to succeed in an environment that is continually evolving.
The automation journey should also be results-driven, with an emphasis on return on investment. For one global insurer, EY developed a proof-of-value to explore opportunities to automate labor-intensive back-office processes. The results helped management make an informed decision based on tangible outputs. When implemented, robotics cut the cost to deliver high-frequency tasks in half. If properly designed, the automation journey can be self-funding using a laddered process, with the cost savings realized on initial programs used to fund successive initiatives. This contrasts with the enterprise-wide implementation model common with many legacy solutions.
A robust operating model can also help mitigate risk. For example, because many automation solutions are engineered to work with current enterprise software, the operating model must account for changes in an organization’s software layer. If changes are made without considering the automation tools, they can quickly crash important processes.
The Human Equation
Along with planning for the technology changes, boards must foresee the human elements of transformation and embrace the workforce of the future.
It is not uncommon for today’s powerful RPA technology to reduce the number of humans needed on a data-intensive process from 50 people to five. A robot costs approximately one-third the price of an offshore FTE and as little as one-fifth the price of an onshore FTE, according to the Institute for Robotic Process Automation. Boards must think strategically about a company’s entire workforce mix—from where people are located to who (or what) performs specific roles.
Yes, the opportunity for cost optimization exists. But forward-thinking companies will seize the advantages of reallocating and retraining people currently in rote functions to higher-value tasks that generate business insight. The board should set clear expectations for managing human capital beyond layoffs—to leverage people to gain a competitive advantage.
The bottom line is that workforce transformation enabled by automation is coming quickly. In fact, it’s already happening. The boards that realize this soonest and come prepared to lead management on a journey that optimizes both technology and people will position their organizations to win in the long run.
Anthony Caterino is vice chair and regional managing partner of the Financial Services Organization at EY. Steve Klemash is a leader in the EY Center for Board Matters in the Americas.
The word hacker carries many connotations, most of them negative. But is it possible that hacking can be a force for good? During his keynote speech at the 2015 NACD Global Board Leaders’ Summit, technologist, author, and self-described hacker Josh Klein offered a fast-paced dive into the misconceptions that directors and executives may be perpetuating without even recognizing their error.
“Disruptive trends in technology, culture, and business are converging,” Klein observed before exploring four areas in which this convergence is creating unprecedented opportunities.
Code. In 2006, the cost to develop a website was exorbitant by any standard. Today, thanks to the multitude of free web-development tools now on the market, the cost is next to nothing. In Klein’s words, “It’s getting cheaper and cheaper to validate your business concept.” This fact alone will grow the pool of competition exponentially, because anyone who knows enough code to use these tools and has a marketable business plan can start a company. Anyone from legitimate start-up entrepreneurs to criminal masterminds can code a site, which means that companies must anticipate and plan for competition of varying legality and ethical standing.
Culture. “Tech doesn’t spring from the ether,” Klein pointed out. “It emerges from the attitudes and desires of users.” Information can be shared and spread almost instantaneously, increasing the likelihood that a company will at some point receive undesirable attention. According to Klein, technology creates a meritocracy via democratic exposure of reputation. But instead of trying to hide negative feedback, companies should get ahead of the problem and own it as best they can. He cited AirBnB as one example of how digital technologies have created marketplace meritocracies. Responding to an incident in which an AirBnB guest caused significant damage to a host’s home, the company rolled out a million-dollar host guarantee policy. This move both acknowledged the problems with the company’s old business processes and affirmed its commitment to improving those systems and protecting AirBnB hosts.
Competition. With the rise in sources of competition, businesses that rest on their laurels and become complacent about their success are putting themselves in a dangerous position. Looking out over the audience, Klein underscored the obvious: “We’re all sitting here, and the innovation may be happening someplace else.”
Future Context. To many of us it seems that everyone is connected by the Internet, but only about one-third of the world’s population is online. Klein observed that the remaining two-thirds may be illiterate and may not have bank accounts; they do, however, participate in the black market, which is currently valued at $10 trillion and accounts for $1 in every $7 exchanged, making it the second largest market on the planet. Companies must anticipate how these demographic shifts will create new business demands and transform the face of e-commerce.
Klein ended by entreating his audience not to panic but instead to begin experimenting, learning, evolving, and to do this all as quickly as possible. “Do it now, because if you’re not, someone else is.”
Few companies have disrupted so-called business-as-usual as much as the Wikimedia Foundation. The nonprofit foundation is behind the website Wikipedia, an online, crowd-sourced encyclopedia that has become the fifth most visited website in the world.
At the 2014 NACD Board Leadership Conference, Sue Gardner, the former executive director and current special advisor for Wikimedia, shared her insights on the open nature of Wikipedia and the risks involved in that business model. Her thoughts resonate not only for the technology or publishing companies, but also for corporate boardrooms across a variety of other sectors.
Wikimedia aims to encourage the growth, development, and distribution of free educational content available in multiple languages.
Nobody, however, oversees the contributors.
“I will never read all the articles on Wikipedia, right? Unlike most organizations, there’s no central point of control. It’s very much about trusting the process.”
“For the most part, Wikipedia works great,” Gardner said. The articles contributed to the website are generally cited and thoroughly researched. Contributors to the site actually are very knowledgeable about intellectual property law and copyright law, Gardner said.
“We aspire to contain the sum total of human knowledge.” “But,” Gardner said, “the Achilles’ heel of Wikipedia is that the number of people contributing to the site is small and limited in its diversity.”
“It’s a systemic bias,” she said. “In order to edit Wikipedia, you tend to be living in a wealthy country with a good Internet connection. You have to have the leisure time to edit Wikipedia. What that adds up to is that the typical content contributor is a 25-year-old male grad student in Germany. People from poor parts of the world and women are underrepresented.”
Gardner said she believes that the contributions of women are missing. Several different studies conducted by researchers have found that somewhere between 12 percent and 15 percent of content contributors are women, she said. This dynamic might be a result of what can be a process that is not very collaborative, but more of a rough, confrontational back-and-forth between content generators.
Gardner also discussed the lack of diversity among the technology industry, specifically in Silicon Valley. When she moved to the San Francisco Bay area, she began a three-month tour to seek funding for Wikimedia. In that period, the only women she met were those who held positions such as administrative assistants. None were company leaders or business investors.
“I think the lack of gender equality of the Silicon Valley area is a symptom of an immature industry,” Gardner said.
In addition to a lack of diversity, Gardner said she has another concern: data privacy. While many people are concerned about government surveillance, she is weary of vast amounts of data being collected by for-profit companies.
“I worry not just about what the advertisers know and how the information is traded, I also worry increasingly about companies that are going to be bought and sold for parts,” Gardner said. “The whole game in Silicon Valley is that a lot of companies are just going to go under. What is going to happen to the information that they have? I don’t think we’re worried enough about that.”