RPA: Are You Thinking About Introducing Robots into Your Business Processes?

By Henrik Nyberg on April 12, 2017

You probably started thinking about Robotic Process Automation (RPA) a long time ago. One of the clear trends in RPA and AI is around doing more and more administrative work. More decisions will be made by robots and we’ll likely rely on AI more often for decision making support. It’s not a question of whether it will happen – but how fast it will happen. As an SAP community, we need to ask ourselves how to best use robots and AI, and how we’ll transform IT support today to fulfill the demands and expectations of the future.

What is a robot?

RPASo what is a robot or an AI from an IT perspective? A robot is something that performs physical work – a machine that welds, paints or completes a repetitive task. A robot is an algorithm that performs something a human would otherwise do by typing on the keyboard or clicking the mouse. Consider a rule in Outlook that automatically moves marketing e-mails from your inbox to a folder. Is that a robot? Is an algorithm that determines if a bank loan should be approved IF the size of the loan is smaller than the customer’s yearly income multiplied by 10 AND the person has no recorded credit issues an AI? The only established definition of what an AI is is the Turing test, which isn’t useful here (The Turing test defines if an algorithm is an AI).  The definition of what robots and AI are or aren’t is blurry in an IT/business context. And if a robot is defined as a robot, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s more effective than something that is not. For example: Investing in a ‘digging robot’ might not be a better choice than buying an excavator.

There are things robots are better suited for than humans and some things robots don’t do as well or are unable to do. Humans are capable of creativity, empathy and responsibility. All work tasks that require any of these qualities should be done by humans. Robots on the other hand will never tire, get bored or get sloppy which makes them perfect for repetitive tasks that don’t require any of the qualities unique to humans. Some processes can be automated by almost 100%. Invoice to pay is a classic example: If the purchase is approved and the value and quantity matches the purchase order, there is no human decision to make. But even in this very automation friendly process, there will be exceptions that will require human intervention.

How do you build processes where robots and humans cooperate?

In reality, all processes in the future will consist of a mix of human and robot/AI work. Nothing will be fully automated. Go visit a highly automated production plant and you’ll see there are still humans that are doing different tasks. To make this mixed workplace successful, you need to put effective interfaces in place. The relevant questions are:

  • How should humans complete their tasks effectively (that require their unique qualities: creativity, empathy and responsibility) in an otherwise automated process?
  • What tools are needed and how should they be configured? How should relevant questions and context be presented?
  • How can humans initiate robotic work as effectively as possible? What is the best way to instruct and monitor robots and AIs?

Traditionally when people have talked about user interfaces, its always been around look and feel. But it should have been about efficiency; how can a user complete a task as quickly as possible, with minimal mistakes and minimal training? In the future, the main UI/UX question will be about handover: What is the easiest way to hand over work from human to machine, and from machine to human so both can create high quality work? And yes, even robots do poor quality work if given inaccurate data or instructions.

How to get from the ‘As is’ to the future solution?

Some say that solutions like Winshuttle are obsolete now that RPA has entered the scene. Now that you can give a robot an Excel sheet that can do all of your work for you, do you need solutions that automate SAP transactions with Excel integration? For example, if a robot can create SAP materials and users only need to enter the information unique to the new material, you probably don’t need a solution like Winshuttle to automates material creation.

In the end, it’s all about finding a solution that can put as much of the repetitive work as possible in the hands of machines and making the handoff as easy as possible. Winshuttle will not solve every business problem, but we solve many of the productivity problems in SAP very effectively. There are two main ways humans interact with SAP:

  • Managing exceptions or single tasks: For this kind or work, Fiori is a good tool. Sometimes this process needs a human to make decisions, and you can present options and context. A simple example is the approval of a vacation request where you might want Yes/No buttons, information about the departments expected work load for the time period and the person’s available vacation days.
  • Interaction to trigger bulk work: Excel is a great tool for the type of work. Excel is the de-facto standard to process larger data quantities, and everybody knows the basics of Excel (yes, everybody!). One example of a task you might want to do in Excel is updating prices when a new price list is released.

Lean development, and a big misconception about candles.

There is a flawed quote that’s gone viral in social media today. It says: “The light bulb was not invented from the continuous development of candles.” It’s witty and the message is that revolutionary new things don’t come from tinkering with what you have – at least not bold new inventions. That’s false! The light bulb did actually come from the continuous development of candles. The candle has a wick molded into a cylinder of wax. To make it refillable and to increase the light emitted, wax was replaced with a bottle of kerosene. To eliminate the wick and enable fuel distribution through pipes, kerosene was replaced with gas. This enabled the street light. Then the heat source was replaced with an electrical one which simplified power distribution and made it possible to bring it into homes. The last step has been to minimize the heat loss which is why we now have LED lights. If there were no efforts for continuous development, we’d still be burning candles!

Winshuttle works the same way. We help customers establish automatic and effective processes in small steps with a lean approach, where the focus is to deliver as much value as possible with the least amount of effort. Instead of launching a big ‘Robotics Program’ customers can start Monday and have the most cumbersome work tasks 90% more effective by Friday. Businesses can then automate tasks further, add approval steps to ensure compliance and eliminate e-mail based processes. They can apply more advanced rules to take away more and more of the manual effort and make the changes needed to adapt to the changing world.

So the question isn’t “How can I get into RPA?” The question you should ask is: “How can I develop my business processes so I can do as much work as possible with the least amount of effort?” If you want to call that robotics – by all means, please do.