From Robotic Process Automation to digital transformation

Source: Tijd Connect (28/11/2017)

From Robotic Process Automation (RPA) to artificial intelligence (AI) and cognitive computing: the digital revolution is a fact, and that is good news. Karim Hajjar from Solvay, Robert Boute from Vlerick Business School and Thierry Mortier from EY talk about the challenges and opportunities on the road to intelligent automation.

Thierry Mortier / Karim Hajjar / Robert Boute
From left to right: Thierry Mortier (EY), Karim Hajjar (Solvay) and Robert Boute (Vlerick Business School); Copyright: Frank Toussaint

Why is RPA in the spotlight?

Boute: In the past you could implement your processes manually or opt for an expensive and serious ERP solution. Now with RPA there is a third choice available. RPA software packages allow repetitive processes to be simply automated, with little impact on IT systems.

Mortier: In the last year we have seen things speed up a lot. The greatest progress has been witnessed in the financial sector and in utilities, but also in the back offices of financial departments and other centres in which many transactions take place. That is to say, RPA works best for large numbers of repetitive tasks. With our clients, we see that approximately 80 per cent of the large businesses work with RPA. In our country, services, telecom operators, big banks and large industrial players such as Solvay are all working hard on this. Medium-sized businesses still need to put more effort into it.

Hajjar: Solvay is using RPA in a number of processes, for example to install software for new staff or to handle holiday requests, which used to be a big job. It's still too early to see a big financial impact. This will become clear when, on the basis of our first experiences, we focus on our four shared service centres, where more than a thousand standard processes are managed. RPA can make a difference here, but that requires more than just the implementation of a software package. The processes must be streamlined, which requires a fundamental rethink of the whole process management and the role of automation.

Boute: In operations, businesses are looking at RPA as the next step in the process of becoming a lean business. This often involves focusing on reducing waste, speeding up processes and minimising mistakes. It is clearly a mature technology with a proven business case.

First step

RPA is only the first step in the digital process?

Hajjar: Correct, the digital revolution goes a lot further. For Solvay the real value is in data analysis, AI and cognitive learning. Together with a number of partners we are making our first, cautious steps in this direction. A nice example is the process for approving invoices. After extensive data analysis, our bot noticed that there were bottlenecks as a consequence of some staff performing certain actions that deviated from standard processes. Thanks to focused training and the completion of process documentation, the running time for the process was reduced from five to three working days.

Another potential application in the near future is making the credit analysis process intelligent. A better assessment of the credit worthiness of our customers potentially has huge financial consequences. But for Solvay, the real opportunity is making research, innovation and industrial processes smarter. In the coming years, digital technology will certainly be able to optimise and update internal processes, but also allow us to connect better with our stakeholders.

We are being supported in this process by scrupulously choosing partners that deliver in practice what they claim to deliver on paper. One of the reasons we started working with EY is their successful internal digitisation process.

Karim Hajjar, Solvay Group CFO: 'It's important to spend money sometimes just to test something out, to learn from disappointments and to try once more.’

Boute: You see wide-ranging digital innovation in software too. AI and cognitive learning are employed in intelligent control towers that monitor and analyse transport flows. The bots propose new solutions to optimise the transport. Amazon is a shining example of this.

Mortier: The digital revolution has begun in all echelons of business. EY is responding to this by increasingly aligning innovation recommendations with specific functions or industries. Our WAVESPACE innovation labs used to be structured around technologies, but now this happens in a much more specialised way. For instance, a lab has just opened in Frankfurt that specifically focuses on the digitisation and innovation of the finance function, for example by using blockchain technology.

Are AI and cognitive learning already well-developed?

Mortier: The technology for AI and robotics is definitely available. For example, there are modules for voice recognition, image recognition, for processing and producing natural language. This can be very easily integrated in software. Right now, the technology has not been implemented on a wide scale in many businesses, and the providers are often small, vulnerable parties, but this is evolving very rapidly.

What are the stumbling blocks?

Boute: Digital technology is no magic wand. The IT department must of course be on board. That's where it can go wrong, as IT departments are often set up around ERP systems. Another common mistake is wanting to automate without streamlining processes, which of course does not work.

Hajjar: The business culture is one of the largest stumbling blocks. To allow our digital transformation to succeed, a sustainable digital culture is a must. Embracing opportunities to change and trying something new without knowing how it will turn out ... that takes guts.

Mortier: Innogy, a spinoff off from German energy giant RWE, is a nice example of a business that does have the necessary courage. Via a large transformation programme, the entire middle management is being primed to work with new digital technology. In three to four years' time, the potential impact of such a programme is enormous.

Professor Robert Boute, Operations Management Vlerick Business School: ‘It is not about the implementation of one single digital solution, but a broad digital transformation.’

Culture shock

How can you make a success of your digitisation process?

Boute: Automation must be embedded in your organisation. Culturally, everyone must be involved. You cannot only work on the implementation of one single digital solution; rather it is one step in a broad digital transformation.

Mortier: It's essential that RPA and digitisation generally is supported from the bottom. Finding the right balance between freedom and control is perhaps the most important success factor. I'm speaking from experience: at EY, staff worldwide have created over 1,000 bots, and it was no mean feat to streamline the use and maintenance of these bots – basically a virtual workforce.

Thierry Mortier, partner and Technology Advisory Leader: ‘RPA and AI must already be seen as the sixth sense of employees, and are first and foremost there to take the annoying, repetitive tasks off our hands.’

Hajjar: As CFO of a large group, it's important to spend money sometimes just to test something out, to learn from disappointments and to try once more. In today's digital world it would be a mistake to presume that change is not necessary and will not happen. It's happening already. We must invest now, even if this involves lots of uncertainty.

Human factor

How do you get employees involved?

Mortier: Automation and digitisation are creating a sixth sense for employees. If you allow the employees to really realise that they can leave boring tasks to robots, then they become enthusiastic and their fears disappear. If you work in finance, and you no longer have to work till four in the morning to do your quarterly reports, that's nice, no?

Hajjar: I'm less optimistic. Jobs will go. Nevertheless, at the same time we will create new opportunities that will result in economic growth. In a number of years' time there will be new jobs that today we know nothing of. That is a big challenge. The dialogue with staff must be very open throughout the entire process and you really have to get them on board.

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