RPA investment continues to surge

Companies are investing heavily in robotic process automation (RPA) to carve out a competitive advantage, according to a survey of executives from 450 companies in 14 markets worldwide (including Australia) conducted by protiviti. The survey found the average annual spend on RPA was around US$5 million, with the largest organisations planning to invest up to US$20 million.

Businesses are planning to deploy RPA in virtually every function of their organisations, with usage having progressed the most in IT management as well as marketing and communications. Over the next two years, deployment is expected to spread most rapidly in functions including auditing and compliance, supply chain management and human resources.

But many organisations are still only in the early stages of RPA implementation, with the majority of respondents still at the planning or experimenting stage.

Although the survey found cost reduction is not among the most important direct advantages of RPA, companies nonetheless anticipate substantial benefits in this area.

Between 77% and 93% of organizations. depending on the industry, expect to see cost cuts as a result of RPA usage over the next two years. It's also important to note that other cited benefits of RPA, such as increased productivity, will lower costs.

'We see RPA as a huge driver of improved performance and efficiency," says Prakash Mall, senior director of RPA and chat­bots at Target 'That correlates back to productivity gains, accuracy and customer experience."

The telecommunications, media and technology, and financial services industries were found to be more advanced in their adoption of RPA technology, while healthcare, consumer goods (including retail) and manufacturing and distribution organisations lag. Energy and utilities companies are even further behind.

Joel Cherkis, vice president for product management at UiPath, says that automating highly repetitive tasks and clearing backlogs are common starting points for executives when they look at what they would like to accomplish with RPA.

The UK Department for Work and Pensions, for instance, had a backlog of some 30,000 applications that would have taken months to process. Pensioners would have had to wait in the queue to have their requests processed. To prevent that, the agency turned to RPA and cleared the backlog in a matter of days.

Michael Marchuk, chief technology evangelist for Blue Prism, says marketing units are developing some of the most powerful RPA apps.

"They are getting traction with customers and clients in ways they haven't before," he says. "Marketing can automate communications to engage with customers and even build new communication channels."

Some companies leverage RPA to improve processes directly related to the customer experience. A major retailer. for one, uses RPA in managing its supply chain to avoid stock outages that can frustrate customers. Bots automatically reorder stock when the inventory management system indicates supply has fallen to a designated level. In the case of this major retailer, not only is merchandise more reliably in stock, but store managers also have more time to focus on the customers in their stores.

Also of note, RPA usage is steadily moving from back-office functions to front-end customer interactions, particularly call centres. For example, by automating caller identification, including aggregation of caller data from different systems, agents can be freed up to spend more time solving problems and helping clients.

RPA can also help companies avoid the expense of replacing outdated legacy systems. Peter Henstock, a senior data scientist at Pfizer, says that bots can "work around" legacy systems by extracting data from various systems that aren't connected. The bots can then perform the tasks that these systems can't do on their own.

Similarly, some companies use RPA as a stopgap while deciding what type of data repositories will work best for them. Bots can pull information from different legacy systems and aggregate it, giving managers and executives access to information critical for timely decision-making.