Finding the sweet spot of human-centric RPA

A diverse set of social and technological actors is required to maximise the humanistic and instrumental benefits of robotic process automation.
Rennie Naidoo
By Rennie Naidoo, Professor in Information Systems (IS) at the Wits School of Business Sciences.
Johannesburg, 27 Jan 2022

According to Gartner, robotic process automation (RPA) is one of the fastest-growing segments in the enterprise software market. This growth is not surprising given that RPA software can radically improve manually-intensive and partially automated tasks and procedures in various business processes.

RPA can be defined as a set of automated software tools used for repetitive, simple tasks and procedures with minimal human involvement. These automated tools use software tools or scripts, referred to as robots, or ‘bots’ in short, to perform tasks or procedures on structured data in other computer systems or software to automate manual tasks.

Many business processes can be fairly labour-intensive, consisting of numerous mundane, repetitive, rule-based tasks and procedures. As these tasks and procedures take up a lot of time from staff and leave room for error, they are ideal candidates for RPA.

These tasks can be further automated by using intelligent RPA, which extends traditional RPA by exploiting recent advances in cognitive technologies, artificial intelligence, big data and smart analytics.

According to a recent Capgemini survey, despite the many benefits of RPA, general uptake across the globe continues to be low, with only 16% of organisations adopting these technologies at scale. Significantly, the same study also finds the major benefits of RPA remain unclear to many stakeholders.

While RPA software can radically improve business processes, building an RPA capability requires significant investment of time, money and people.

IT units tend to emphasise the implementation of RPA technologies. Such a one-sided perspective neglects the argument that beneficial RPA emerges when talented people in the organisation combine their collective expertise together with RPA technologies.

Shift focus to realise RPA benefits

The major reason organisations invest in RPA is the realisation of benefits that are valuable to the company and its different stakeholder groups. Since the benefits of RPA can only be achieved through the application of business process management, human talent and skills, and organisational change, it is important the various groups of stakeholders, who have to change the traditional business processes, understand the benefits of RPA to the organisation.

As practices shift from manually-intensive and partially automated procedures to RPA, a collaborative effort is required to realise maximum benefits from RPA.

An area of growing practical importance in digital transformation is the value of positive long-term relationships with stakeholders and stakeholder inclusion. Lack of stakeholder engagement can lead to dissatisfaction, distrust, resistance, and ultimately, the failure of RPA implementations.

While RPA software can radically improve business processes, building an RPA capability requires significant investment of time, money and people.

A stakeholder orientation sensitises one to recognise it is not good practice for IT and business to work in isolation on RPA. Different stakeholder groups should be involved from the conception to the operations phase of RPA implementations.

While this may sound like common sense, managing the different perspectives of stakeholders during an IT-enabled organisational change that involves RPA software can present a formidable challenge to those individuals championing the change.

As a start, identifying the benefits and the beneficiaries of an IS-enabled change effort can play an important role in ensuring the majority of the targeted RPA benefits are realised.

Manage the diverse set of RPA interest groups

Stakeholders can be defined as individuals and groups who can affect or are affected by an IT-enabled process improvement initiative. RPA typically involves a range of stakeholders, from the strategic and tactical levels to the operational levels.

For example, beneficiaries can include the CEO, COO, other C-levels, functional managers and operations staff. As such, RPA involves multiple stakeholders at multiple levels in the organisation.

Managing these stakeholders effectively involves defining and identifying key stakeholders using tools such as a stakeholder analysis. For example, it is important to identify a suitable sponsor, business owner and end-user champion for an RPA project.

There is also the use of ethical principles as a stakeholder approach emphasises the moral obligation of managers to adopt a more inclusive approach to managing the humanistic interests of multiple stakeholders, as opposed to focusing on the instrumental interests of shareholders alone.

Since RPA benefits are realised through the efforts of the organisational members, it is important from an ethical standpoint to respect and manage the interests of a wide group of stakeholders.

Notwithstanding, RPA champions need to assess the instrumental effectiveness of their stakeholder management approach. Here practitioners should monitor the effectiveness of their stakeholder management process in delivering positive RPA instrumental (speed, accuracy, lower costs) and humanistic outcomes (job enrichment, job satisfaction, work climate).

For example, in the initial phases, one can assess if key stakeholders are involved in building the business case to motivate an RPA investment. Furthermore, one can assess whether key stakeholder commitment has been obtained to support the organisational change required to deliver the targeted RPA benefits.

An inclusive approach to RPA

RPA involves stakeholders such as the executive committee, system owners, end-users and IT professionals.

Given the importance of developing internal RPA capabilities and benefits realisation, a multi-stakeholder model inclusive of strategic, tactical and operational stakeholders is recommended for RPA transformation efforts. Neither a strategic, tactical or operational emphasis alone is sufficient to ensure the maximum realisation of benefits from RPA.

A broad and more inclusive stakeholder perspective is a valuable starting point for analysing and addressing the lack of clarity about the business benefits of RPA among the different interest groups in the organisation.

A focus on stakeholders and instrumental and humanistic benefits will provide more transparency and should achieve greater buy-in among senior management, middle management and cross-functional teams that are involved in an RPA transformation.

This proposed stakeholder orientation inclusive of a diverse set of organisational actors is not novel but is meant to serve as yet another reminder about the value of balancing humanistic and instrumental goals in digital transformations.