Productivity is the cornerstone of modern business. In a global economy characterized by speed and dynamism, businesses need to do more in less time and with fewer resources. Anything else risks falling behind more agile, forward-thinking competitors.
Back-office tasks tend to be repetitive, labor-intensive, and time-consuming, leaving them vulnerable to human error. But with promising new leaps in robotic process automation (RPA) and intelligent automation (IA), these tasks can be simplified. This saves organizations time and money and relieves employees so they can perform more interesting and creative tasks.
Instant and accurate results are an expectation of modern society and people cannot keep up with the demands alone. Delivering around-the-clock service costs time and money – quickly eating into businesses’ bottom line. That’s why there’s been a surge of interest in robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), and business process management (BPM) as the efficient and cost-effective answer to these challenges. Now it’s simplified with back-office automation software.
What Back-Office Automation Means
Your back office is the engine room of your organization. Much of the work done here determines the success of your business. The front-facing operations of the business can only evolve so far without first transforming your vital back-office processes. Whether it’s in finance handling record-keeping, HR keeping your workforce healthy and productive, IT managing high volumes of data and security, or procurement ensuring purchasing continues, it’s this often-unseen work defining the potential growth of a business.
However, people can only focus on doing the same repetitive tasks for so many hours a day. After that, mistakes creep in and progress slows. Many organizations have hundreds if not thousands of applications, leaving room for inefficient legacy systems or siloed data sources. This lowers productivity and reflects poorly on customer experience.
It’s no surprise that back-office tasks are also where a large portion of many organizations’ operational costs are sunk. In fact, EY estimates that between 20% and 60% of baseline full-time employee (FTE) costs could be saved by automating this work.
With RPA, large volumes of mundane, time-consuming tasks such as invoicing and data entry can be achieved more efficiently, accurately, and cost-effectively. Various back-office areas can benefit from RPA, including:
- Finance and Accounting
- Supply Chain
- Human Resources
- Sales and Marketing
- Customer Experience Management
- Business Services Center
Why Back-Office Tasks Are Suited for RPA
As we’ve already mentioned, many tasks in back-office departments are repetitive and rules-based – think data entry, payroll, and everyday HR administration.
This type of work is where RPA shines. RPA is built to mimic and integrate human actions within digital systems. RPA opens applications, captures and inputs data, triggers responses, and communicates with other systems.
The best environments for RPA are rules-based, consistently ordered, and template-driven, with specific fields of data entered repeatedly. Typically, these tasks have one or more of these key characteristics:
- Manual calculation
- Electronic start and end points
- High error rates
- Require an electronic trigger
That’s because RPA is specifically designed to tackle many of the tasks you’d expect to find in the back office, faster and more accurately than a person.
Payroll is another great example of an RPA-ready activity. There are clear rules to define how everyone is paid, in the correct amount, on time, and with the right deductions for tax contributions, student loans, and salary.
Payroll accountants will spend hours checking over this information. It’s dull work susceptible to human error. Most mistakes, like underpaying an employee, are only discovered after the task is complete.
With RPA, the same task takes considerably less time, at a lower cost, and with fewer mistakes.
There is any number of day-to-day administrative tasks ripe for RPA, but a few examples include:
- Invoice processing
- Accounts reconciliation
- Data entry
- Enterprise resource planning
- Tracking and ordering for procurement
- Systems queries
- Customer onboarding
- Data validation
Many of these tasks follow straightforward processes, so there’s no need to deploy artificial intelligence or machine learning. Likewise, there’s no need to change existing processes that work; it’s simply a case of using rules-based automation to complete them.
The Measurable Benefits
We’ve already briefly covered how RPA can cut out human mistakes, but its potential goes far beyond simple error reduction. Process automation can completely transform the way your business accomplishes administration and other back-office tasks.
There's some fear that automation will ‘replace’ jobs. It’s true that some skills currently performed by people are likely to decline in relevance. For example, Mckinsey estimates that more than 81% of predictable physical work, 69% of data processing, and 64% of data-collection activities could feasibly be automated.
But painting RPA as a threat to human workers undervalues its – and people’s – potential. Beyond the mistakes and the cost, our minds wander; we get bored, tired, or interrupted. In many cases, we just don’t enjoy the work. That’s not ideal for productivity or employee well-being.
So why do we continue asking humans to perform these tasks when there’s a better alternative? People have talents that no robot in the world can match. We’re creative, empathetic, capable of nuanced communication, and we’re excellent problem solvers.
All these skills can be harnessed to deliver outstanding customer experience or push a business in new and exciting directions. By taking over repetitive back-office functions, RPA merely liberates employees from tasks they’re unsuited to and directs them towards activities that drive far greater business value.
Another significant benefit of back-office automation is cost reduction. 59% of respondents to Deloitte’s Global RPA Survey cited the benefit of cost reductions since deploying RPA in their business. Meanwhile, EY estimates that RPA can provide cost savings ranging from 20%–60% of baseline FTE cost.
Whether it’s through boosting efficiency or cutting out expensive errors, using process automation is often far more cost-effective than performing the processes manually.
Companies that automate processes like data entry or reporting see a significant improvement in the accuracy and quality of output. Some 90% of respondents to Deloitte’s Global RPA survey say that using the technology has improved accuracy in their organization.
Provided RPA follows the correct rules, mistakes are rare.
RPA can also positively impact your business’ compliance. In fact, the only area of improvement beyond accuracy according to respondents of Deloitte’s Global RPA survey is compliance (92%).
There are two reasons this stands out: First, a digital worker following a rigid compliance process won’t deviate from it ever, unless there’s some fault with it. This immediately improves compliance. On top of this, RPA provides a fully maintained and accurate audit trail essential for compliance.
Digital workers often perform the same tasks much faster than people. After all, a robot won’t get tired or distracted. Taking these delays cumulatively, RPA can complete the same – or better – work in less time.
Reliability is a simple benefit that shouldn’t be overlooked. RPA runs without breaks and is unlikely to go down for extended periods, especially if hosted with a cloud provider guaranteeing significant up-time, such as SS&C | Blue Prism® Cloud. Just imagine what you can achieve with automation available around the clock, anywhere you do business.
In the past, cutting costs meant offshoring part of your workforce. These cost-saving techniques can negatively impact quality control and accountability. RPA gives your business geographical independence, reducing the need for offshore jobs and staying on budget.
Return On Investment (ROI)
Lastly, RPA delivers an impressive ROI. Both Deloitte and EY estimate that the average payback period for RPA is less than a year. And there’s no need to overhaul existing processes. Operating expenses (OPEX) for setting up RPA are relatively small, and artificial intelligence (AI) or machine learning (ML) expands what tasks can be automated.
How It Looks in Practice
We’ve discussed the benefits of RPA, but what does it look like when applied to a business? Let’s look at a couple of use cases.
RPA helps employees find data faster. In finance this can mean tracking up-to-the-minute earnings, managing documents, reviewing leasing contracts, and using forecasting tools. Digital workers predict, customize, learn, and evolve based on the needs of your back office.
Rather than searching through spreadsheets or market reports, financial analysts can employ RPA bots to sift through the system and track down information. Intelligent automation can track real-time fraud and anomalies to reduce risk and waste. Plus, transactions are more secure and faster than ever thanks to data encryption software.
IA sets up efficient and cost-saving processes. Accounts payable and accounts receivable automation will process electronic invoices with its automated workflow, working through far more invoices than its human counterpart. Where an employee would need to manually key in data from purchase orders, an RPA will handle that in a shorter time and without errors.
Automated accounts processing reduces costs by eliminating the need for manual invoice data entry and routing. Whether you’re working through invoicing, order fulfillment, order processing, or cash allocation, it’s made far simpler with integrated RPA. You’ll elevate back-office functionality by automating repetitive, labor-intensive tasks such as procurement, finance, and accounting, and reporting. RPA makes your back-office finance processes more efficient, accurate, and cost-effective.
Consider the example of a credit processing company. Let’s imagine the organization is handling the allocation, reconciliation, and processing of credit data on customer debt. Naturally, working with large volumes of files and data manually presents a high risk of errors, possible compliance issues, and the potential for a negative customer impact—none of which is acceptable for a thriving financial business.
This situation is an ideal area to deploy RPA. In doing so, the business can reduce—and ultimately remove—these repetitive, error-prone tasks from employees’ workflows. As a result, the business can expect an upturn in accuracy, improved compliance, and a freeing-up of staff for other business-critical tasks such as addressing anomalies and data cleansing.
HR and Payroll
Let’s take the hypothetical example of a medium-sized business with around 5,000 employees managing onboarding and offboarding for 500 people each year. An above-average turnover rate is compounded by a complex and resource-intensive HR system.
RPA is an ideal tool for tackling this sort of problem. Using process automation, the business’s disparate systems connect into a single end-to-end workflow to boost efficiency. Meanwhile, onboarding and offboarding tasks are completed in the same way as people would, just far quicker and with a lower likelihood of errors.
Since employees aren’t needed to intervene and re-enter data, the organization can improve efficiency and data security when people are taken in or out of the business.
The New Normal
The possibility of automation captures our collective imagination. Yet never has the liberation of employees from repetitive, unproductive work been so easily within businesses’ grasp — or so close to widespread adoption.
Mckinsey predicts that over the next 10 to 15 years, the adoption of automation and AI technologies will transform the workplace, ushering in economic growth and improved corporate performance.
In this environment, technology like RPA looks less like a gamble and more like a smart investment. Many businesses are already reacting accordingly. Some 53% of respondents to Deloitte’s Global RPA survey have already started their RPA journey, and this figure is set to rise to 72% within two years.
Is your company considering a better way to allocate resources? How might RPA transform the way you work?