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Robotics Process Automation - Have we given up on ERP?

Robotics Process Automation

Robotics Process Automation - Have we given up on ERP?

From the writer

Donald Teale, KPMG in Kuwait

I stated that R.P.A was a child of the Artificial Intelligence era, so what if we combine R.P.A with Machine Learning, what if it is possible for the bot to learn from its users and to adapt itself to new requirements. Now that will be something quite exciting.

Robotics Process Automation - Have we given up on ERP?

No of course not, but Robotic Process Automation (R.P.A) is one of the latest trends to drop out of the Artificial Intelligence (AI) craze, Robotic Process Automation is effectively using technology to replace processes that are currently being undertaken on computers by humans, or as I like to refer to them as ‘Big macros’.

A number of research and media companies have published some significant numbers in relation to the spending and benefits to be gained from replacing ‘carbon-based’ staff members with ‘bots’, as they are diminutively known. 

In my opinion it is the proliferation of processing power that has created this issue, where huge amounts of data can now be easily manipulated through trial and error system, by operators cutting and pasting, hunting around for the perfect report, or responding to employee requests that will only take a few minutes, per transaction.  We should not underestimate human nature that does love a repetitive task, otherwise, a lot of hobbies such as knitting or fishing would have died out long ago.

The title is a little ‘tongue in cheek’, ERP will not disappear, but many of the current processes which are ripe for R.P.A are currently manipulating data that is exported from ERP, HR, or Finance systems, to compensate for reports that have not been pre-configured, such as using lookup tables from a variety of spreadsheets, and combining various data sources in a multitude of formats.

So anyone that finds themselves doing the same thing on their PC again and again and again, and has a little crib sheet of what fields go where, could be replaced soon by a bot, or more politically correctly, could be released to undertake more value-adding tasks.

It is not just the payroll costs that are being cut by bots, which are very inexpensive to deploy, but other benefits include improved accuracy, 24x7 availability, and fast turnaround times.

All good news then – well yes - kind of - but there’s a but.

The reason why so many processes are currently being undertaken by humans and have not already been replaced by the ERP or a bot, is that humans are very good at diagnosing errors, adapting, and manipulating.  Many of the documented failures of R.P.A have been where the quality of the source data is just too ropey for the bot to handle, and rules to adapt to every perverse input the users might come up with can be just too challenging for the programmers.  The most common uses of R.P.A today are limited to manipulating data, often stored on spreadsheets, and the old adage still holds of: “More than one tab, more than one error”.  The other current challenge is process variations and potential scenarios.  Easily comprehended by human operators but difficult to explain to a bunch of energized silicon chips.

In order to achieve a successful deployment of an R.P.A, the process has to be fully understood, the data sources accurate, or predictably inaccurate, and a clear output objective.

Chatbots that start with “How can I help you today?” and end after you have just typed in your life story with “I don’t think I have an answer to that.” Can actually damage the customer experience.  Luckily I have forgotten exactly which site I was on when I got that message.

In Kuwait we have the dichotomy of a really powerful incentive for R.P.A, but a significant challenge. 

The incentive is not cost reduction but Kuwaitisation.  One bank has recently attributed a major increase in quarterly profits to R.P.A, but considering the banking sector has one of the highest thresholds of Kuwaitisation at over 70%, anything they can do to reduce the expat workforce will be of benefit, and it is no secret that most business back offices are staffed by expats.  The bank has to hire seven nationals to retain just one expat.

So what about the significant challenge?  Data discipline.  In a country that has been slow to make use of internal data sources, the discipline of data entry is extremely poor.  Justifiably, no one cares about the out, garbage or otherwise, if there is no out.  Combined with working routinely in two, quite dissimilar, languages, and communicating in literally dozens of other languages, the quality of most databases is terrible.  

Case in hand

A simple example that KPMG is toying with internally is Salary Certificates, payslips are not common in Kuwait and there are a variety of transactions for which an employee requires a Salary Certificate, such as Bank Loan, Hire Purchase agreements, or competing job offer.

Currently, to request a Salary Certificate, the employee contacts their HR Business Partner, who will ask the HR Back Office to access the payroll, then check the details, produce a letter, send to the head of HR to check again, then countersign, the forward to the Managing Partner to authorize.  Three days in a quiet month. 

This is a simple and easily configured R.P.A, where the employee can simply send an email with the words Salary Certificate somewhere in the subject line, and the computer will take care of everything else, and send the certificate directly to the Management Partner’s printer for signature. 

“Please collect your certificate in 45 minutes”

There is, however, a storm on the horizon, and it could be coming your way.  Another thing that has fallen by the wayside post-Denning, is our ability to document.  If you have just got the IM Intern, who is working in the office over the summer to develop a whole suite of R.P.A’s which have replaced your whole back office, what are you going to do, if something changes.

Back to the first paragraph, I stated that R.P.A was a child of the Artificial Intelligence era, so what if we combine R.P.A with Machine Learning, what if it is possible for the bot to learn from its users and to adapt itself to new requirements.  Now that will be something quite exciting.

Footnote

*Throughout this blog, “we”, “KPMG”, “us” and “our” refer to the network of independent member firms operating under the KPMG name and affiliated with KPMG International or to one or more of these firms or to KPMG International. KPMG International provides no client services. No member firm has any authority to obligate or bind KPMG International or any other member firm vis-à-vis third parties, nor does KPMG International have any such authority to obligate or bind any member firm.

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