A version of this article was first published in The Future of Sourcing Magazine, “RPA, Its Future and You: Surprising Revelations.” An excerpt is provided here.
Less than two per cent of the global outsourcing market is affected by robotic process automation (RPA). And yet, some estimates show that the growth of RPA use may approach 90 per cent year-over-year, according to an interview with Everest Group VP Sarah Burnett at a recent seminar organised by Accenture.
In this day of artificial intelligence applied to everything, the thought that service providers have only scratched the surface with automation for their own services could be shocking to many – especially when these providers are under constant competitive and client pressures.
Interviews with 100 key BPO managers and their clients regarding document processing services – underwritten by Parascript for upcoming publication – reveal that a primary objective at over two-thirds of businesses is to increase top-line revenue through service offerings. Correspondingly, two-thirds believe that it is important to improve margins associated with these services while less than half were strongly leaning toward automation in order to reduce reliance on manual labour. In fact, almost half of those interviewed stated that they use no automation at all.
If margins associated with revenue growth are so important, why the reluctance to implement automation? Digging deeper, we see two common culprits associated with the lack of adoption.
First is the inability to deal with multiple sources of documents, which can vary markedly in terms of quality, within a single workflow stream. The second is the lack of standardisation of automation technologies throughout the service provider’s projects and/or client base.
Document Processing and Its Unpredictability
When it comes to processing a client’s documents, it is often the case that quality control regarding how those documents are created cannot be 100 per cent controlled by the service provider. For instance, if the documents are paper, they might be scanned by a number of devices, each with varying degrees of image quality or with different resolutions. Even though use has dropped significantly for supporting business transactions, fax machines are still a popular and low-cost way to get documents from one place to another. This results in image control problems including low resolution and scaling issues.
Images can also be “stretched” or altered in other ways that result in higher frequencies of exceptions. If documents are a mix of scanned and electronic, the inability to manage them in the same workflow increases operational costs and complexity for the service provider. If submitted by mobile phone, a high percentage will be inappropriate for automated processing due to significant quality variances.
Standardisation, or the lack of it, also contributes to higher overhead. Staffing costs grow when a service provider must train and maintain a staff skilled in more than one solution or toolset. Deployment costs increase if the provider cannot achieve economies of scale through higher utilisation of purchased technology. In addition, standardisation increases operational costs associated with the inability to consolidate hardware infrastructure and systems management activities.
A number of other factors point to a lack of staff, skills or time required for understanding, implementing and maintaining automation. Technology options, for many operations managers, cannot compete from an “ease-of-use” perspective with manual labour.
This leads to a predisposition to support new clients and provide new services by relying on manual processes. Essentially hiring and training new staff is viewed as a simpler, quicker means to support new revenue. This is often chosen over the perceived risk of implementing automation.
The above factors are significant hurdles to the adoption of automation technology. Reducing the complexity and risk through the adoption of automation technology needs to come along with understanding best practices and how to identify the low-hanging fruit.
While service provider organisations might be separated into service delivery groups either based upon their clients or their service offerings, having a clear plan on how to standardise on common platforms is essential in order to optimise efficiencies associated with skill development and operational management of the technology. Many providers treat specific client projects as discreet technology investments, largely due to specific customer requirements that ultimately drive technology acquisition decisions. The technology should suit the client, and therefore, specific tools and software should be procured.
Increasingly the concept of either shared services or a “center of excellence” is being adopted as a means to reduce complexity through either a common internal set of managed services or a standard “basket” of technologies that have best practices frameworks for client-specific deployment.
Either approach allows the service provider to narrow-down the available universe of technologies to those that best fit the service offerings or client needs while also developing specific expertise that can be leveraged throughout the organisation.
Unify Channels and Processes
Just as gains are made through adoption of common services or technology frameworks, gains can be made by designing workflow processes that take into account all input channel sources. Often service providers tailor receiving workflows based upon a client, erecting facilities, staff and technology to suit. Regardless of whether receipts come from a fax, FTP, scanner, email or mobile, a common platform can be implemented that can shepherd each based upon the needs specific to the type of channel or the needs of the client while aggregating the common functions and workflows associated with document identification, data extraction and data perfection. This means that providers can identify best-of-breed technologies and implement them to maximise flexibility via a BPM layer.
A single implementation of a business process management platform can accommodate not only multiple channels of document receiving, but also multiple clients with multiple channels, each with their own requirements. Claims from one client captured via fax can undergo preprocessing that includes resizing, removing noise and perhaps resolution enhancement before moving to data extraction while loan applications received by mobile phone can undergo document ID, reformatting and then conformity checks—all on the same platform.
Freedom from Unnecessary Constraints
The purpose of automation is to free the service provider of unnecessary constraints, not impose new ones. The reality is that adoption of automation is not simple. That does not mean economies of scale cannot be achieved, regardless of the complexity. Available technologies are increasingly making use of advanced artificial intelligence to lower the hurdles associated with adapting capabilities to specific solution and client requirements.
Whatever the application, two key considerations are first to enable document automation so that it has the maximum impact without increasing complexity and costs, and second, to consolidate the key technologies and the workflows associated with receiving the data.