Robots laundering IT budgets?

Automate a bad process or fix the process first?

As consultancies start expanding their robotics process automation offerings (RPA) and the software and related services begin permeating through enterprises’ procurement, human resources, IT, and even internal audit, a curious debate has surfaced between the merits of opting for careful and meticulous process assessment, documentation and improvement or just deciding to throw some robots at the process to get the cost savings benefits as quickly as possible.

I’m not surprised this discussion surfaced, given the rapid adoption of RPA solutions by companies in a wide variety of industries and the sustained investment by IT services vendors and consultancies in the people and assets needed to implement RPA (see any of our reporting in the last year on EY, Accenture, PwC or Capgemini). What surprises me is where the vendors and clients come down on this debate. At a recent three-day event, I listened to fairly passionate discussions on this topic, with clients taking the position that a company needs to do the standard evaluate-improve-refine process for their processes before applying automation. In contrast, the consultants — the ones best positioned to provide advisory services around that standard approach and charge for those services — argued for the fast fix-and-go approach. One consultant noted, “Throw robots at a bad process if it saves time and money now. … Then reinvest those savings into whatever else you need completed.” One client, who changed her mind by the third day after absorbing the consultants’ lessons, described some processes as tasks that employees “deplore, but must be done accurately, timely and repeatedly to help run the business.” She said RPA could be applied to these, with the savings poured into new artificial intelligence or other desired-but-not-a-priority initiatives.

Of course, it’s not that easy, or robots would be doing every deplorable task and automating every aggravating process

And plenty of consultancies will continue to offer process optimization and change management as core elements to most engagements. I’ll be watching the consultancies that have invested heavily in RPA and how they describe their engagements, which clients they highlight, and how their talent models shift over the next year. I’ll also be looking for examples of companies embracing rapid RPA deployments, knowing not every process was improved, but they threw the robots at them. Most importantly, we will be asking about the redeployment of those costs savings.

My colleague Jen Hamel’s Digital Transformation Customer Research, published in March, noted that clients haven’t been investing as much in data management, “despite the struggle organizations face with underlying data integrity and standardization issues that hamstring generation of actionable insight and limit analytics solution value.” She went on to note that TBR expects “this trend will be exacerbated by the proliferation of connected devices, ingestion of new data from the incorporation of additional sensor technology and breakdown of silos accelerating data inputs as processes are transformed.” So, if I had to bet, I’d say the smarter enterprises will be plowing RPA savings into the less-exciting, more-impactful data management tools or enhanced capabilities around risk and compliance. As Jen also pointed out, “[As] 66% of DT [digital transformation] services buyers used a vendor from a prior IT services engagement, existing relationships in clients’ IT organizations are a good starting place for ascertaining and accessing DT budgets.” We’ll be watching this closely, all the while wishing I had a robot to do the watching while I do the thinking.


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