RPA in its infancy at SA learning institutions

South Africa's educators and learners are missing out on the opportunities presented by robotic process automation (RPA).

Johannesburg, 29 Apr 2019
Read time 6min 10sec
Allen Pascoe, head of the Robotic Process Automation unit, Datafinity.
Allen Pascoe, head of the Robotic Process Automation unit, Datafinity.

In this era of digitalised everything, many of South Africa's higher education and associated learning institutions still use manual, paper-based processes for things like enrolling students, examination results and grant proposals. Why does this matter? According to Allen Pascoe, head of the Robotic Process Automation unit at Datafinity, this means university and learning institution employees are still performing the manual labour- and time-intensive capturing of data, and it also means students may be experiencing delays in processing their applications, results and other vital information.

Yet, around the world, companies and government departments are moving beyond mere digitalisation and are adopting robotic process automation (RPA). A 2017 RPA survey by Deloitte revealed 53% of respondents had started their RPA journey. This number is expected to increase to 72% by 2020.

In February this year, the European Parliament issued a comprehensive policy on artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, acknowledging the important role these technologies are expected to play going forward, and seeking to support a co-ordinated approach to meet the challenges, but also to make the most of the opportunities presented. In the policy document, it acknowledges that Europe is lagging North America and Asia in terms of research in the field of AI. However, says Pascoe, South Africa is even further behind in its adoption of robotic and AI technologies.

Pascoe says: "When we talk process improvement, at its most basic level it's about moving from paper to electronic, which, at the time, was regarded as progressive. If you had an ERP system, you could take that one step further and implement self-service to some extent. Robotics takes that to the next level, enabling you to integrate all of the different platforms and have a seamless end-to-end process that's orchestrated by artificial intelligence."

Yet, South Africa's businesses, not to mention educational institutions, are lagging the rest of the world when it comes to digitisation and digitalisation, let alone RPA. "Using manual processes for managing the way in which institutions are run is likely to bring about errors, repetition of tasks and wasted staff time. Yet, in the South African higher education and learning space, as far as I'm aware, nobody has yet fully adopted RPA despite the technology being available for a while. If you consider the size of our universities and the number of learners, the average university receives in excess of 100 000 applications annually, the transactional volume is enormous."

The majority of transactions performed at higher education institutions are currently manual or, at most, semi-digitised, with limited intelligent automation whatsoever. "Online registration is often as far as it goes, so there's enormous potential for those mundane processes to be automated and streamlined," says Pascoe. "This would free up personnel to do more value-added stuff such as interfacing with the students and adding more value to those interactions."

One example of a process that would benefit from automation is the updating of learners' marks. "These need to be updated continuously into the central system. At the end of every year there's a scramble for universities to validate and update results so they can offer places to qualifying candidates." Automating this process so it can be done quickly and accurately will enable the institution to offer places to the best academic candidates before they can accept positions at other universities.

"Staff in university registration departments generally work long hours at the beginning of the year to capture matric results and ensure that firm offers are made to prime candidates. Robotics can really streamline that process, reduce errors and speed up those offer letters without much human intervention, which reduces or even eliminates the need for people to work overtime."

Pascoe is quick to point out that RPA does not mean rip-and-replace: "The majority of local institutions have legacy systems and an RPA solution is a non-invasive way to automate and integrate across multiple platforms and systems, regardless of brand or make, which means a fully integrated robotic process could be implemented in a matter of weeks."

Not only does implementing RPA increase the university's return on investment in technology and increase efficiency, it enables the institution to interact with millennial students in the way that they prefer, digitally for routine, mundane tasks and face-to-face for more personalised interactions.

The early use cases for RPA have been automating high volume standard processes such as those typically found in finance departments. Pascoe says: "However, there are many other areas that can be positively impacted by RPA, such as customer service, human resources, procurement and even facilities management. The ability to automate everything from reporting a fault, obtaining a quote, assigning a contractor, processing their invoice, inspecting the repair and paying the invoice can be streamlined to require minimal human intervention, speeding up the process significantly. It also provides an audit trail, should a query be raised at a later stage."

It is abundantly clear that leadership needs to educate their workforce in anticipation for the new world of work. Higher education and learning institutions need an RPA champion who supports the digitalisation journey and drives the reskilling of the current workforce so that they're ready for the next phase of work life. The future will require people to be a lot more IT savvy; all of the people in the workplace will need to understand process management and have a fundamental understanding of intelligent robotics and IT principles and practices. The reskilling of the digitalisation team will be fundamental to the success of the institution's RPA journey.

The general benefits for learning institutions of implementing RPA across manual processes that are labour-intensive and involve massive amounts of data include, inter alia:

* Clearing backlogs, creating capacity and improving data quality;
* Improving sharing of information between departments;
* Improving reporting and analytics;
* Governance and compliance;
* Easier audits;
* Faster onboarding of new learners;
* Improving student records management;
* Faster and more accurate processing of exam/assignment results; and
* Improving 'contact time' and institutional brand enhancement.

One of the most commonly asked questions around RPA is what does this mean for the humans? There is an oft-expressed concern that implementing robotics will result in people losing their jobs. However, says Pascoe, RPA should rather be regarded as something that augments the person's current job, allowing him/her to do things that add more value to the business and his/her personal work experience and job satisfaction.

The fourth industrial wave, as it is referred to, is here and should be embraced with positivity and utilised as an opportunity to augment, enhance and streamline work practices. A clear understanding of roles and additional opportunities will be a clear leadership differentiator as we move forward along this exciting journey.